Julián Castro made himself the 14th Democratic presidential candidate to campaign in Michigan — but he was the first to visit Flint, which remains a major political flashpoint as the troubled city continues to recover from its water crisis.
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama, toured Flint Saturday before holding an afternoon town hall at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the city’s Northwest side. He also met with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) early in the day before meeting some activists still fighting to ensure Flint’s residents access to clean water.
“We have to basically counter-program [President Donald Trump] with a strong, positive, compelling vision for the future that people can believe in,” Castro told the town hall audience of about 40 on Saturday afternoon.
“That’s why [people] here in Michigan, that’s why we have to say, ‘What are we going to do about the Flint water crisis?’… Not just about that, but to make sure that there are more job opportunities, so that this community is able to prosper, that it’s revitalized in a positive way. Those are the kinds of things that interest me, and that’s the kind of campaign that I’ve been running.”
Castro currently rates less than 1 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, but he’s secured an appearance in the first round of primary debates in Miami on June 26 and 27, where the massive field will vie for breakout moments.
The former mayor has staked his success on visiting communities like Flint, where he’s selling proposals aimed at bolstering the country’s social safety net and reforming its criminal justice system. Those include decriminalizing border crossings by non-U.S. residents and “ending aggressive policing,” in a sweeping plan announced last Monday.
“I’m going to places that it would be easy for Americans to forget,” Castro told reporters after the town hall. “But we need to make sure people understand that places like Flint should not be forgotten. That’s why I went to San Juan, Puerto Rico, first, after my announcement. I want Americans to know that if I’m elected, I’m going to be a president for everybody.”
In 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found the amount of lead in Flint’s water supply below the federal threshold for harm, but residents continue to mistrust the state government’s measure as such after its mishandling of the crisis.
The criminal investigation around that crisis continued this week as it was revealed Attorney General Dana Nessel subpoenaed and seized the cell phone and other electronics of former Gov. Rick Snyder.
Other candidates who have campaigned in Michigan are: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), businessman Andrew Yang, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), former Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam and self-help guru Marianne Williamson.
At the First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church near Flint’s downtown, the Rev. Ezra L. Tillman, Jr. and his wife, Catrina Tillman, along with activist Chia Morgan spoke with Castro about their efforts to continue providing the city’s residents with clean water. That included handing out bottled water and trying to expand access to a do-it-yourself filtration system called “The Water Box” that was donated to the church by celebrity Jaden Smith.
Morgan explained to Castro the continuing crisis of trust in the community that’s hampered its recovery from the water crisis.
“You can have all the trusted leaders, all the trusted activists [speaking out about the crisis], but you still have people who are not listening to anything that’s out there because they think they don’t need to,” Morgan said.
State Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint), who’s running for mayor, toured the church with Castro, as well, lending his perspective on the public health crisis — and scandal of government — that still continues to plague his district.
“Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, we hosted them here for the Democratic debate here for the [2016 presidential] nomination,” Neeley said.
“It was hosted here in the city of Flint during a period of time, but we don’t want it to be lost that there is still a need here in this community, even though a lot of resources have been allocated. The rubber has not met the road to where people are feeling comfortable.”
At the town hall hosted by Latinos United for Flint, Castro fielded questions about everything from education to health care to treatment of America’s Native populations, making the case that his background as both a city- and agency-level leader qualify him to occupy the White House.
“I visited 100 different communities big and small [as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development], across 39 states, including here in Flint,” Castro said. “And during that time, I got a real sense of how cities and towns in our country are grappling not only with housing directly, but with everything that goes along with that.”
Asked about what he would do to push back against plans like that for a proposed private prison facility in Ionia County that would hold immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Castro pitched a return to a more lenient immigration system in which border crossings would be a civil, not a criminal violation.
“Part of my vision is that we’re going to eliminate these detention centers, we’re going to get rid of the private prison industry around immigration,” Castro said. “Unless somebody has committed a serious crime, and unless there’s a reason to incarcerate that person, I would stop family detention.”
Like most candidates stumping in a procession of unfamiliar communities through the long, 18-month primary season, Castro told the town hall audience an abbreviated version of his life story. Talking about his experience as a Stanford University undergraduate, Castro described his awakening to the gulf between the country’s haves and have-nots that’s acutely felt in communities like Flint.
And in responding to a question about how young Latinos can get engaged in politics, the former San Antonio mayor described his original motivation for doing so as something to which most Flint residents can likely relate.
“It made me think a lot about the home that I come from, and why we didn’t have those kinds of things,” Castro said. “I had a chip on my shoulder about my hometown.”