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Looking ahead on governance, campaigning: Q&A with Texas Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro

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Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, a native of San Antonio, gives thumbs-up as he speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention on July 28.

Associated Press— Carolyn Kaster

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, 42, who represents a district that includes his hometown of San Antonio, was in Waco this week, stumping for the national Democratic ticket at an event in South Waco hosted by local Democrats, LULAC Council 273 and the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. His visit included mixing with Alta Vista Elementary School students who were studying political campaigns and voter registration. In a brief interview with the Tribune-Herald, Castro — one-half of Texas’ politically potent Castro twins — talks about whether Congress will continue to be dysfunctional in a Hillary Clinton administration, given to obstruction, rhetoric and little else; whether compromise is possible on immigration reform, an issue that has dogged Republicans; and Castro’s possibly running against failed Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz when the latter seeks re-election to the U.S. Senate from Texas in 2018.

Q    I saw you before a large crowd at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin a few weeks ago with Republican Congressman Bill Flores and Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, talking about why Congress doesn’t work. If Hillary Clinton wins, how can Congress work? Not will it, but how can it?

A    It’s going to take an extra effort from leaders in the Republican Party, if they still have a majority in the House, to push back on those in the Republican Party whose philosophy is scorched earth and no compromise. There is a big clique of representatives who fall in that camp and Paul Ryan, to his credit, after he became speaker, was able to reach across the aisle and come to agreement with Democrats on some very big issues, such as reauthorization of [the Every Student Succeeds Act], a budget and a highway transportation bill, which will bring some $18 billion over the next five years to the state of Texas. But after that, for the last several months now, his position seems to be more akin to what [former Speaker] John Boehner experienced where the most partisan wing of the Republican Party seems to be in control of the chamber. As long as that is the case, it’s going to be very difficult for Congress to be productive. The last two sessions of Congress, besides this one — and for this one the numbers aren’t in because it isn’t over yet — but the last two sessions of Congress were the least productive in American history.

Q    So I’ve read. Our congressman here has often complained about the Senate filibuster rule. How about the Hastert Rule? [Named for former House Speaker Denny Hastert, this allows a majority of the majority party to bring bills forward rather than a majority of the entire House.] I think you mentioned this during the Texas Tribune Festival. I mean, if the Senate filibuster rule is a detriment to progress, the Hastert Rule sure is.

A    When we think about gridlock in the House of Representatives, the Hastert Rule is one of the main culprits besides the personalities and ideologies. And the Hastert Rule is an informal rule, it’s not written down anywhere, so the speaker of the House doesn’t have to follow it but chooses to follow it on major issues with some exceptions, of course. So one of the solutions is for Paul Ryan to decide that he is not going to follow the Hastert Rule the same way that he has in the past and that other speakers have done in the past.

Q    One recurring issue here is comprehensive immigration reform. Again, I believe you and Bill Flores talked about it briefly in Austin. Our congressman believes this is something we need to do in pieces rather than in comprehensive fashion. Is that the way to do it — in pieces over time — or is there just too much distrust on this issue? I mean, Democrats might fear helping Republicans bolster border security and Republicans then not honoring their word to come back to look at providing legal status for immigrants long in this country.

A    Of course, [then-House Speaker] John Boehner indicated a few years ago that Republicans wanted to pass legislation in a piecemeal fashion and then never even passed one single bill, even the stuff they liked, which was strange. So certainly it’s possible. As Democrats, we’re open to different options. I may have said at the Tribune Fest that I really believe there are two main anchors to an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform: the border security piece, to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to secure the border, understanding that we already have more resources dedicated to border security than we’ve ever had in our history. And now the state of Texas over the last year and a half has dedicated even more resources. That said, I’m confident that any agreed-upon bill would contain some border security piece. The second piece is a path to legalization, making sure we give the Dreamers, who have been here [coming to the United States as children] and are here through no fault of their own, legalized status. Democrats have been working toward citizenship and many Americans agree with that pathway to citizenship. In fact, a big majority of Americans agree on that pathway to citizenship. So we would like to see a path to citizenship and certainly a path to legalization. I’m trying to be as open as possible to sitting down and trying to come up with something Congress can agree upon, but none of that will happen if the Republican Party leadership is held hostage by 40 members who are in districts that are 80 percent Republican and have no incentive to consider the opinion of the rest of the country.

Q    You’re talking about the Freedom Caucus?

A    Mostly the Freedom Caucus, but as you know, there’s only 8 percent of congressional districts that are really competitive in this country. So every other district is either stacked for a Republican to win or stacked for a Democrat to win and that means, especially with the party in power, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, you get in a position where the party doesn’t have to listen to the other side and often doesn’t have to listen to a big portion of its own side. That’s what we have right now.-

Q    I keep reading that one reason more Hispanics don’t vote is because it’s not a cultural expectation. Is this true? And, second, what do you do to fight it?

A    With Hispanics, you have a comparably young population, much younger than the overall majority population, and so in Texas 28 percent of folks eligible to vote are Hispanic and Hispanics make up about 19 percent of the usual voters who actually come out and vote. So there is a gap of about 9 points. The overall Hispanic population is 40 percent and, again, it’s because you have such a young population. Part of [the reason more Hispanics don’t vote] is time. As people get older, they tend to vote more. But, yeah, you have to get in there and convince people that they have a real stake in an election, that they have a stake in which candidate becomes mayor or senator or president of the United States.

Q    A very well-known and respected Hispanic pastor in Waco sits on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s select committee on immigration, trying to impress upon Mr. Trump the folly of deporting 11.5 million illegal immigrants from the United States. What are your thoughts about Mr. Trump’s immigration plans?

A    Well, I mean, he started his campaign off with a slander against immigrants being rapists and murderers. I heard that as the grandson of a woman who came here when she was 6 years old. She came here as an orphan from Mexico with her younger sister because both of her parents had died around the time of the Mexican Revolution. My grandmother worked hard her whole life as a maid, a babysitter and a cook and she worked as hard as she could to survive and give my mom, her only child, a chance at a better life than she had. That’s the common story of so many American families — the Irish, the Germans, the English, the Asian Americans, African Americans. What Donald Trump has done is really stoke people’s fears and resentments, including talking about a border wall, which most Texans disagree with, and proposing things that are unrealistic, like making Mexico pay for it. He’s run a very middle-school campaign.

Q    Middle school?

A    Middle school, as if he’s in middle school. Very juvenile in unrealistic proposals just meant to get attention and in some way shock the conscience. I think the polls are so close because Texans are rejecting Donald Trump as inconsistent with Texas values. He disrespects women, he has disrespected our military, he disrespected the disabled, he has divided people along racial and religious lines. The country right now doesn’t need someone who is just going to tear people apart. You need a candidate and a president who is going to try to bring people together.

Q    I’m sure you’ve heard of people who believe Hillary Clinton is the devil herself. How do you reverse that kind of thinking or do you just give up on it?

A    No, I never want to give up. There are so many media sources now, from traditional media sources to conservative media to fringe media where facts are completely unverified. I know there was one reference to President Obama and Hillary Clinton being demons — I mean, real demons. I don’t know what to make of that. On one level, it’s alarming. On another, it’s incredibly sad that, first, somebody would put that out and then that someone would believe it. The answer is not to give up on anyone, but there is that fringe element out there that treats politics as pure entertainment. People are getting rich out of stoking people’s fears and imaginations and all of it. Oftentimes with a website or a radio show or whatever it may be, maybe a television show, somebody is making money by getting clicks or eyeballs on a screen.

Q    You’re in Congress. What would be your first recommendation to Hillary Clinton, assuming she wins the White House, as most polls now suggest?

A    The first thing is to do everything possible to try and bring Americans together. This has been an ugly election season. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I can’t remember an election year that I’ve wanted to be over more than this one. The next president will have a real responsibility to do everything she can to heal this rift. Second, she needs to make sure she pays attention to the U.S. economy and growing jobs and making sure we’re expanding in different economic sectors because, as the economy does better and people go back to work, I think they’re less likely to give time to a candidate like Donald Trump who tries to blame other people for the challenges or the woes that somebody else is going through. And I think she will tackle immigration reform, but she needs a willing Congress that is going to sit down at the table and work with her to get that.

Q    Is Texas going to go blue?

A    (Laughter.) Well, Secretary Clinton is going to do better than any presidential candidate since her husband in 1996, in a generation, and that will be a positive thing for the state.

Q    And given how much you hate everything about this election, why would you then think of taking on Ted Cruz?

A    I’ve said I’ll take a look at it in 2018. Ted Cruz doesn’t represent Texas, Ted Cruz does what’s best for Ted Cruz. From the first day he walked into the U.S. Senate, he was plotting out his strategy in Iowa and New Hampshire. I’ve heard over the years of so many individuals, small businesses, farmers, all talking about how it’s impossible to get his attention because he’s just not focused on Texas. If he’s re-elected in 2018, he’ll be on the campaign trail for president the very next day. His focus, only focus, is on running for president.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.