When 10 Democratic candidates for president take the debate stage Wednesday night, Julián Castro will not be among them.
However, not qualifying for the fifth primary debate did not stop Castro from traveling to Atlanta.
On Tuesday night, the former housing and urban development secretary spoke at Paschal's — the historic restaurant known as the “kitchen of the civil rights movement.”
Castro appeared with political commentator and podcast host Angela Rye in a room lined with photos of civil rights leaders and full of more than 100 attendees.
As Castro spoke on topics such as election security, affordable housing, poverty and who he thinks is the best rapper of all time (Tupac), a portrait of Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, hung on the wall behind him.
“We’re at a very crucial moment in our campaign, I’m not going to be on that debate stage tomorrow,” Castro said.
Still, Castro said he’s confident his campaign has contributed to the dialogue in the primary.
“If they talk about police reform, it’s because we brought it up first. ... If they talk about communities that need things as basic as clean water, it may be because I went to Flint first in this 2020 cycle,” he said.
He also waded into local and state politics, saying he thinks Stacey Abrams “deserves to be governor.”
While the venue was certainly more intimate than the fanfare of a debate stage, for some attendees, that was part of the appeal.
Atlanta resident Krystel Edwards, 26, said she had wanted to attend the debate, but she felt like it would be infeasible for her. Still, she’s making an effort to hear from candidates while they’re in town.
“I want to actually see the candidates and connect with them,” Edwards said. “A lot of times you see them on TV and you wonder, are they who they say they are?”
Edwards, who moved to Atlanta from New York in January, said she’s undecided on who she’ll vote for next November, but she said she wants to hear from candidates on health care, education, jobs and gun control.
Wednesday night, she’s likely to hear about those topics from many candidates when she plans to stream the debate on YouTube. But on the eve of the big event, she first heard from Castro.
Some attendees said they came to see Rye. And others expressed frustration with the party’s requirements to qualify for the debate stage.
In a fundraising email in September, Castro said he would suspend his campaign if he didn’t qualify for the debate in Atlanta.
"If I can't make the next debate stage, we cannot sustain a campaign that can make it to Iowa in February," he formerly told supporters, referencing the Iowa caucuses, which will be the first major test for the primary candidates.
Despite not meeting his own benchmark, Castro remains in the race for now.
Castro has previously had some breakout moments on the debate stage. Most notably, in September’s debate in Ohio, Castro strongly criticized former Vice President Joe Biden.
However, while the moment drew him some time in the headlines, the bump wasn’t reflected in the polls.
In order to qualify for the debate, candidates had to meet a number of polling and fundraising criteria set by the Democratic National Committee.
Castro, who met the mark on donors, failed to make enough headway in the polls in order to secure a spot on stage at Tyler Perry Studios on Wednesday night.
In order to qualify, candidates had to come in at 3% or higher in four state or national polls or 5% or higher in two polls in early voting states.
Candidates also had to have 165,000 individual donors, with a minimum of 600 unique donors in 20 states. The criteria had to be met at least a week prior to the debate, according to the DNC.
For the debate in Atlanta, 10 candidates met the threshold.
Those candidates are: former Vice President Joe Biden; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris; U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders; billionaire activist Tom Steyer; U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
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