By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR., Special to the Star
SAN DIEGO — In a crowded field, Julian Castro shows us that one way to climb up is to keep your head down.
Even if the polls don’t show it. Castro is registering at just 1% in Iowa, an early-voting and overwhelmingly white state charged with choosing a president for a country that is — with every census count — becoming less white.
What do polls tell us anyway? In the 2016 election, most polls showed Hillary Clinton winning the presidency.
This is not to say that — on the eve of the first prime-time Democratic debates — the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development is a shoo-in to win the nomination.
Twenty-three candidates are vying for that prize, and 22 of them are going to walk away empty-handed.
What I mean is that my friend of 17 years is one smart cookie, and he’s got a team of other smart cookies. Together, they’ve come up with a good strategy.
While other campaigns are reactive, Team Castro is proactive.
Unlike the seven U.S. senators and four members of Congress who are also running for the nomination — and who spend much of their time in Washington — Team Castro doesn’t seem to be constantly vying to get on television.
Whether he’s in Las Vegas visiting homeless encampments or in Flint, Michigan, hearing about clean water, Castro seems to have only one mission: to connect with people.
Those connections take place at campaign events, via Twitter, and through internet videos where the candidate — who presents well — keeps followers up-to-date on his latest policy proposals.
The plans get spit out like bullets from a Gatling gun. Every week, there is another one — on immigration, universal pre-K, Medicare for all, police reform, a 21st-century Marshall Plan to aid Latin America, etc.
Meanwhile, opponents are busy raising money, threatening to impeach President Trump, and trying to come off as more racially enlightened than Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. Also, they’re afraid to tackle the messier issues.
As The Associated Press noted, only two Democrats running for president have released “detailed, written policies addressing the future of the immigration system.”
One is Castro, the other is his dimmer Irish replica — Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, who recently relaunched his campaign to recapture what he most craves: the media’s attention.
But most Democrats are terrified of the immigration issue because it divides the party.
It pits Latinos, who generally favor a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, against the white working class, which increasingly seems too tired to compete with immigrants for jobs to which they feel entitled.
Fear has spread to other issues.
For example, I can’t imagine that Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a black former prosecutor, is too eager to wade into the fray over whether a mostly white police force is manhandling and mistreating African Americans.
Nor will we see Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who enjoys strong support from organized labor, talk much about lifting the Trump tariffs since they satisfy the protectionist instincts of labor unions.
Not that Castro doesn’t have his own delicate balancing act. He has to find a way to excite Latinos without frightening off white people.
If I had been advising him about how to approach that challenge, well, I would have messed it up.
I would have told Castro to let his last name and skin color speak for themselves and tread lightly on the whole idea of being Latino, so as to not agitate the white folks.
Despite the fact they control so much of the wealth, power and prestige in this country, they can get awfully squeamish when they feel marginalized.
Instead, Castro has leaned into that part of his biography — especially when it comes to attacking Trump’s immigration policies with their obvious objective to make America white again. For him, the battle is personal.
In May, he tweeted: “My grandmother came to this country from Mexico as an orphan when she was 7-years-old. I won’t stand by while Donald Trump demonizes immigrants for political gain.”
His supporters are getting the message, and they’re fired up.
Consider this observation by a young Latino named Antonio De Loera, who recently tweeted: “@JulianCastro represents everything our community knows it can be. Makes me proud the rest of America will get to see us in the same way.”
Trapped in an outdated black-and-white paradigm, and largely ignorant about all things Latino, the national media has done its best to ignore Castro. In the weeks ahead, that may not be so easy to do.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.