Photo: Julian Castro tests out the beds at a supportive housing center before his Liberty and Justice event speech.
Away from the rain and a slew of competitors’ supporters last Friday, Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro toured affordable housing units at downtown Des Moines’ YMCA Supportive Housing Campus.
The former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing secretary then held a roundtable discussion with more than a dozen YMCA stakeholders and a tenant about the city’s affordable housing struggles, as more than 2,300 attended Pete Buttigieg’s pre-Liberty and Justice Celebration event and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rally swelled to about 1,500.
Castro’s pre-event festivities were no different than his latest campaign activity. Amid low poll numbers and recent staff layoffs — despite hitting a fundraise-or-die deadline of more than $800,000 last week — the candidate has spent time getting to know the nation’s poor, a voting bloc often overlooked in national elections.
“This campaign has marched to the beat of its own drummer,” Castro said, Friday night during his LJ speech. “We’ve been a little bit different than all of the other campaigns. We haven’t been the same. We’ve been speaking up for the most vulnerable folks in this country — people sleeping on the streets and in storm drainage tunnels in Las Vegas, folks who are the victims of police brutality.”
Castro’s Focus On Affordable Housing
Staff from Buttigieg’s national and Iowa team, and members of the Sanders campaign have visited the YMCA campus, providing permanent housing and services to the homeless and the city’s at-risk residents.
Leisha Barcus, CEO and president of YMCA of Greater Des Moines, said she was encouraged by the candidates’ support.
“We appreciate when any candidate of any party comes to see the success of the supportive housing campus,” she said. “I’m thrilled it attracts the attention of the political candidates.”
Castro was the only presidential candidate to personally visit the facility, which houses about 140 and has more than 100 on a waiting list.
“You hear people say, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ and we say, ‘some people don’t have bootstraps,’” said Emily Osweiler, executive director of the housing campus. “So here, we can help meet those needs. We have different food programming, we have a clothing closet, you can now have a roof over your head.”
Residents at the housing campus certainly fall into Castro’s “vulnerable” campaign target.
“Oftentimes, this population walks around downtown and nobody looks at them in the eyes. Nobody knows their names — that’s very isolating,” Osweiler said. “Sometimes people say this is the first time they’ve felt a sense of belonging. So, we see this community that’s formed.”
The issue of housing recently emerged more on the national stage, and nearly all candidates have released comprehensive plans to tackle the nation’s shortage of stock. But after the cancellation of a candidate affordable housing forum, which was set to be held locally last weekend, housing advocates questioned whether Democratic hopefuls were ready to earnestly address the crisis.
Castro, who committed to the forum, said at Friday’s roundtable discussion that housing was a “front-and-center issue” of his campaign.
“Over the course of my campaign, I’ve been making housing opportunities a front-and-center issue, because I see a rental affordability crisis. What we see is homelessness is growing in our country again,” Castro said. “Most communities are seeing unsheltered homelessness increase.”
The candidate’s emphasis on housing is strategic while appealing to issues of importance to the nation’s poor.
“From the start of this campaign, Secretary Castro has continued to push issues others aren’t discussing and centered policy, travel, and message around the most vulnerable and marginalized communities,” said Castro’s National Press Secretary, Sawyer Hackett. “In many ways, Julián has been the conscience of the party on housing and homelessness, social justice and policing, immigration, and so much more.”
Will The Strategy Draw Votes?
Though housing struggles encompass growing numbers of the nation’s population, most proposed solutions are geared toward low-income Americans. Renters’ tax credits, increases to federal housing funding and eviction protections are among some Democratic presidential candidates’ affordable housing proposals.
“We’re great about talking about the middle class, and I’m fighting for the middle class, but we also need to fight for the poor, and those who have the least. Those who suffer the most,” Castro said.
Top tier candidates have crafted their campaign messaging around the middle class, said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.
One of Iowa’s front-runners, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, spent Friday fielding questions about financing Medicare for All — responding to her competitor, former Vice President Joe Biden’s criticism of her plans. Polling has consistently found health care, climate change and gun reform are issues on the top of voters’ minds.
“You know, Biden talks about the middle class all the time, but what about these folks who don’t think about themselves as middle class?” Goldford said.
But solely appealing to those in low-income brackets may not be a winning strategy. The wealthiest and most populated counties in Iowa vote at rates nearly 30 times higher than that of the poorest, with lower population numbers.
Castro, the self-appointed advocate for low-income Americans, is polling nationally at about 2% in the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, compared to Warren’s 21% and Biden’s 27%.
“People of lower-income tend not to participate as much as people of higher incomes, whether it’s voting or anything further,” Goldford said. “That’s certainly historically been the case. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but people of lower-income don’t squeak as well as people of higher income.”
Goldford said mobilizing the low-income vote may bring in more voters, but should be mobilized alongside median voting blocs who turn out to the polls more consistently.
“We’ve been fighting for those who are often left out, cast aside, marginalized. Because somewhere along the way in our country, we forgot to talk about the poor. To talk about the most vulnerable,” Castro said in his LJ Dinner speech. “That’s what this campaign has been doing, and that’s not an accident.”
By Isabella Murray