Julián Castro: ‘This Is the Time to Make Change’

The former mayor of San Antonio discusses police reform, America’s housing crisis, and whether a run for statewide office in Texas is in his future.

Veronica G. Cardenas / Reuters

Julián Castro was ahead of the curve. The former San Antonio mayor and secretary of housing and urban development failed to get traction in the 2020 Democratic primary, but his campaign was focused on the issues of racial and economic justice that are now at the center of the national debate over discrimination in America, particularly in policing.

When I spoke with Castro a year ago, he was already proposing the creation of a federal database for police misconduct, the imposition of rules compelling cops to report impropriety by fellow officers, and the curtailment of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it nearly impossible for police who abuse their power to face consequences in civil court. I caught up with Castro for a (socially distant) interview in San Antonio, where we discussed whether Americans should defund the police, what to do about the national housing crisis, and whether he plans to run for statewide office in a changing Texas that looks more hospitable to Democrats every year. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Adam Serwer: Your campaign identified a crisis in American policing a year ago. What do you think should be done at a federal level to fix policing?

Julián Castro: At the federal level, the most important thing is, No. 1, to support local communities in reimagining public safety, and then to take several concrete steps to prevent police violence: banning choke holds and strangleholds, getting rid of qualified immunity, creating a database of officers that have been disciplined or terminated that personnel departments across the country are able to access that’s seamless. We have a spotty version of that now. The problem is that it’s not complete. I think that it only includes officers that have been decertified. All states have different standards on who gets decertified and who doesn’t. So that needs to be coordinated at the national level.

I also think that we need to give local communities the resources to transition into that reimagining of public safety and investing in mental-health professionals, social workers, and housing professionals, to deal with two groups of people that police often respond to that they shouldn’t really need to respond to the vast majority of the time: people who are homeless, who have been criminalized all over the country, and people with a mental-health issue who are stigmatized as violent, but in the vast majority of cases are not.

In addition to that, there are other rules, disciplinary/transparency and accountability rules, that I think would be helpful, that the federal government or the Department of Justice could help implement.

Serwer: Do you support activists who want to defund the police?

Castro: I support their efforts to reimagine public safety. Do I believe that the need to spend money on traditional policing is going to go down to zero anytime soon? No. But do I believe that in a lot of cases, we’re using armed cops in situations that we absolutely don’t need to? Yeah, we are, especially dealing with nonviolent situations. Why do you need to send an armed cop when two people have a fender bender, and they just need to fill out a report for insurance purposes? Why do you need to send a cop when somebody is homeless and they sleep at night? In the vast majority of cases where somebody has a mental-health challenge, they’re not violent at all; that’s just the stigma associated with mental-health issues.

So right now, because municipalities’ fiscal years often start either on July 1 or August 1, within these next four months, a lot of local communities have a chance to reimagine law enforcement, and recognize the opportunity cost of putting so much money into cops instead of mental-health professionals or literacy efforts or any number of other things. They can boost the quality of life of the community.

Serwer: What can be done on a federal level to prevent police who are fired for misconduct from simply joining a different department a county away or something like that?

Castro: Even people who generally support the police recognize that you need to have very good, competent, fair professionals. Absolutely, the federal government can establish a comprehensive database of officers that have been decertified or terminated or significantly disciplined because of excessive force or related issues. What’s missing right now in policing is transparency, and we need to change that. I was happy to see New York repeal 50-a, the rule that shielded officer personnel records. That’s a start at a state level. But that absolutely needs to be done at a national level, with a database created with that information.

Serwer: One of the problems individual officers have acknowledged is that if you witness misconduct, and go to your superior about it, the officer who committed the misconduct will not be fired, but the officer who revealed the misconduct will be shunned by other officers. How do you solve that problem?

Castro: There needs to be a vast cultural change among police in this country, because too often—and in some ways, it’s understandable; they do a dangerous job; they do deal with individuals that are sometimes trying to harm them—they develop an “us versus them” mentality. And that us-versus-them mentality sometimes overtakes a commonsense responsibility that they have for the people they’re supposed to protect.

That culture change is harder to deal with, because it’s not anything that one rule or policy or law can change. But I do think that if you increase transparency, increase accountability, and improve training and retention and promotion, you can change that culture over time. That’s a longer-term thing. I believe that for too many police officers, there’s an attitude that’s developed as though the public is there to serve them instead of their serving the public. That needs to get flipped.

Serwer: There are thousands of police and sheriff’s departments in the United States. How much of this problem needs to be addressed locally?

Castro: From a legal standpoint, right now a lot of it has to be solved locally because of the police-union contracts that are in place, locally and at a state level. Every level of government has a role to play. But traditionally, local government has played the biggest role in the policies surrounding policing. So when we talk about use-of-force policies, disciplinary policies, policies on accountability and transparency, a lot of the action is at the local level. That’s good news and bad news.

It’s good news because we don’t have to wait for Washington to get something done on this. Washington is famously slow on big reform. The bad news is, police unions have been one of the strongest political forces at the local level. And it’s not tough for them to maintain a lot of influence that blocks the ability of local city councils and county commissioners or boards of supervisors to make significant changes.

Serwer: You’re a former mayor; you know what it’s like to have to deal with police unions. How should local leaders deal with the reality of their political power and influence?

Castro: It’s a new day. I’ve seen several pollsters in the last few weeks say that they have not seen the kind of sea change in public opinion that they’ve seen supporting police-reform efforts. So something has clearly happened. That should give politicians the latitude that they need to make good changes on this. You know, I would advise every single mayor, council member, and county supervisor out there: This is the time to move. This is the time to make change.

The flip side of that is that these police unions, in the eyes of the public, are probably the weakest they’ve been in a very long time. Maybe ever. And that means that we can probably get better things done to check that power, which has gone unchecked for a long time in a lot of communities.

Yeah, it’s hard to take them on, because they often contribute a lot of money to campaigns. Their members vote. In most municipal elections, the turnout rate is pathetically low. But those police officers and their families, they go vote, and politicians think about that. So, you know, getting local politicians to move against that is often more difficult than getting them to oppose other groups.

Serwer: Should police unions be abolished?

Castro: I wouldn’t be unhappy if we did. Look, I don’t have as much of a problem with [police] unions fighting for compensation and benefits—you know, that’s what unions do—and a whole variety of contexts. Unions also deal with working conditions. And I don't have an issue with organized labor and working conditions in the context of policing either, but I absolutely do not agree that unions should have a role in setting disciplinary policies for police officers, transparency policies for police officers, use-of-force input and use-of-force policies for police officers, because they’ve just gone off the rails. And I think that that power should belong to the representatives of the people when it’s the people’s bodies that are being policed and injured and sometimes killed.

Serwer: I’m going to switch it up a little bit. It was a pretty tame primary, but you and Joe Biden had one of the more notable flashes on the debate stage. How do you feel about him being the nominee?

Castro: I’m excited to support him. I was happy to make my own run, of course, the issues we put forward. But I’ve had a lot of respect for him, admired what he’s done in public service when I served with him, and since that time. The difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is vast, and he will restore integrity and decency and character to that office. And just as importantly, a vision for making sure that everybody has a shot to prosper in this country, which is why I ran. That was the whole theme behind my campaign: trying to make sure that America could work for everyone.

Serwer: So would you take a position in the Biden administration, and if you did, which one would you want?

Castro: Right now, I’m not aiming for anything. You know, I’m open to what the future will bring, whether that’s running for office again or serving in another capacity. But for the first time in a long time I’m not—when I got out of the Obama administration I had a sense that I would likely run for president. Right now, I’m kind of open to what the future brings. So I wouldn’t take it off the table, but I’m not counting on that either.

Serwer: That’s actually related to my next question, which is, are you going to run for statewide office in Texas?

Castro: It’s possible. That’s not what my mind is set on, but I’m watching how the state is developing, sure. It’s a new day in Texas also.

Serwer: Can you talk a little bit more about that? What do you mean by “it’s a new day in Texas”?

Castro: During this Trump era, Texas is clearly turning away from the Republican Party. And two dynamics are coming together to create that: The demographic change that everybody writes about and talks about in the Hispanic community, and also the diversification in the suburbs of Texas, and an influx of people coming into Texas from other states that generally are more moderate (and I say that as a native Texan).

I grew up in a time in Texas when people would say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.” That’s what you hear about the Republican Party now in this state, especially among white, college-educated suburbanites. They see what Donald Trump is doing. And they just say, “That doesn’t represent my values, and it doesn’t represent what I want our country to be.” They’re not necessarily all running to the Democratic Party, but they’re running away from the Republican Party.

Serwer: After you dropped out, you endorsed Elizabeth Warren. Is she your preference for vice president?

Castro: I would love it if she were vice president, because I’m a big fan. At the same time, I think that there are other fantastic potential vice-presidential nominees, including Senator [Kamala] Harris, Stacey Abrams, a number of other people. As somebody that went through that process a few years ago, I know that that’s the nominee’s decision. The good news is that he has so many excellent candidates to choose from that if they were the vice president, they would be ready to serve as president if, God forbid, they were called to do that, but would also be strong partners in governance.

Serwer: So if we could switch it up a little bit again: How do you think Texas has handled the COVID-19 outbreak?

Castro: The governor has demonstrated poor leadership specifically, for three reasons. He opened up too early. When he opened up, he didn’t do the two things that medical experts say you need to put in place, which is sufficient testing and sufficient contact tracing. We ranked 48th per capita in testing right before he reopened the state, and did not have a contact-tracing regime in place. In addition to that, the state contracted with a firm that had never done contact tracing on the scale that was needed.

And then third, when he reopened, cities across the state begged him to allow them to tailor safety precautions like requiring a face mask. The governor prohibited that, and that was a big mistake. And, you know, it’s embarrassing that he’s backtracked and found a way to suggest that cities or counties like Bexar County have figured out his riddle of what his order allowed or didn’t allow.

What you see in the governor’s actions is that Republican politicians in this state have gone too long without any real scrutiny or competition. And that’s what you get: people whose policies are not well thought out or are able to only play to their base instead of following the advice of public-health professionals. And it’s amazing that in 2020, in a state that is as wealthy and populous, and in many ways forward-looking, as Texas, you still have that throwback kind of leadership in the governor’s mansion.

Serwer: COVID-19 has had a huge economic impact on the state and the country. Unemployment remains really high, but there have been some signs of uptick in economic activity. Does Congress need to do more and, if so, why?

Castro: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, they passed the HEROES Act in the House. I hope that that becomes law, or a version of that. It included elements that I and others have been calling for on the housing front, especially. One of the big gaps in the CARES Act was a lack of direct rental assistance. [The HEROES Act] includes $100 billion in direct rental assistance. We’re about to face this perfect storm for people of color in this country in a few weeks when we have a wave of evictions dealing with the pandemic and its effects that have already hit communities of color and low-income communities the hardest.

We’re continuing to grapple with inequality and racism and a legacy of bigotry in our country. And then this wave of evictions is coming. It’s going to be this triple whammy in a few weeks that requires a big federal response. And so my prediction is that if Congress does not address it before then, it’s not going to be able to withstand the political pressure, and it’s going to have to address it by the middle of August.

Serwer: Did we have a housing crisis in this country before COVID-19 hit?

Castro: Oh, sure. Oh yes, we did. We had a rental affordability crisis. I was saying that when I was housing secretary, and my predecessor was saying that before me in the administration. I mean, we already had a lot of people who were housing insecure, families that were paying 40, 50, 60 percent of their income in rent. We had rents that were spiking across the country. Unfortunately, you know, one silver lining of this entire ordeal is that in the hottest rental markets in the country, there’s been cooling off. I would say that’s a good thing, except it’s happening because people are out of jobs and people can’t afford the market anymore. I mean, they couldn’t afford it in the first place, and even less so now. We need to make a massive investment in housing supply, and also address the ability of people to afford housing. So in the campaign, I called for making the Housing Choice Voucher Program an entitlement program. We called for billions of dollars of new spending, $10 billion of new spending over the next decade, so that we could build 3 million units of new housing.

I also believe that we need to embrace an old idea but one that has, I think, new resonance, which is public housing. People have left public housing for dead in this country, ever since the late ’70s. We didn’t address the upkeep, the maintenance of it, much less new public housing. But public housing can be one of your best assets to stave off the spikes in the market that happened in the private sector. And we need to figure out a way to address that concern that we had in this country in the ’90s of packing people into one area, the old Cabrini-Green situation in Chicago and other places, which I get. But I still believe that if you do it right, having a good stock of public housing in this country, more than we do today, makes a lot of sense.

Serwer: It seems to me that our housing problem is a little bit like our policing problem, in the sense that local government has a big impact. How do you get past people who say, “I don’t want you to build any more housing in my neighborhood”?

Castro: Yeah. Well, that’s part of it. You know, part of it is the NIMBYism [Not In My Backyard] that exists. And yeah, I’ve said for years that I sat in city-council meetings to hear zoning cases for eight years as a councilman and mayor. And I don’t care if somebody is a Republican, a Democrat, a conservative, or a liberal; too often, when you start talking about putting affordable housing in their neighborhood, they turn into the same thing, which is a naysayer. And that’s unfortunate.

I remember people that would vote Democratic and [whom] you would think of as liberal standing up there saying, “Hell no, we don’t need these units,” but really, they’re talking about people that they had in mind coming into their neighborhood and living there. And toward the end of the Obama administration, the administration put out a tool kit that local communities could adopt to enhance the ability of the local government to stimulate more affordable housing development.

I think that state governments, city governments also have a role to play in dismantling NIMBYism through their land-use codes. In California, there’s been a lot of action on this over the last several years, and my hope is that in other communities, we’re going to see a lot of progress as well.

Serwer: We’re talking about housing; we’ve been talking about the economy; we’ve been talking about policing. Do you see all these problems as connected and, if so, how?

Castro: Yeah, I mean, I do see all of these things as connected. There’s compelling research that housing is the most stabilizing factor in somebody’s life. You know, we saw that in the housing-first policy that showed itself to be very effective in reducing homelessness. If somebody has a stable place to live, they’re much more likely to have a decent job, get a better education, just overall have better outcomes. Raj Chetty’s research from a few years ago demonstrated the importance of opportunities in a neighborhood. So this is all connected: where you live, your education, your job opportunities, transit, the food that you eat.

We also know that different neighborhoods are policed differently. They’re often subjected to a different regime of law enforcement. And that affects somebody’s frame of mind and how they grow up and how they think of themselves and the people around them. So these things are all connected. In the campaign, we tried to connect those dots.

If I had one recommendation for local communities out there, it would be to take six hours in a day and get the mayor of the city, the police chief, the fire chief, the housing-authority director, the community-college president, the school-district superintendent, the transit director, the utility director, the leaders of significant institutions and community members from the city and put up a map of all of the different investments that are being made in the most distressed neighborhoods and get a sense of the shortcomings and the possibilities and start thinking collaboratively on how you can work better together to connect those dots.

People would think that that happens with some frequency, but it never happens. It hardly ever happens. And we tried to do that in San Antonio with some success. And fundamentally, that’s what the aspiration of something like promise neighborhoods or choice neighborhoods in the Obama administration was. If communities can engage in connecting those dots more, everyday people are going to have a better quality of life.

Serwer: We’re months away from the election. But let’s say Biden wins, and he gets inaugurated in January. What’s the first thing he needs to do?

Castro: He needs to have a comprehensive list of all of the rules that have been changed by the Trump administration and immediately begin the process of not only rolling them back, but advancing on any number of issues: LGBTQ equality, immigration. Just right now, I hope somebody is compiling that comprehensive list of changes that have been made, rule changes that have been made at the EPA, the Department of Education, and so forth.

That’s something the president can do, can put into motion at 12:01 p.m. on January 20, 2021. It doesn’t require Congress. So his first thing is to immediately set a new tone with his speech on the platform that day. And then second, to begin to roll back all of these rule changes that the Trump administration has made, and to take us forward.

Serwer: Trump is now issuing pandemic-related immigration orders. What are your thoughts on those?

Castro: They’re more evidence of his dark view of immigrants and immigration. I see this as an excuse to further a Stephen Miller view on immigration. The fact is that the people he’s trying to keep out are people that are making our economy and our country stronger—and if he didn’t find this excuse to do this, he would have done something else. I believe that this is a president that wants to whitewash this country. Unfortunately, he surrounded himself with people who are pushing the administration and him in that direction. And we see the evidence of it all the time.