Covering the candidates in Texas

Julián Castro (L) and Beto O’Rourke. Images by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.

A Texas reporter has heard it all before. “He’s been doing the same stump speech since the beginning of the Senate race,” Patrick Svitek, a political reporter for The Texas Tribune, tells me of Beto O’Rourke. Svitek, who has been on the O’Rourke beat for more than two years, belongs to a group of veteran Texas political reporters charged with covering the two Democrats running for president who are from their state: O’Rourke and Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. The first Texas Democrats to run for president since 1976—in the past 25 years, no Democrat has won even statewide office—O’Rourke and Castro have entered the race in the anyone’s-guess era following Donald Trump’s election. What local journalists have seen is more complex than national media’s casting, of O’Rourke as a centrist lightweight and Castro as a candidate doomed to be discounted.

It’s undeniable that Castro has had difficulty gaining national attention, especially compared to O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s recent Senate campaign to unseat Ted Cruz, fueled by live-streamed campaign rallies and celebrity endorsements, elevated his profile (GQ: “The fervor that greets him verges on the messianic…He feels like a candidate tailored for the moment”). Castro operates more comfortably within established Texas Democratic circles; he’s never appeared on a ballot outside San Antonio (The New York Times: “Some wonder whether he is too quiet, too inexperienced, and too careful to compete in such a crowded, high-powered primary field”).

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But Gilbert Garcia, a Metro columnist for the San Antonio Express-News who has covered Castro since 2009, sees him playing a long game: “He is someone who is very deliberate, very methodical; he spent two solid years working on his presidential campaign deciding who he wanted on his team and how they were going to develop his campaign.” Castro has experienced only one loss in his political career, during a run-off in the 2005 San Antonio mayoral election. Afterward, Castro patiently sowed relationships with San Antonio business leaders—connections he lacked during his first run—and hired the campaign manager of his opponent. As mayor, Castro “rarely made a false move,” Garcia says. “That’s the same person I’m seeing now.” This has left San Antonio’s Latinx community—comprising 63 percent of the city’s residents—wondering why the first Mexican-American candidate to run for president in either party is not getting his due, Garcia says. They’re asking, “Why is he being ignored?”

Carlos Sanchez, a writer for Texas Monthly who has covered state politics for nearly 35 years, says, “There is bubbling frustration among Hispanics about the lack of coverage of Julián. The Hispanics in San Antonio, [even ones] who don’t necessarily support him, notice the lack of coverage and think something more sinister is at play.” Castro may not have held statewide office, but neither has Pete Buttigieg. “I’m sorry I can’t pronounce his name, but the notion of image comes across more than substance,” Sanchez says. “The New York Times on several occasions listed the top five or ten candidates, and never once was Julián a part of that.”

Castro has consistently polled low in the long list of candidates, though an April poll of Latinx voters put him in fourth place. He anticipated that he would have trouble reaching voters outside of Texas, Sanchez says, which is why he announced his candidacy so early—back in January. “For the Eastern media, it’s easier to cover candidates who are in DC more frequently—it’s an issue about logistics, more than good journalism, and it’s affecting coverage.”

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A lot of reporters equate inexperience with not knowing who he is.

 

Many Texas reporters agree that Castro’s main obstacle lives in El Paso. (“Beto came off the Senate race with an air of luster to him with the media,” Sanchez says. “Julián was very aware of that.”) O’Rourke’s remarkable Senate bid landed him endless profiles—in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times—and sustained interest from reporters like Abby Livingston, who has worked as The Texas Tribune’s Washington bureau chief since 2014. “I’m somewhat in the bubble,” she says, of living in DC. But she’s unwilling to count O’Rourke out. “I lived through an entire Senate race when the national press rolled their eyes, and it ended up being a three-point race,” she says. After covering O’Rourke for five years, and observing him in the House of Representatives, she’s learned to be wary of dismissive chatter. “There’s a misconception based in no one having heard from him that he’s inexperienced,” she says. “A lot of reporters equate inexperience with not knowing who he is.”

Garcia, at the Express-News, agrees that O’Rourke has been labeled a lightweight unfairly. At interviews with the paper’s editorial board, “He took all kinds of questions on policy, talking in detail about healthcare, military issues, the 2017 federal tax cut,” Garcia recalls. “I got the sense both times that he was comfortable sitting by himself in a quiet setting, very different from the campaign stump, and talking about policy.”

That O’Rourke has now, perhaps crudely, been put “in a box as this centrist guy, a good campaigner, a lot of energy—too much energy—the straight, white guy lane” is off base, says Eric Benson, a senior editor at Texas Monthly. O’Rourke doesn’t receive sufficient credit in the press for making headway against Cruz, an astute politician on the stump. “One thing people get wrong is they don’t give enough credit to Ted Cruz in the Beto story,” Benson explains. “They say Ted Cruz is an easy guy to hate. Ted Cruz is a good campaigner, he is really popular among Texas Republicans, and he knows how to make a lot of money.” Beating him was never going to be easy.

Of course, national reporters’ dizzying task grows with each new Democratic contender, and Texas reporters don’t envy them. “Being a part of local press removes us from that conversation, and I think that’s really good,” Livingston says. “I think it’s incredibly important for political reporters to get off Twitter and pay attention to what’s in front of us because when it starts influencing people’s voting decisions either way, that’s not constructive. I don’t think it’s the role of journalists to decide who can win before voters do.

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Susannah Jacob is a writer from Texas who lives in New York. She was an assistant speechwriter to President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017.