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When Julian Castro was Barack Obama's secretary of HUD, he had a chance to strike a major blow for housing desegregation. Instead, he went in the tank.
When Julian Castro was Barack Obama's secretary of HUD, he had a chance to strike a major blow for housing desegregation. Instead, he went in the tank.
Gage Skidmore

If Julian Castro Is Running for President, He Should Stop Running Away From Dallas

Looks like former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary Julian Castro is really running for president in 2020. Great. Maybe now HUD will show me those documents it's been promising for a year and a half.

It’s simple. If he’s going to run for president under the Democratic flag, then Castro needs to clear the decks on what he did to Dallas when he was at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This isn’t me making a mountain of my personal molehill. This is simple political physics.

From Castro’s days as America’s youngest mayor of a big city to his tenure as Barack Obama’s housing secretary, he has consistently declared racial desegregation of housing in America to be an important verse in his personal battle hymn. How could he not? He’s a Democrat.

But saying it and doing it are two very different things. Housing is the brick wall the American civil rights movement finally ran into. All Democrats say they’re for housing integration, but when you start talking about putting federally subsidized housing into middle-class or, God forbid, affluent white areas, the better-off and whiter Democrats start shuffling for the exits with their eyes down and hands in their pockets.

So where did Castro come down when he had a chance to make a difference? Under federal law, HUD doesn’t just have the right to use its $50 billion annual budget to spur desegregation. The law obligates HUD to cut off funding to cities that refuse to adopt policies furthering fair housing.

In 2013, Dallas was square at the center of those crosshairs. A four-year probe by federal investigators had just concluded that Dallas had taken hundreds of millions in federal dollars intended for desegregation over a period of 10 years. Instead of using that money for what the law required, the investigation found, Dallas had devoted a major share of its HUD funding to support a policy of deliberate racial segregation in the redevelopment of  downtown.

During most of the years of the investigation, Obama’s secretary of HUD was Shawn Donovan, a former New York City housing official. Correspondence produced as part of discovery in a lawsuit revealed later that civil rights organizations around the country were closely watching the Dallas matter, even writing to Donovan to warn of efforts to derail the investigation.

Also revealed in discovery: In 2013, a top HUD career official sent a back-channel message to lawyers for two real estate developers whose complaints had spurred the federal investigation, warning them of intense pressure within HUD to kill the Dallas action.

And that’s exactly what happened shortly after Donovan left HUD and Castro was sworn in as Obama’s new secretary in July 2014. Castro tossed the entire four-year work product, dismissing the investigation as ill-advised and poorly executed. He later authorized a face-saving wrist-slap for Dallas that kept federal funds flowing and imposed no hard requirements on the city to mend its ways. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, publicly thanked Castro for coming to the city’s rescue.

My battle with HUD, now going into its second year, is for documents dealing with the Castro/Rawlings settlement. HUD’s internal counsel agreed at one point that I had a right to see what I had asked to see. HUD’s public affairs staff even offered to arrange an appointment when I could visit HUD regional offices in Fort Worth and review the documents. That was a year and a half ago. Apparently, we are still in the arranging phase because I have never seen the documents.

Of course, anybody in Castro’s position as head of a vast federal agency will be drawn into countless lawsuits and local political rhubarbs all over the nation, almost none of which are dispositive of the person’s larger political character. I think this one is different. Castro makes it even more different by reaching so high.

Last December, R.G Ratcliffe did a prescient piece for Texas Monthly, a month or more ahead of the pack, as Ratcliffe tends to be, predicting Castro’s path toward 2020. Ratcliffe’s piece suggested that Castro is really running for vice president, except you can’t say you’re running for vice president in this country without looking like a loser, so Castro will claim that he’s throwing in his hat for president. In the meantime, Castro completes this rather unheroic pose by refusing to admit he’s running for anything.

But he has formed a national political action committee that he says will be devoted to raising money to assist local and state Democratic candidates across the country, with a focus on young minority leaders. The political observers quoted in Ratcliffe’s piece and elsewhere all say this is a fairly garden-variety ploy to get his name up and build a base of loyal insider support.

So this is where I get to the political physics. We should all devoutly hope, even in the time of Trumpophobia, that voters will ask why they should vote for a Democrat in general and why a young minority Democrat in particular. We should also devoutly hope there will be a good answer. That answer should have to do with knitting the nation back together after a scary period of tribal turmoil. But healing wounds is hard work. Stitching flesh back together after it has been ripped apart is not for the faint of heart.

Castro was in a position to do just that at HUD. He was granted a rare opportunity on the national stage to show his mettle. Had HUD forged ahead with the recommendations in its letter of findings on Dallas, the Dallas case would have been an unmistakable signal to the rest of the country’s big cities that the days of waffling and covert side deals at HUD were over and that HUD finally meant business on racial desegregation of housing.

Maybe Castro has a good story to tell about the Dallas deal. But let me ask you something. If he has such a good story to tell, why has it been a year and a half since HUD agreed to show me the documents I asked for, and I still haven’t seen them?

It’s not clear yet what difference, if any, the Trump administration has made at HUD. Secretary Ben Carson’s one big play, an attempt to delay implementation of an Obama desegregation initiative, was nixed two weeks ago by a federal judge. Judge Beryl A. Howell in the District of Columbia ruled that Carson’s two-year delay was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the rule put in effect. None of that affects what happened here.

The Castro/Dallas story is still sitting somewhere in a stack of file boxes that I can only hope have not yet been shredded, and even if they have, the questions remain. Julian Castro why? Julian Castro for what?

In fact, while we’re at it, Democrats why? Democrats for what? Anybody can promise. Let’s see what they actually did when they had a chance in Dallas.

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