Democratic ‘death match’ for 2020 colors the truth

I bet that all Julian Castro wants for Christmas is for former congressman Beto O’Rourke to stay retired.

And I bet O’Rourke — an Irishman who speaks Spanish and does a decent impression of a Latino Democrat — would probably just as soon not run against a real one.

But now that Castro — a rising star who served as San Antonio mayor — has launched an exploratory committee for a presidential run in 2020, and O’Rourke is polling at the top of what will be a crowded field for the Democratic nomination, pundits are quick to put the two Texans on a collision course.

Observers assume that O’Rourke takes votes from Castro, and vice versa. So, Democrats have to choose between “Team Julian” or “Team Beto.”

As a columnist, objectivity is discouraged and bias is required. So let me put my bias on the table right off the bat.

I’ve known Castro for 16 years and I consider him a friend. Of course, as my other friends can tell you, that designation doesn’t spare you from being skewered now and then. I’ve criticized Castro’s decisions, like the one to accept President Barack Obama’s nomination to be U.S. secretary of housing and urban development. HUD is the cabinet’s version of the barrio, where presidents stick Latino superstars until they lose their luster. Castro is humble, authentic, calm, pragmatic and thoughtful in attacking problems. Still, I often find him too cautious, guarded and calculating for my taste — traits that have the effect of taking an intelligent and capable young man and making him appear to be something he is not: uninteresting.

Speaking of trying to be something you’re not, I think O’Rourke is guilty of cultural appropriation. Born Robert Francis O’Rourke, he was tagged “Beto” not by Latinos but by a white male — his father, who told reporters that he thought it would be politically advantageous for his son in a state like Texas, which is now about 39 percent Latino. O’Rourke became “Robert” at Columbia University, and reverted back to “Beto” when he came home to Texas. While his supporters insist that he doesn’t pretend to be Latino, the truth is that he doesn’t discourage those who want to believe he is Latino. And yet, before white audiences, he plays it straight with mainstream messaging. You could say O’Rourke wants to have his flan and eat it, too.But that doesn’t mean I’m on Team Julian.

O’Rourke has skills. He electrifies crowds, speaks plainly and grabs hold of thorny topics with both hands. He also raised $70 million running against Ted Cruz for the Senate seat in Texas this year — and even though he lost, he delivered one of the best showings in decades for a Democrat in a statewide race. Sure, he’s a novice. But look who’s in the White House.

Besides, as a Latino, I’m offended that this somehow wound up as the celebrity death match for Democrats in 2020.

Yes, this is a Latino thing. Ethnicity drives this showdown narrative. This media concoction of Julian vs. Beto is really just a contest to see who gets to avenge Donald Trump’s anti-Latino racism.

Oops. I said the “r-word.” Get over it.

Whether you’re a cable news host or president of the United States, just wanting to secure the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t, all by itself, racist. But wanting to secure it because you think what’s on the other side of that border is inferior to what’s on this side? Well, yeah, that fits the definition pretty well.

Back to the Democrats’ death match. Why is the media so determined to pit Castro against O’Rourke? Why not set up either of them to battle Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker or any one of the other nearly two dozen Democrats who are likely to vie for their party’s nomination?

A recent article floated the idea that Biden might consider O’Rourke as a running mate. But Castro and O’Rourke are automatically competitors? Color me suspicious. For some white liberals, O’Rourke might be just Latino enough — which is to say not at all. As a Latino politico recently told me, the failed Senate candidate is like that Mexican restaurant that white people gravitate to because the salsa isn’t too spicy and the chimichangas are acceptable.

That’s fine for some folks. You gotta eat. But I expect Latinos to know the real thing when they see it.