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Castro brothers confront Trump era

Donald Trump's upset victory left many in both parties shocked, upending their best-laid plans for after the election. Among them are rising Texas Democratic stars Julián and Joaquin Castro.

Julián and Joaquin Castro speak to media during the Texas Democratic Convention on June 17, 2016.

Before Nov. 8, Julián Castro liked to imagine sitting at home in San Antonio on Election Night, gleefully watching as the commentators at GOP-friendly Fox News called the presidential election for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

It was a story he often told in public appearances leading up to the election — and come Nov. 8, it didn't come true.

Donald Trump's upset victory left many in both parties shocked, upending their best-laid plans for after the election. Among those from Texas confronting a new reality: Julián Castro, the immediate past U.S. housing secretary, and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio — rising-star Democrats whose political fortunes were set to bloom under a President Clinton.

"Short term, they're certainly gonna be a major part of the resistance — let me put it that way," said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. And while one of the brothers may be without a steady job for the first time in a while, Hinojosa sees neither stepping back from the political front lines. "They never, ever let up."

Much discussion about the brothers' futures often involves elections — near and far. Joaquin Castro is still considering whether to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018, a decision he plans to make before summer.

More intrigue has begun to surround his brother, who recently returned to San Antonio to finish a book — he has a September deadline — and to prepare to hit the speaking circuit. Beyond that, Hinojosa admitted, "we're curious what Julián is going to do."

A person close to the former housing secretary, once a running-mate prospect for Clinton, suggested he is already looking past 2018 to 2020, when Democrats will no doubt be searching for a fresh face to take on Trump. 

"It is very unlikely he runs for anything statewide in 2018," the person said. "At this point in time, a national run in 2020 is a much better bet than 2018."

Among some Castro boosters, either brother waiting out 2018 for 2020 is not an uncommon idea. Implicit in that suggestion is that the brothers, savvy political operatives in their own rights, may know that the environment in Texas in 2018 may still not be be favorable enough to lift even the state's two most popular Democrats to statewide office. 

"They can grow old and die waiting for Texas to turn blue," said Colin Strother, a Democratic consultant active in San Antonio politics. "Instead, let’s maximize their potential and rise to the highest rung they can rise."  

In the nearer term, Trump looms large. 

One of his first acts in office was to chip away at Julián Castro’s HUD legacy with an executive action blocking a cut to the Federal Housing Authority mortgage insurance premium that Castro had announced days prior. Castro, who in his final weeks as HUD secretary had voiced concern about the department “going backwards” under Trump, made clear Saturday he does not intend to go quietly into the night as an ex-Cabinet official. 

“Don’t forget—first thing Trump did was kill FHA insurance relief and make it tougher for the hardworking Americans to reach the American Dream,” Julián Castro wrote on Twitter. 

In Congress, Joaquin Castro is faced with a decision many Democrats are mulling nowadays: how to deal with the new commander in chief. While the congressman still sees many of Trump's proposals "in direct contradiction" with not just Democratic values but also American values, he suggested in an interview Friday that does not mean his party should adopt a strategy of absolute resistance. 

"For the country, you have to be responsible looking for opportunity where the president is willing to work with you,” he said. “So that means on issues of transportation, criminal justice reform, paid maternity leave — whatever those things may be — the responsible thing to do for the American people is to work with the president when we can."

The congressman, who sits on the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees, is more immediately concerned with questions surrounding Russia's interference in the presidential election. He wants to know whether any Americans, including campaign officials, cooperated with the Russian effort, and he hopes there is "some amount of independence between the FBI director and the new president" as Congress looks for answers. 

It was the Russian interference in the election that led U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, to declare earlier this month that he does not see Trump as a "legitimate president," inviting Trump's wrath. That led dozens of House Democrats, including Castro and five others from Texas, to announce they were skipping the inauguration in protest of a divisive president. Julián Castro also said he would not attend. 

After the inauguration, Joaquin Castro said he still was not convinced Trump was trying to unite the country. "I thought that he continued to speak as a candidate,” the congressman said, adding he found that Trump's inaugural address was “dark, hit upon isolationist tones, encouraged the building of walls between the United States and other nations."

Pressed Friday on whether he shares Lewis' view that Trump is an illegitimate president, Castro only replied, "I believe that he is the 45th president of the United States."

Regardless of whether Joaquin Castro challenges Cruz, the state's Democrats see a landscape that will only be more favorable for them in 2018. That is especially true, they say, after a Nov. 8 election in which the Republican presidential nominee notched the narrowest margin of victory in two decades — 9 points — and the state's urban areas became even bluer. 

“We fully expect that Trump's term will be disastrous for America," Hinojosa said, "and we believe that he’s going to create so many problems in communities of color and in working-class communities that there’ll be an outcry, much as what you saw in Texas this last election." 

"Cruz is going to be really, really weakened, and so I think he’s extremely vulnerable," Hinojosa added, predicting that a primary challenge to Cruz by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, would be damaging, if not fatal. "[Cruz has] grabbed ahold of the Trump coattails after he spit in his face, and he thinks that’s somehow going to provide him protection. It’s going to work the other way around, the way we see it."

Rep. Castro remains highly fluent in state politics, taking a moment in the interview to ding Texas Republicans for being "focused on the wrong things" — such as the "bathroom bill" that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has listed as a priority for the 85th Legislative Session. Castro is sticking with a timeline that has him deciding on the Cruz race "by the end of spring." 

"I’ve traveled to different parts of the state and found a lot of encouragement," said Castro, who emerged in earnest last summer as a potential 2018 candidate. "People are hungry for change." 

He may have a primary opponent in fellow U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, who has said he is "very likely" to run for Cruz's seat. In the interview, Joaquin Castro said he has worked well in the House with O'Rourke — a "sharp, committed congressman," he said. "I wish him well."

Is the Democratic primary big enough for the two of them in 2018?

Castro chuckled, then volunteered a four-word response: "Let's see what happens." 

Read more:

  • Clinton passed over Julián Castro when she named U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia her running mate.
  • In July, Julián Castro was briefly mentioned as a potential candidate to lead the Democratic National Committee. He said he was not interested. 

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Congress Politics Joaquin Castro Julián Castro Michael McCaul Ted Cruz