DES MOINES -- San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro came to national prominence when he delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. On Sunday, he was in Indianola, Iowa, as one of two featured speakers -- the other was Vice President Biden -- at the annual steak fry hosted by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.
Before attending the steak fry, Castro sat down with The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Philip Rucker and Politico's Roger Simon in the lobby of a Des Moines hotel. He spoke about his keynote address, Texas politics, Democrats' efforts to weaken the Republican Party's grip on the Lone Star State, why he believes Republicans will continue to struggle to win votes in the Latino community, the national Democratic Party after Obama and a possible Biden-Clinton primary battle in 2016.
What follows is a partial, edited transcript of the interview:
Question: What do you remember about your keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last summer?
Castro: “I remember I was running around that day. The week was pretty much a blur. The thing that I remember most is really finishing the speech. It’s a combination of excitement that you’re getting to deliver that kind of speech, but also nerves. In the first minute the nerves go away. I describe it as sort of like throwing a claustrophobic into a closet and then the claustrophobic decides there’s nothing they can do except just keep going… There were probably 18 or 19 drafts of that speech. There was a speechwriting team and I imagine that I ended up writing about 45 percent of it, and the speechwriters probably wrote about 55 percent of it. … Basically, it’s just an amplification of the [Obama] campaign message. You’ll notice in the speech what happened was there was the early part about the biography and the end about the biography and then the middle it’s sort of the plumbing of getting the work of the campaign done.”
Question: What do you see happening in Texas politics right now? There’s a governor’s race coming up and state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) could run. Even beyond that, how do you see your state changing and when do you think it goes from being a reliably red state to being more in play for the Democrats?
Castro: “I believe that if Wendy runs, she’ll be a very strong candidate and make it a very competitive race. [GOP candidate] Greg Abbott is making significant mistakes already. There’s a hubris that has developed in the Texas Republican Party because they’ve won over 100 straight statewide elections since the mid-1990s. And you can tell already, in social media, in the comments that [Abbott’s] campaign has embraced, other people, third parties, that the Republican Party is probably overconfident at this point. And Wendy is a very strong, down-to-earth candidate who can connect with Texas voters whether they’re Republican or Democrat.”
Question: What kind of pressure did you get to run for governor?
Castro: “Folks brought it up, but the idea that somebody’s on the line all the time saying you need to run – I think there are very, very few instances in politics where that kind of cliché happens, and it didn’t happen to me.”
Question: Is the evolution of Texas, that it’s likely to become a more competitive state, a function of simple demographics? Is it a function of a Republican Party that’s moved too far to the right? Or is there something more Democrats have to do to become more competitive?
Castro: “I would say that it’s three things: it’s demographics that everyone talks about, it’s the movement of people from more moderate states into Texas because Texas has done well economically compared to other states during this downturn, and third that Republicans are losing the business and moderate community because they’re moving so far to the right. Of course, it’s going to take more than just standing in place for Democrats to win. I do think that they could win in 15 years by just standing in place, but to accelerate that, they need a very compelling message, they need strong candidates. It’s when the message, the candidate and those three factors come together – especially the demography – that we’ll hit the end zone.”
Question: How successful do you think the Republican Party can be and what would they have to do to do a better job winning Hispanic votes?
Castro: “Hispanics are generally Democratic voters, even though it is true that it’s a community of strong faith and one might think that on some issues they would gravitate toward Republicans. The rhetoric around immigration reform and most importantly the policies that Republicans have adopted – whether it’s voter ID or, in Texas, underfunding education, opposing the expansion of healthcare – these policy decisions send out a strong message to many Hispanics that’s unwelcoming, on top of their rhetoric on immigration reform. So they have impressive office holders like [Sen. Marco] Rubio, [Nevada Gov.] Brian Sandoval, [New Mexico Gov.] Susanna Martinez. But it’s not about personalities; it’s about the policies. What the Republican Party needs if it wants more Hispanic votes is to change its policies. It’s going to take more than knocking on doors or candidates speaking a few lines in Spanish. It’ll take a moderation of their policies.”
Question: What do you think Republicans don’t understand about the Latino community? Because, as you say, they have for years talked about faith and there’s a lot of their message that should have appeal in the Latino community.
Castro: “It’s hard to put myself in the mind of the Republican Party, but they seem to see the Hispanic community too much as the other. … After the Census of 2010 and the spike in Hispanics, there was this reaction in places like Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, nationally of Republicans that seemed to fear the growth of the Hispanic community and to embrace policies that seemed aimed to short-circuit their democratic participation. So the challenge, I believe, is they seem to see the Hispanic community instead of seeing them as a community that does have the same values, work ethic, patriotism that made the country great. Perhaps they’re too self-conscious at this point.”
Question: What does the Democratic Party of tomorrow look like? How do you see this party in the post-Obama era? In what ways can the coalition change or be broadened?
Castro: “Right now the Democratic Party has a broader coalition than the Republican Party. There is not the same kind of litmus test that exists in the Republican Party and the allocation of electoral power is more spread out in the Democratic Party than it is in the Republican Party. You think about the hoops that a Republican has to jump through with his or her base in a primary versus on the Democratic side. We are a bigger tent party in the year 2013. And the challenge, as President Obama’s tenure comes to a close in 2016, is to maintain that big-tent approach and philosophy. If the Democratic Party can do that, it stands the chance of winning presidential elections well into the future and gaining ground in states like Texas and Arizona and others whose demographics are growing right into that coalition’s strength. The worst thing that we can do is return to the days where there were a ton of litmus tests on the Democratic Party side the way that there are today in the Republican Party. I grew up in Texas during the time when former Democrats were saying, ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.’ That is exactly what is happening in Texas on the Republican side these days, and I believe that if Wendy runs, she’s going to find a lot of especially Republican women who will cross over and vote for her.”
Question: Do you know Hillary Clinton? Have you ever interacted with her?
Castro: “Only with Bill Clinton. I have not.”
Question: You talked about the need to keep the Democratic Party a big-tent party after Obama. Do you think Hillary Clinton could do that as a standard-bearer?
Castro “Oh, sure, I believe she can. Of course, she has excellent credentials throughout the party landscape – as someone who is seen as a progressive champion on healthcare in the ‘90s and children’s education, but also, of course, most recently her tenure at the State Department, her support for President Obama’s threat of military action [in Syria] shows the centrist credentials that she brings. I do believe that she can hold together the coalition that the president has.”
Question: What do you think of Biden and whether he might run for president? Do you think he’s a good fit for the party? Would you run with him?
Castro: “I’m not running for anything. But I believe if he ran, he would be a very formidable candidate. He knows American politics inside and out, a very steady hand. He’s done a spectacular job as vice president. President Obama himself said that that was the best political decision he’d ever made. The vice president is very affable and charming, which always helps. So if he decided to run, of course he would be a very formidable candidate.”
Question: Would you welcome or shudder at the thought of the Democratic race with both Biden and Clinton seeking the nomination?
Castro: “Of course, my hope, like most Democrats, is that folks work that out however they work that out.…There’s always a benefit, some benefit, when you have two strong voices, but I believe at the end of the day Democrats will have a standard-bearer that everybody can get behind. It’s very early on right now. We don’t know whether Secretary Clinton or the vice president will run at all. But if you’re asking if we should have a primary fight or not -- of course not. I hope they work it out.”