Democratic presidential candidate former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro went on the offensive during Wednesday night’s debate. [Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press] Hide caption
By Matt Zdun
After an eye-opening showdown between Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke during Wednesday’s debate in Miami, the presidential contenders will travel to Austin for separate Friday night events, inviting further comparisons between the two Texas candidates.
Only now, it’s Castro who is on the rise after the former San Antonio mayor went on the offensive in the debate, gaining political momentum at O’Rourke’s expense and capturing a coveted piece of the national spotlight.
Castro’s meet and greet, announced last week, will begin at 7 p.m. at Cheer Up Charlies, a downtown Austin bar.
Not to be outdone in a city ripe with Democratic voters, O’Rourke announced Thursday that he too will hold an Austin event Friday that will begin at 6 p.m. at Scholz Garten, only a few blocks from Castro’s gathering.
The competing events come after Castro, who had not received much media attention as he lagged near the bottom of national polls, executed a surprise attack Wednesday night on O’Rourke’s border policies, stealing some thunder from O’Rourke, who has long claimed the border as his turf.
The offensive centered on Section 1325 of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which makes it a misdemeanor to enter the country illegally.
Castro says the section needs to go and suggested replacing the criminal penalty with a civil offense.
“The reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using Section 1325 of that act, which criminalizes coming across the border, to incarcerate the parents and then separate them,” Castro said. “Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not. And I want to challenge all of the candidates to do that.”
O’Rourke, a former U.S. House member from El Paso, has not been willing to go that far, expressing concerns in the past that repealing the section could remove a mechanism that holds criminals who smuggle drugs or people across the border accountable.
In an extended back-and-forth in which the two candidates spoke over each other and Castro reprimanded O’Rourke for not doing his homework, O’Rourke pushed back: “As a member of Congress, I helped to introduce legislation that would ensure that we don’t criminalize those who are seeking asylum and refuge in this country.”
But Castro said he was “not talking about the ones that are seeking asylum.”
“If you’re fleeing desperation, then I want to make sure …” O’Rourke continued.
“I’m talking about everybody else,” Castro said.
“I want to make sure you are treated with respect,” O’Rourke said.
“I’m still talking about everybody else,” Castro said.
Reflecting on his debate performance in an interview Thursday morning on MSNBC, Castro acknowledged that he was “extra animated” during the debate because he “was feeling what a lot of people are feeling — that we have to make sure that this cruelty from the (Trump) administration stops.”
O’Rourke took a cooler approach Thursday morning, telling MSNBC: “I’m not running against anybody. I’m running for the United States of America.”
After Castro’s debate exchange with O’Rourke, Joshua Scacco, who studies political rhetoric at the University of South Florida, said Google Trends showed a 2,400% increase in searches for “Julián Castro.”
“He could break out of the bottom tier, which would be enough to continue his campaign. He gained attention. All he could ask for,” Scacco said.
“He will need to translate his newfound attention into fundraising and news momentum,” Scacco said, adding that Castro’s “immigration messaging matches the prominence of news currently about migration and the southern border, which could ensure continued attention. He needed his moment, and he seized it.”
The timing of the debate was indeed good for Castro, the only Latino in the race and the first candidate to issue a detailed immigration plan. He drew the first question on the issue from moderator José Díaz-Balart of Telemundo, who referred to the widely shared image of Oscar Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande in search of asylum in America.
In one of the night’s most forceful statements, Castro called the image heartbreaking and added that “it should also piss us all off.”
Asked to respond to the powerful image, O’Rourke spoke in Spanish, something that is more natural to him, having grown up in El Paso, than it is to Castro, who did not grow up fluent in Spanish.
“Vamos a tratar cada persona con el respeto y dignidad que merecen como humanos,” O’Rourke said. “We’re going to treat everybody with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings.”
“We would not turn back Valeria and her father, Oscar. We would accept them into this country and follow our own asylum laws,” O’Rourke said.