OGDEN — As a child and into his teen years, he gathered onions and cherries in the fields of northern Utah, tough but necessary work to help his poor family make ends meet.
Later, Lee Castillo‘s dad booted him out of the family’s Layton home. They would reconcile, but Castillo learned early on that if he were to make something of himself, it would have to come from within.
“I thought to myself — ‘Am I going to allow somebody else to define my existence ... somebody to pick my path for me?’ — and the answer was no. I went to school and I got scholarships,” Castillo said.
Now, he’s the Democratic nominee for the 1st District seat in the U.S. House race, hoping to unseat eight-term GOP incumbent Rob Bishop. It may be a long-shot — Castillo, 41, is Latino, gay and a Democrat, typically not the winning political combination in most parts of conservative Utah. But that’s not stopping him.
“I think I’m going to win. Absolutely,” said Castillo, seated in a room at the Marshall White Center in Ogden, family and a few supporters on hand at the end of a recent campaign event.
He’s a counterpoint to what he sees as the mean-spirited rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump targeting Latinos, the disabled, prisoners of war and Bishop’s measured response. “Congressman Bishop kind of shakes his head at things Trump says. We don’t need somebody who shakes their head; we need somebody to take action and reaffirm the people in our community, that there’s somebody standing up for them,” Castillo said.
Indeed, he sees himself as a champion of the underdog — Latinos, seniors on fixed incomes, the working poor and others — and sounds an optimistic message of hope. “We want to make sure that everybody has opportunity. People can dream and hope and it’s alive,” he said. “When people try to kill that, like the statements that are coming from Washington, we need to counteract that with not just words, but love and caring.”
This is Castillo’s first bid for public office and his is a shoestring campaign. He’s raised only about $9,000, a far cry from the $845,000 Bishop had generated through the end of June, a big chunk from political action committees and special-interest groups representing varied business sectors. But Castillo uses the contrast to sound his people-first message and suggests that Bishop is beholden to the donors giving him money, an accusation the incumbent rejects.
“As a social worker, my special interest is people. I want to focus on improving the lives of our people in our community,” Castillo said.
As for the issues, he favors health care for everybody and a pathway to citizenship for younger immigrants brought illegally to the United States by their parents, known as “Dreamers.” Defending farmers, too, is a priority.
Also vying for the 1st District post are Eric Eliason of the United Utah Party and Adam Davis of the Green Party. The 1st District covers Weber County, northern Davis County and eight other counties of northern and northeastern Utah.
‘SOME NEGATIVE STUFF’
That he would eventually be a U.S. House hopeful may not have seemed apparent when he was growing up in the Layton area, where he still lives. His parents had come to the area from South Texas, drawn by jobs working the beet and other ag fields of the area. From the age of 5, Castillo says, he pitched in, laboring over the weekends and summers.
“It was absolutely terrible... We were working for the family to help pay for the bills, the lights, the food, the rent. We never saw the money,” he said. “Siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. There was at least three generations out there working.”
Years later, his sexuality would create new challenges, and Castillo hints that it figured in the move by his dad, an “old-school Catholic”, to boot him from the family home. “There was some negative stuff. He had said words and I believed them. Our society had said words and these mean things, and you start believing what everybody else says,” he said.
Religion — he’s now a non-denominational Christian — helped him through his tough times. “My relationship with God is my priority ... that’s where I get my strength from,” he said.
He defeated Kurt Weiland in the June Democratic primary and now splits time between campaigning and his job as a mental health therapist, work that seems to inspire his greatest passion.
Lack of Medicaid funding prevents many from getting the psychotropic medications they need, he said. That, in turn, leads those without their meds to engage in criminal activity and jail time, creating a larger public burden than what it would have cost to boost Medicaid funding to provide help earlier on. As such, he says “a single-payer option is doable” in providing health care — something that assures that everybody has coverage.
“Portable health care for everybody. It shouldn’t just be for people who can afford it. It should be for everybody,” Castillo said.
He opposed the Trump administration’s decision to scale back the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in southern Utah, a controversial moved backed by Bishop.
The ag sector, maybe not surprisingly given his roots, also figures big on Castillo’s radar screen. Area farmers aren’t able to find the field labor they need and the Democrat proposes an amped up worker-visa program to let immigrants legally fill the posts.
“It’s not a secret, we have people here that are undocumented ... why would we not provide them an opportunity to work?” he said, noting the taxes they’d pay and the local economic spin-off that would result.
Related to that, he favors a pathway to citizenship for those who tap into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which gives younger undocumented immigrants a means to remain in the country lawfully.
“I think we need to create that pathway to citizenship for people who are wanting to contribute,” he said. “And by all means, I’m not saying open borders ... I’m talking about hardworking people.”
Beyond specific issues, though, much of his focus is on what he believes to be Bishop’s distant leadership, a desire for a closer connection with constituents at the grassroots level.
“He’s disconnected with the people here. And they want someone who is connected, who has experience helping people fill out Medicaid forms, feeding homeless people, working in the jails, knowing what it’s like, what poverty looks like and how policies can actually help get people out of poverty,” Castillo said.