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2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro found his political roots at Stanford

Castro served on the ASSU with his twin brother and campaign chair Joaquín

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

More than two decades ago, then-Stanford undergraduate Julián Castro ’96 could not hide his disdain for his peers’ indifference to politics. In an op-ed he penned for The Daily, the ambitious young Latino described his experience of watching students who hesitated to sign his petition to run for Undergraduate Senate.

“They recoiled as though I were offering a hot potato,” he wrote. “They appeared as if the CIA were towering in helicopters above, ready to swoop down and label them ‘subversive’ if they signed, forever axing their chances of landing a Goldman Sachs partnership.”

“Thus, you can imagine how many students here fervently avoid political situations that do mean something,” he added.

Despite this setback, Castro was successfully elected to the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) Senate in 1995 along with Joaquín, his twin. Joaquín, in addition to representing Texas’s 20th district in the U.S. House of Representatives, serves as a campaign chair for his brother’s 2020 presidential candidate.

In the ASSU election, the brothers each won 811 votes, tying for first place. They were quickly dubbed “the twin senators.” The two ran on a platform that “pushed [for teaching assistant] training, recommendation hours with professors and changing the advising system,” Joaquín then told The Daily. 

Though he polls only between 0 and 2% nationally, Castro has set himself apart in the Democratic race as one of the more vocal proponents of immigration reform, and as the race’s only Latinx candidate. Castro made a point to emphasize immigration on the debate stage Tuesday night, noting “how absurd it is that this president is caging kids on the border.” 

At that debate, Castro’s most memorable moment surfaced when the candidates were discussing the controversy of mandatory gun buybacks. He argued that a program that would require officers to go to homes and retrieve firearms would “give these police officers another reason to go door to door in certain communities [where residents are vulnerable to police brutality]” and bluntly stated that “police violence is also gun violence.” This comment was reported to be the most-tweeted-about remark of the debate.

He finished the three-hour debate with just eight minutes and 26 seconds of speaking time, placing him in the bottom three candidates, just after entrepreneur Andrew Yang and before Representative Tulsi Gabbard and fellow Stanford alumnus Tom Steyer MBA ’83. 

A native Texan, Castro rose to national prominence while serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the Obama administration. But his political career began at Stanford, where he was an active member of student government and a leader on campus and national issues.

As a senior, Castro — a double major in political science and communications — was the chair of the ASSU’s Committee on Academics Research Evaluation (CARP). To increase course transparency and feedback, he spearheaded an effort to revive the annual release of course guides.

Beyond the ASSU, Castro’s experience as both a student and political advocate at Stanford were shaped alongside Joaquín. The two took almost the same classes every quarter, and were both active members of the Stanford Democrats and Derechos, a Chicano/Latino study group focusing on law. In one article for The Daily titled “Twin senators not two close for comfort,” staff writer Brian Singer wrote that Julián and Joaquín “fantasize[d] of creating a Castro & Castro law firm in San Antonio. The only question [was] whose name [would] come first.” 

The twins’ similarities stretched far beyond academics. According to their interview with The Daily on April 28, 1995, the Castro brothers said they “had different girlfriends with the same name” in high school and were even “dating roommates” at Stanford.

Castro, who frequently weaves his own experiences into his discussion of policy issues, often cites his college experience as support for his vocal endorsement of affirmative action. In 2010, he told The New York Times that he and Joaquín “got into Stanford because of affirmative action … I scored 1210 on my SATs, which was lower than the median matriculating student,” Castro said. “But I did fine in college and in law school. So did Joaquín.”

In a move that foreshadows today’s debates about the moral and ethical implications of technological innovation, Castro opined on the importance of ethics education in science and technology at Stanford. He wrote that Stanford’s Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program can offer “a terrific opportunity for students to realize the significance, not just the facts, of science and technology.” 

When Stanford tried to discontinue the STS major in 1996 due to the shortage of senior faculty members who could support the increasing number of students in the program, Castro did not hide his concern over its potential impact.

“No university, however research-oriented it may be, can afford to produce scientists and scholars who lack the sense of professional responsibility that only an understanding of technology’s societal impact can impart,” he wrote in the op-ed.

During Tuesday’s presidential debate and the candidates’ discussion of “Big Tech,” Castro echoed the sentiment in his Daily op-ed. He specifically invoked Amazon, which he said “is leveraging its size … to help put small businesses out of business, and then at the same time shortchanging a lot of its workers, not paying them as they should, not giving them the benefits that they should.”

Castro’s support for the labor movement was underscored by his March visit to campus, during which he attended a local meeting of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He became involved with the SEIU and workers’ rights during his time in the Obama administration, and often connected his interest in labor issues to his time as a student in the Bay Area, which struggles with housing affordability.

“He was very humble and very inspiring,” said Francisco Preciado ’07, the Executive Director at SEIU Local 2007. Also a first-generation immigrant, Preciado studied law after graduation. Looking back at the meeting where he first met Castro, Preciado remarked on his sincerity. “He connected with our members and showed his genuine understanding of our struggles.”

Castro emphasized the necessity that the University pay “a living wage, a good wage” to its service employees. As a candidate, he has said that he would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and prioritize workers’ rights overall.

In January of 1998, Castro contributed a Daily op-ed in which he explored the relationship, or lack thereof, between the G.O.P. and Latinx Voters. “The source of Latino voters’ unhappiness with the Republican party stems from the hard-line stances G.O.P. leaders have taken on affirmative action, bilingual education, immigration and student aid funding,” Castro wrote. 

He incorporated his own experiences as a member of Stanford’s Latinx community, referencing a time in which he was watching the 1994 gubernatorial election results in a Stanford lounge. 

“A grainy black and white image of Mexicans crossing the California border erupted onto the screen with a message I will never forget. ‘They keep coming,’” Castro recalled. “[The message] said to me: ‘You and people like you are not wanted here.’”

“In my mind, ‘they’ singled out … not just illegal immigrants, but all Latinos who love this country and seek only a fair opportunity to succeed without being characterized by opportunistic politicians as a threat to this nation’s stability,” he added. 

His candidacy echoes this sentiment. Castro has positioned himself at the forefront of the immigration debate, leading the effort to repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which criminalizes illegal immigration. Castro believes that the act should instead be treated as a civil offense. In April, he became the first 2020 candidate to release an immigration plan.

Though he remained on the outskirts of the debate stage, during his days at Stanford, Castro was an outspoken proponent of debate and civil disagreement. “Tomorrow, many of us will be national leaders, but today we aren’t engaging in the type of discussion necessary to cultivate in us the examined views of refined thinkers,” he wrote in one Daily op-ed.

“So, instead of letting the ideas you came to Stanford with calcify, do yourself and your alma mater a favor. Argue with someone today. There’s plenty to talk about,” he urged.

Contact Georgia Rosenberg at georgiar ‘at’ stanford.edu and Won Gi Jung at jwongi ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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