KEOKUK, Iowa — It’s 13 minutes into his town hall in the city perched between the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers that borders Illinois, and Julian Castro has the crowd enthralled.
Not because of any fist-waving histrionics, but actually the opposite: a personal story about his mother struggling to raise him and his brother as a single parent.
“In 1985, I would have been about 11 years old, taking the bus with my mom and my brother to get a wig for my mom because all of her hair had fallen out and the doctors didn’t know why,” he said. “They ultimately told her that it was stress related.”
The 45-year-old Democratic presidential candidate from Texas — perhaps because he’s gone too deep? — pulls back from that memory and offers a joke: “Fortunately for her it took a long time for it to get to gray when she got it back.”
Then Castro does what he so often does as he campaigns — he pivots and links his life experiences to others and the issues of the day.
“But, you know, that’s the story of so many women that are working hard either as head of a household or just in a household," he said.
In Cedar Rapids, he tells the crowd, “I know what it’s like to struggle, to grow up in a single-parent household, to know the worry of not knowing whether you’re gonna make the rent payment. Yes, we need an America that works for everybody."
Even though he’s had a life filled with ambition and remarkable success in a short amount of time — Harvard Law graduate, mayor of San Antonio at age 34, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama at age 39 — he argues that those experiences don’t set him apart from the people, but rather allow him to understand the key issues and what folks deal with on a daily basis.
“People want to believe that you’re actually being straight with them and you’re being yourself. Everything else is secondary,” he said after his Keokuk appearance. “And people believe when I talk to them that I’m being genuine.”
Castro, whose grandmother emigrated from Mexico when she was 7, would be the first Latino major party nominee if he’s successful in his presidential bid. He argues that what sets him apart from the large field of other Democratic candidates is that he brings to the table a unique mix of policy plans, executive experience and practical electability.
“I think what differentiates me is I’ve been fearless and bold with this campaign, I have strong executive experience, and I can beat Donald Trump, especially in places like Florida, Texas and Arizona,” he said.
At the end of his speech at the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines, Castro drives home his electability argument with a crowd-pleasing story he spins about him winning the 2020 election and on inauguration day waving to Donald and Melania Trump as they leave Washington, not by saying “goodbye,” but instead a hearty and ironic “adios!”
Castro focuses on several key issues as he campaigns. In the criminal justice realm, he wants to legalize marijuana, invest in diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, and prohibit racial profiling.
“This doesn’t mean we let people off for serious crimes. We need to punish them, for sure," he said. "But I think we can be smarter about making sure that people’s lives are not wasted because of low-level offenses.”
In Keokuk, I asked him what could be done policy-wise regarding police shootings. He said, “I have a police reform plan that would make sure there is one national use of force standard that says a police officer should only use lethal force if they’ve exhausted all other reasonable alternatives.”
He says his experience as mayor San Antonio gave him an inside view on the issue.
“I know that we have a lot of great police officers out there, I worked with a lot of them," he said. "I’m the only candidate that has put out a proposal for police reform so that we work with police departments across the country to mend the rift in some communities.”
On health care, Castro again ties personal experience into the issue, talking about how his grandmother’s diabetes led to the amputation of one of her feet and how vital Medicare was to her physical and mental health: “I want to strengthen Medicare for the people who are one it now and make sure that Medicare is available to everyone that wants it.” He adds that no one should be forced into government health care: “People should be able to have their own supplemental private health insurance if it’s working.”
On education, Castro wants to pursue tuition-free public state universities, community colleges and job training programs.
“This is not a radical idea,” he said in Cedar Rapids. “Folks will remember that just a generation ago it was common for a lot of public state universities to be tuition-free.”
In the June 26 presidential debate in Miami, Castro made a big splash on the immigration issue. He wants to end family separation at the border, create a simple and efficient asylum policy, create a ten-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, and allow undocumented immigrants who served in the U.S. military to become citizens.
For Castro, the tone and approach to the immigration issue is just as important as the policy nuances. In all his speeches he repeats a common theme: “There have been people who build their political careers on hate and division and fear and paranoia, making people ‘the other.’ ” He said his campaign is about an America “that believes in basic compassion and humanity and respect.”
Castro knows that he has to do well in Iowa. “The race is very fluid right now,” he told reporters in Cedar Rapids, “and my challenge is to move right into the top spot for a lot of Iowans.”
In Keokuk, he said that he “doesn’t have to be the hare,” that he can be the tortoise for a while longer, building momentum toward Election Day. Still, there is now only two months left before the Feb. 3 caucuses, and if Castro doesn’t catch on soon, the voters of Iowa will be giving him the “adios” that he so wants to deliver to Donald Trump.