Castro was the only Latino candidate in the race, and his absence will be keenly felt in what is becoming an increasingly homogenous field. But that’s not the only reason I’m sad to see him go.
He’s also one of the few members of the field who has chosen to speak persistently about the reality of America’s poor. Over the past few months, I have watched Democratic candidates move from an intense focus on urban America and the challenges of escaping poverty to a more general emphasis on “the middle class” and “working Americans” as they struggle to harvest votes in the large suburban belts around cities.
Castro spent his final months as a presidential candidate talking about the roughly 40 million Americans living in poverty and the struggles of the tens of millions more who live close enough to the meager “official” poverty numbers to feel the hot flame of disaster constantly licking at their feet. The income threshold the federal government uses to determine poverty for a family of four is $25,750. Even with a household income north of $25,000, good luck feeding, clothing and, especially, housing a family of four in Washington, Boston, New York, Los Angeles or the Bay Area.
Castro insisted, as he campaigned in high-poverty areas, that U.S. politicians had forgotten to talk about the poor as intently as they did about the struggles of middle-class Americans. He told reporters, “We are focusing on the most vulnerable, the most forgotten, the people who need others fighting for them.”
To be sure, other Democratic candidates and campaigns highlight policies targeting Americans below the poverty line — emphasizing school lunches, banking in poor neighborhoods and the crisis in affordable housing. Even as the Democratic National Committee’s standards for reaching the primary debate stage began to narrow the lineup for those televised contests, Castro was specifically waging a poor people’s campaign.
He campaigned in the tent cities of the homeless and visited schools in the highest-poverty areas. He was critical of the outsize role played by two of the whitest states in the country, — Iowa and New Hampshire — in a party that relies on nonwhite voters to succeed nationally. Yet Castro hoped to hold on long enough to contend in states with large Latino populations, such as Nevada, California, Texas and Arizona.
Billionaires Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer will have no problem remaining in the Democratic race all the way to the party’s nominating convention in Milwaukee in July. Yet the field is winnowing a candidate who could talk about his own family’s poverty, food insecurity and the stress he lived with as his single mother tried to make ends meet.
Grumbling about millionaires and billionaires, exposing the uncomfortable truths hidden by a lower “official” poverty rate and declaring that Americans have a responsibility to look out for each other fit the temper of the times about as much as a glittering New Year’s celebration at Mar-a-Lago. At the same time, you don’t have to listen very hard to hear grumbling from inside and outside the Democratic Party about “identity politics.”
Two out of 3 Latino voters support Democratic candidates nationwide. CNN exit polls in 2018 put those numbers closer to 9 out of 10 for African American voters. And Asian American voters, who represent one of the fastest-growing minority groups, also favor Democrats by more than 2 to 1.
If you’re a Democratic candidate for national office, those are the voters who keep you in the game. Speaking to the concerns of those voters is not “identity politics.” It’s politics, period. As Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Castro leave the field, and as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) misses the threshold to qualify for the debate stage, the Democratic National Committee should be having some serious conversations about who can afford to run and how to talk to the coming generations of Democratic voters, who are likely to be younger, lower-income and more nonwhite than the broader electorate.
While the electorate moves the other way, the Democratic field gets wealthier and whiter before the long slog begins in earnest in Iowa. The loss of Castro as a candidate may simply represent the unremarkable departure of a hopeful who didn’t catch fire. Castro himself said while making his exit: “It simply isn’t our time.” But the field will be less interesting, and less directed at the poorest citizens, the ones less likely to vote and even less likely to give money to a presidential campaign.
With apologies to the author of the Gospel of Matthew, the poor you will have with you always, but we only had one of their most ardent champions, Julián Castro, for a little while. It’s a problem for the Democratic Party, and American politics in general, if more than 40 million Americans are not invited, again and again, to participate in the system that has so much to do with defining the quality of their lives.