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Julián Castro: ‘It’s a Totally Porous Safety Net’

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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Julián Castro, one of the highest-profile Latino Democrats to have sought the presidential nomination, doesn’t exactly know what’s next.

Unlike some of his former Democratic presidential primary rivals, Mr. Castro no longer has a day job as an elected official. After nearly two decades in politics, he doesn’t have his eye on a future race. Quarantined at home, his most important constituency is his 5-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

What he does know? At a time when many Democrats are increasingly concerned that their party is taking Latino voters for granted, Mr. Castro wants to support the kind of liberal candidates who he believes can connect with communities of color.

Mr. Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary, has created a political action committee called People First Future to help elect progressive Democrats running at all levels of government. Among others, the PAC is supporting three congressional candidates in Texas — Wendy Davis, Gina Ortiz Jones and Candace Valenzuela — as well as Mr. Castro’s twin brother, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, who is running for re-election.

My colleague Jennifer Medina spoke to Mr. Castro about what he learned from his presidential campaign, his political future and, uh, getting his six-pack. (As usual, their conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Hi. What’s your life like on lockdown?

MR. CASTRO We’re doing everything we can to keep the kids entertained — going out to the park, sometimes playing in the backyard. And, you know, so far, so good. They’ve stayed healthy.

Most of the days are a whole bunch of Zoom calls or returning emails and then working on these different projects that I have going on to stay busy. Then on two days out of the week, my wife, Erica, is working on-site at the district office of the school district she works in. So I’m Mr. Mom here at home.

Have you done the single father thing a lot in your life?

No. Not like this, because usually I was the one who was traveling. So this has been a nice change for me — a lot more time with the kids and with my family. I’ve ended up doing a lot of the reading, and my wife is a math curriculum coordinator so that’s on her.

Beyond your new parenting responsibilities, what has surprised you about the country in this strange moment?

The vision I had was that if we could make our country work for even the most vulnerable among us, that we could achieve broad prosperity. We see that in spades today. What happens when we don’t take care of our most vulnerable? We see more people who are homeless. We see more people who are sick. We see more people who are lining up for the first time in food bank lines and a lot more families who never thought of themselves as vulnerable and found out that they are.

So I feel like that vision that we articulated in the campaign is all the more resonant today. And my hope is that coming out of this experience with the virus, that we’re going to make those big investments in universal health care, in affordable housing, in better education, to ensure that we close those gaps and that everybody can prosper in this country.

To hear the Republicans tell it over the last 40 years, the safety net in this country is out of control. People don’t have to work. They can get by just freeloading. You see that that’s not true at all. The American safety net has tears. It’s a totally porous safety net. I wouldn’t say I was 100 percent surprised by that, but it was starker than even I thought. And unfortunately, families are feeling that gap right now.

Ha, you mean the one my brother posted without asking me? So after the campaign, I had this ab challenge with some of my staff. I was trying to see if I could get six-pack abs. And my brother chimed in on Twitter saying that I would never be able to do it. So when I did, I sent him the picture and he posted it. It’s not like it’s a bad picture, right? He doesn’t have my permission to post bad pictures of me. But good ones? Sure.

So, tell me about your newest venture and how you see your role in politics right now.

No. 1, I am doing everything that I can to help defeat Donald Trump. That is my priority, just like it is for so many other people in politics right now and around the country.

And also, it’s lifting up great young progressives out there who are running at the local, state and federal level. Before I ran for president, I had an effort called Opportunity First that was promoting and supporting young progressive candidates across the country. I wanted to revamp that. We’re calling it People First Future.

Somebody who’s running for City Council today is a mayor tomorrow, maybe somebody who’s running for Congress in a few years, maybe the president. I want to make sure that we’re lifting up people who are going to carry on the focus on the most vulnerable communities and ensuring prosperity for everybody in this country. That was at the very heart of my campaign for president.

The No. 1 lesson I learned coming out of the primary was that the person that wins the nomination and wins the presidency is the person that really meets the moment. I also believe progressive politics is having a moment right now — that’s very clear with the success of several candidates in the 2020 primary and a whole generation of new voices out there who are running for Congress, running for state representative, running for City Council. But another lesson I learned, the hard way you might say, is that you need resources and you need the credibility that comes with voices that have name ID and recognition.

What does Joe Biden need to do to excite voters in this extraordinary moment?

He needs to create a clear contrast, and they’re creating a clear contrast. I’ve been impressed with some of the ads that have come out recently. They’re beginning to hit the right notes to remind people why we need to get out and vote.

They also need to reach out to all the different constituencies out there, whether it’s the African-American community, Latino community, Asian-American community, and make sure that they’re tending to that, because we lost Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania by 77,000 votes altogether. That means that each of these communities can play a vital role in either putting you over the top or coming up just short. The Latino community, for instance, is growing in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. There is a lot of untapped potential there. We hardly ever read any stories about the Latino community in Michigan. But they’re there, just like they are in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And they can make a big difference in putting Biden over the top.

You were on Hillary Clinton’s list of possible running mates. Give us a sense of what this moment is like for those who are under consideration?

It’s just a huge opening up of your entire background — political, financial, personal history. There was a 129-question survey that we had to fill out during the 2016 vetting process. The vice-presidential selection process is unlike any other process in American politics, because unlike 99.9 percent of politics where you’re pitching to people, here, you’re pitching to one person and maybe three or four advisers that have influence with them. Also, it is almost completely done behind closed doors until there’s an actual announcement of the result. That’s unusual.

You also have, in the 2020 cycle, a different approach that’s being taken by some, which is to be more upfront about their aspirations. Nothing wrong with that.

How do you think the process of running for president changed you?

It gave me more confidence that I could compete at that level. The campaign, in some ways, reconnected me with the roots of my family and politics — my mother’s activism — of highlighting issues that too often get swept under the rug. Even today, we’re looking at another case of brutality with the man in Minneapolis who was killed [after being pinned to the ground by a police officer]. Our campaign unabashedly put police reform forward as an issue that absolutely needs federal attention. Most people run away from that issue.

I came out of it with a stronger sense of the vision that I have for the future of the country and also a stronger confidence that I could run that kind of race. Under different circumstances, we could have done better.

Does that mean you have another run in your future?

Every time that I’ve been out of office, I have not missed it. I lost the mayor’s race and I didn’t feel every day like I had to be back there doing that. But I ran for mayor again because I still had a passion for making a difference in San Antonio. And then in between the Obama administration and running for president, same thing. I didn’t necessarily miss it, but I still had a strong vision for the future of the country, and I decided to run for president. And right now, I’m having a good time spending more time with my family and with the projects that I have going on. But I may well run again at some point in the future. I’m not dead set on any office right now.

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