Julián Castro on the pandemic, the election and our "manifestly unqualified" president

Former candidate tells Salon that Biden "gets it" on immigration and police reform, but Trump is "unconscionable"

Published July 8, 2020 12:05PM (EDT)

Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (RONDA CHURCHILL/AFP via Getty Images)
Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (RONDA CHURCHILL/AFP via Getty Images)

Former Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro may not be on the ticket in 2020, but he's looking forward to getting rid of Donald Trump, whose strategy he says is designed to deepen the culture war in America. During our recent conversation for Salon Talks, Castro explained why he's strongly supporting Joe Biden, while at the same time pressing the former vice president on immigration and police reforms.

Castro told me that Trump, even more than in 2016, is "appealing to that sense of white superiority, white nationalism" that got him elected in the first place, But he says the "scariest" aspect of the Trump presidency is the fact that people still support "someone who is manifestly so unqualified." Castro, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama and before that mayor of San Antonio, is a senior advisor to Voto Latino, a grassroots political organization focused on empowering Latinx voters, who make up the largest ethnic or racial minority group of the electorate.

Castro laid out the top issues of concern to the Hispanic community, which is projected to account for a new high of 13.3 percent of all eligible voters in 2020 at 32 million. One of those is immigration reform, which Castro noted that Bernie Sanders successfully addressed during the 2020 Democratic primaries. Biden was less clear on the issue, but Castro explained that the certain Democratic nominee has since increasingly focused on outreach to the Hispanic community and is committed to bringing forth the "most progressive approach on immigration."

Watch my Salon Talks episode with Castro embedded below, or read the following transcript — edited for length and clarity — to learn more about what Castro thinks about Biden's approach to immigration and police reform, and his take on the COVID-19 public health crisis.

You're a former mayor of San Antonio, and your state right now is one of the hotspots of COVID-19. The amount of cases are exploding, and over the weekend, there were stories that medical centers in Houston are hitting or exceeding ICU capacity. Why is it taking so long for Gov. Greg Abbott to do the right thing and close things down again? What was the delay in protecting the people of Texas?

The problem here in Texas is that we've had elected politicians that were more faithful to right-wing ideology than to public health and science. And because of that, as you mentioned, Gov. Abbott, as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others, did not support taking the steps that were necessary to actually do what New York has done, and a few other places, which is to get on the other side of this. When he reopened the state, he reopened too early. At that time, we ranked something like 48th per capita in terms of the amount of testing that was going on. We were behind in testing, we were behind in contact tracing. On top of that, the third mistake was that when Abbott reopened the state in May, he prohibited local communities from putting their own safety plans in place, like requiring masks and taking other safety precautions.

Then, two months later, basically he says, "Oh, now everybody's got to wear masks, pretty much." There are a few exceptions. But he's basically wasted these last two months or more that could have been spent making sure that testing and contact tracing were in place, and opening up at a better pace, and allowing local communities where there was tremendous potential for spread to get ahead of the game. Instead, we find ourselves here with one of the highest growth rates.

A few days ago out of the five metro areas with the highest positivity rate for tests, Texas had four of them, including Austin, that ranked No. 1. We're definitely going in the wrong direction. The good news is that I think the people of Texas, more and more they get the gravity of this. They understand that they need to take into their own hands to wear masks, to practice social distancing, not to go out unless they have to, to be careful.

In the midst of this, we have more than 130,000 Americans dead. It could even be higher. Donald Trump, in his Fourth of July speech, tells Americans that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases are "totally harmless." How dangerous is it for the president of the United States to be this misleading? It's objectively a lie.

It's unconscionable. It's another example of how his dishonesty has been normalized in our culture, in our political culture. For a president of the United States to say something like that in the middle of a global pandemic, that's already taken 130,000 lives, that causes a direct and immediate threat to people's health and mortality right now. I can't find any other word except to say that's unconscionable. You can't even call somebody like that a leader. He has an elected office, but I would not call him a leader because he has not led during this pandemic.

Putting politics aside, the idea that a president during a deadly crisis would make light of death is what we're talking about here. Then you have his personal actions. He's not wearing masks at his rallies, where there is no social distancing. People are on top of each other. This is beyond anything I've ever seen in politics.

The scariest part is the fact that even if we believe the polls today that 40 percent of people out there — or maybe a little bit more than that, 42 percent, are still supporting him. Donald Trump is going to come and go and that's going to happen, hopefully, on Jan. 20 of 2021, if not sooner. But what he is exposed is a rift within the American people and a vulnerability to our democracy that people will follow him this far and still support him — someone who is manifestly so unqualified to be in that office and has demonstrated that time and time again.

And you remember this, Dean, a lot of people when they were thinking about the choice in 2016, they said, "Well, you know what, when he gets elected — he's got a big mouth right now. I don't like everything he says, I don't agree with him. I don't like what he tweets. But hey, when somebody becomes president, it sobers them up. They take it more seriously, you're kind of imbued with that sense of responsibility of the office."

That hasn't happened. This is the best example of that. It has not happened and it's because he is so self-absorbed. He can't look beyond his wants and needs even at a time when so many people are dying in the country that he's supposed to be leading. It is amazing. If we never see another president like this in the history of our country — may our country live on forever — but if we never see another president this bad, I think that we'll be doing good.

It seems that his 2020 re-election strategy is to minimize or ignore COVID-19, then ignore the recession. We have no plan to revitalize the economy. He is literally tweeting again that the NASDAQ hit a new high, even though there are 20 million Americans suffering with unemployment, so that means nothing to them. Do you think this election is really is about white supremacy again, more than 2016? It's right in our face with him attacking the only black NASCAR driver today, to defending Confederate flags and statutes. Can someone actually run on this kind of "The South will rise again" platform? That's what it feels like.

No, that's a good question. Republicans and conservatives like to deride "identity politics." And what they call identity politics oftentimes is essentially just people calling for justice and people being treated equally. But if there's somebody who fits the bill in terms of playing to identity as a political strategy, it is Donald Trump playing to white identity, a sense of white superiority.

You and I both know that there are a lot of people who are white who don't agree with him and who can see through that. At the same time, unfortunately, obviously there are a number that it appeals to. And he's basically decided that this is his primary strategy to win in 2020. He used it successfully in 2016, starting out of the gate with the Mexicans being rapists and criminals comment.

Now he's essentially trying to deepen a culture war. Having that event at Mount Rushmore and talking about that essentially these folks want to tear down these monuments and change history. And he's creating even more of this "us against them." He's directly, I think more than he did in 2016, appealing to that sense of white superiority, white nationalism. Same thing when he uses China as a foil and he calls the virus the "kung flu." Obviously racist, obviously at the same thing trying to stoke his base and appeal to white supremacy.

Let's talk about the economic effects of COVID-19. You've been tweeting about housing and there's talk of an avalanche of evictions potentially facing Americans. Everything disproportionately affects people of color, black and Hispanic people. And you tweeted that as Trump and McConnell continue to block housing protections, 20 million Americans are likely to face eviction before October. What should they be doing to protect people?

The No. 1 thing that they can do right now is pass the HEROES Act. As folks know the HEROES Act was passed by the House of Representatives. The Democratic majority, they support it. It includes $100 billion in rental assistance, which is a very good start to make sure that people have the resources so they can stay in a safe, decent place to live. On top of that, what we need to do is extending these eviction moratoriums at the federal level and then also the ability of forbearance for folks who have a mortgage. If we can do those two things, I believe that we'll be in much better shape.

If we don't, we're actually going to face the biggest homelessness crisis that this country has faced in decades, probably since the Great Depression. By one estimate up to 20 million people could face eviction by October. We've never seen anything like that in our lifetime. They need to act. Fortunately, the House of Representatives has acted. At least they've gotten the ball rolling, but Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump — it's not surprising that they're so disconnected from the lives of everyday people. That's what people are thinking about. That's what they're worrying about. How am I going to pay the rent?

You had a detailed proposal on policing before anyone during the 2020 election, the People First Policing Plan. It's got things in there that are still so instructive. Tell people a little bit about it and why you came up with it so early. It was way before George Floyd.

Remember, as the 2016 presidential campaign happened, Michael Brown's death had been two years before and then Ferguson had happened then and in 2015. There was more attention given to things like police violence. And then I guess for some reason, politics being what it is, the media at large being what they are, people kind of decided that wasn't something to talk about in the 2020 election. But I did because I felt like that's a timeless issue. And by that I mean every single day, especially young black men and women are having to go out there and deal with excessive force by police, disparate treatment by police. That applies to other groups as well, in the Latino community and in the Muslim-American community.

I knew that this was an issue that was not going away and that we need to address. I think we put out there a vision for our country where every single person could prosper. We put out a lot of the policy that you're hearing about today: ending qualified immunity, ending the militarization of our police force, more accountability and transparency and beginning to shrink the footprint of policing so that we can reimagine public safety.

Have you had any conversations with the Biden campaign about your specific proposal?

Yeah, our teams have talked. The good news is that I think he gets it. He has laid out a vision and a lot of this was supported in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that the House of Representatives passed a few days ago from banning chokeholds to more transparency and accountability. I'm confident that Joe Biden gets it. He's also said very clearly that those steps are a down payment on all of the change that needs to be made. And that's not the extent of the change. Because it's very true, those that say, "Look, there's much more fundamental change that needs to happen." I agree with that and I believe that can happen. It's going to happen not just at the federal level, but at the local level. As a former mayor, I know that local communities have a lot of opportunity to make changes too.

Right now you are a senior adviser to Voto Latino. In 2020, it looks like there could be 32 million Latinx voters. It could be the biggest nonwhite voting bloc we have. What are the key issues? I get it — I'm Muslim, we have the same needs, we want health care, we want everything else. But what are specific issues unique to your community that you think need to be addressed in 2020?

Well, you're right, a lot of them do overlap. But I think in the Latino community, there's some that folks feel more intensely just because of the situation of many members of the Latino community. Of course, education, for instance. Relieving student loan debt and finding a way to make college more affordable and accessible. The Latino population is a very young population. It's also a population generally where you've not had a lot of generations that have gotten to go to college, much less to be able to pay for it. That's always an issue that people rally around, greater educational opportunity, health care. When president Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, 4 million Latinos got health care. By group, they were the biggest beneficiary of that.

You take an example like diabetes, which is rampant in the Latino community. The cost of insulin has gone up like two and a half times in the last decade — so making sure that you keep down prescription drug costs. And obviously immigration, because you have so many immigrants who are part of the Latino community, and mixed-status families, where you may have one or two people in the family that are undocumented and others who are citizens here or have a green card. Those are the types of issues that people pay attention to. I think that Bernie Sanders had a lot of success in the primary because of the issues that he focused on. And the good news is that Joe Biden and his campaign, I think, understand that. They are gearing their campaign broadly, but also in a way that connects very much with the Latino community.

Bernie performed well with the Latino community, but Joe Biden did not do as well. At one point, President Obama was known as the "deporter in chief" and there were questions about his involvement. Did he stand up to it? Did he approve it? Is that still a question for Joe Biden with the Latino community in 2020?

He has been very direct in addressing this and saying, "We're going to take a different approach." And he's laid out how he's going to do that. If he's elected, and I believe that he will be, he's going to come in with the most progressive approach on immigration. I think we'll put in place, along with Congress, a fair and reasonable immigration system. But he recognizes that we can't and shouldn't be in a situation where that many people are getting deported.

For many of us who are more progressive on issues, there's this idea that when Biden wins it's not going to be, "Sit back, our work is done." We're going to push the Biden administration to embrace ideals that might be more to the left. Are you expecting to do that?

Oh, of course. I'm always going to use my voice to hopefully see that vision that I had, and that I think a lot of people share, including on immigration. I know I'm going to do that and we all need to do that, because you know that the right-wing groups, whether it's on immigration or any other issue, they're going to be out there pushing their vision. And I think it's our responsibility. President Obama said this very well. He said you have to push people in office, whether they're friendly or they're of the other party. You got to push people because that's how our system works. I look forward to using my voice, no matter what I'm doing.

When you left the 2020 Democratic primary race, you spoke out on my radio show and elsewhere that the media tended to gravitate or default to white men. I'm paraphrasing, but the essence was when they were looking at "electability," it defaulted to white men. Joe Biden has made a commitment that his running mate will be a woman. Do you have concerns about how that argument about electability could affect a woman of color that he might pick, or do you think this is a different discussion because it's his running mate, not the actual candidate for president?

I think it's probably a different discussion, a different calculation, and obviously that's his selection and they're going through their vetting process right now. But traditionally, as you know, when we think about the vice-presidential selection process, it's kind of a different deal. It's someone who both would be a good governing partner and then also kind of fills the gaps in the appeal, in the approach. I do think that there's more latitude there and who knows who's going to get selected. The good news is there's a wealth of talented people who would be great governing partners, who have the experience, also who would excite folks out there. And the most important part is, God forbid, if they ever have to step into that role they would be ready. They would be prepared to actually serve.

Is there anyone that jumps out at you, that you really like the most?

I can stay out of that, but I think we'll know, probably within the next month. I think he had said by Aug. 1, we'll see.

Last question: What will you be doing personally to help Joe Biden win this election. Will you be a surrogate? Will you go on the campaign trail? What role do you see yourself playing?

I'm out there doing some surrogate work. I just did a thing for folks in Arizona. There was a Texas fundraiser that I was a part of along with Congressman [Beto] O'Rourke and Willie Nelson, which was fantastic. I keep doing whatever I can do to help. I've told him, "Let me know, I'm willing to do whatever I'm asked." All of us are working so that we can make sure that Joe Biden gets elected and then we turn the page. And I look forward, as I said many times on the campaign trail, to saying adios to Donald Trump.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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