Presidential candidate Castro talks housing, Israel and immigration

Jordyn Zitman

South by Southwest is the new Iowa. Since Texas began to show some purple hues in the 2018 midterm elections, presidential candidates have set their sights on the potential swing state.

Julián Castro, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, sat down with Huffington Post’s Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen to discuss policy, persistence and the presidency. Castro announced he was running for the Democratic nomination on Jan.12. The former San Antonio mayor has garnered some attention from the public, although not enough yet to compete with established figures like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., or Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theatre hosted a modest crowd for Castro’s Conversations About America’s Future in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Castro, who appeared rigid at first, began to show charisma when discussing topics of importance to him and his platform. Polgreen probed Castro about his experience working in Obama’s cabinet and issues close to his heart, such as immigration.

“The Trump administration has executed its (immigration) policies with a degree of cruelty that was not present in the Obama administration,” Castro said. “If we’re going to spend additional money on border enforcement, it’s going to be the smart way.”

Castro, the grandson of a housekeeper, exemplifies American upward mobility, Polgreen said. San Antonio is one of the most financially segregated cities in the nation, but witnessing his parents’ involvement in Chicano political movements growing up, Castro was motivated to pursue a career in politics. He worked a typically oppressive system, and went on to attend Stanford University and study law at Harvard.

“We need to show compassion to immigrants if they do not have a criminal history and are willing to follow a path to citizenship,” Castro said. “We need to take in and harness that talent that is in this world.”

A large portion of Castro’s platform focuses on border security reform, as well as his challenge of the filibuster, a tool Senate Democrats have used and allegedly abused in policy debate.

“If the choice is between everyone having healthcare or 60 votes in the Senate, then yes, we will break the filibuster,” Castro said.

Polgreen prompted Castro about recently released statistics of non-registered immigrants in Texas who voted in the last election, which some estimate could be nearly one million. Castro said Texas has systematically discouraged minority voters, noting the significance of mixed-status families choosing not to vote.

Castro also commented on other happenings in his party, including the iconic rise of Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman congresswoman from New York.

“She’s a breath of fresh air, very talented, very impressive,” Castro said. “Not only through her victory in New York, but how she’s articulated her vision for the country’s future. She has to put up with so many attacks on a daily basis, and she has handled it with such class.”

The next topic of discussion centered around the rise of social media as a tool for politicians. Castro said he thinks technology is a valuable tool to connect with people, but it can easily be abused.

“Turn the camera in the other direction,” Castro said. “There’s a missed opportunity there when that audience is developed there to put the spotlight on the very people who we are trying to impact, benefit — who need it.”

Castro called upon his experience as secretary to comment on on the state of housing in the United States, which has been in crisis since 2008.

“By the time the Obama administration ended, the housing market was stable again,” Castro said. “People were beginning to get their wealth back, although nowhere near where it was before. We needed to end the stigma of promoting home ownership. We should learn the lessons of the past and apply those.”

Castro said despite the ongoing crisis, Americans should not give up on the dream of home ownership, especially because of the upward mobility it can help facilitate through generations.

Polgreen brought up a topic discussed by Senator Elizabeth Warren at SXSW on Saturday regarding a breakup of tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. Castro said he believes it is worth considering.

“I believe that we need to ask a lot more of people at the top and wealthy corporations than we have,” Castro said. “I don't understand how Amazon made over $11 billion in profit last year and paid zero dollars in federal taxes.”

Castro cited loopholes rafted by lobbyists as the main benefit to large companies. He said Washington must be reshaped to be more transparent, as well as to serve even those who cannot afford to hire lobbyists.

“I have a problem with the use of people's personal info as the business model of these companies,” Castro said. “We need to both foster innovation and government, but also reckon with it when those two things come into conflict.”

Polgreen said some have doubts about Castro’s qualification to become commander in chief, including his lack of experience dealing with foreign policy.

“I picked up the skill (as secretary) to be able to work with other people and muster that political will to get things done,” Castro said. “I will surround myself with people who deeply understand these issues, and I will take their advice.”

Israel and its ongoing conflict came up next, to which Castro tried desperately to straddle the line of commitment, clearly wanting to appeal to both sides on this controversial issue.

“More and more, Israel is going to have a hard time being both a democratic state and a Jewish state,” Castro said. “I think the two-state solution is best for that reason. Support Israel, remain strong allies, but recognize the value of Palestinians and that they should be treated in a way that we can support on behalf of the country.

After a tumultuous round of questioning, Polgreen transitioned into the lightning round segment of the interview. This is where Castro’s personality really shined.

He confirmed his support of free four-year college, stated that he plans to appoint progressive judges to the Supreme Court and supported legalization of marijuana, which evoked applause from the audience.

Castro has an identical twin brother, Joaquin Castro, who is a Democratic congressman for Texas’ 20th district. His strangest twin experience, Castro admitted, occurred when he realized the person he was talking to had mistaken him for his brother.

“A couple of times in my life, when I’m deep in conversation — like 12 minutes deep— and the person actually thinks they’re talking to Joaquin,” Castro said. “You’re like ‘Shit,. do I play it off?’ Cause it’s embarrassing for them!”

While Castro was one of the first Democrats to throw his hat in the ring for the 2020 election, he still lacks the notoriety and widespread support required to win — at least at this juncture. SXSW featured so many presidential candidates this year, it’s beginning to look like the 2016 Republican primary.