It was 2 a.m., and Maya Rupert was famished.
Hours earlier, Julián Castro’s campaign manager, surrounded by eager journalists, had watched her candidate wrap up his first Democratic presidential debate and walk into the spin room. “He was mobbed,” Rupert recalled — with reporters from all backgrounds trying to get a few minutes with the presidential candidate that The New York Times said “won the night.”
She didn’t need the Times to tell her that. She had watched his entire performance and prepped with him beforehand. Before Castro’s team landed in Miami, Rupert knew Castro would double down on his immigration policy, address racial inequality and close with an “Adiós to Donald Trump” zinger — a half-joking nod to what Castro says he’d say to the president on Jan. 20, 2021, should he get elected to the White House — that elicited cheers from the studio audience.
But after the swarm of media had dispersed, Rupert went to her room. Her stomach wouldn’t let her relax; she was still anxious and felt nauseated from unrelenting hunger pangs that had hounded her since breakfast that morning. She went to a nearby CVS — “it was the only place that was open,” she said, laughing, “and I was just trying to get food” — and selected her meal for the night, a ham and cheese Lunchables, when Castro coincidentally entered the same store.
“Hey, Maya,” Castro said wryly, sans the tie he wore on the debate stage but still polished from the back-to-back media hits he had concluded just minutes before. “What did you think?”
All Rupert remembers doing next is screaming and giving him a hug.
“It was exactly what I wanted,” she told The Texas Tribune of Castro’s debate performance weeks later. “It was people getting a real chance to see his passion on the issues that he talks about. … It was great. It was really, really great.”
But Castro’s pivotal debate performance was momentous for Rupert, too. She has never spearheaded a political campaign, let alone a presidential one. And as one of the few black women ever tapped to be a presidential campaign manager, she knows there’s a lot riding on her shoulders. Not only does she have to help convince people to elect her candidate, but she’s gunning to prove that she’s the one who can help make it happen.
Her candidate’s breakout moment that evening — which led to glowing headlines and a hefty bump in campaign contributions — was just one step toward doing that.
Still, Rupert knows her job isn’t easy. She’s still not managing a frontrunner’s campaign — an underdog sentiment Castro, too, hasn’t shied away from embracing. On the night he took the debate stage, he was clustered alongside other Democratic dark horses, save for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. He’ll be on another debate stage Wednesday night and needs a similarly strong performance to continue his momentum.
But Rupert knows her candidate’s polling numbers and less-than-stellar fundraising hauls won’t suffice as excuses if she falls flat — especially not for someone who looks like she does.
Her candidate is under a similar strain, Rupert said. As a person of color, he’s expected to exude authenticity with his Latino heritage (which, in Castro’s case, she said, may mean drilling down on immigration policy more than his white counterparts or speaking Spanish on the campaign trail) while also maintaining a squeaky clean presidential image.
Then Rupert put it bluntly: People of color don’t get an opportunity to “fail up,” she said. “We don’t get to screw up a little bit and then still end up where we are.”
While their long-shot status has put pressure on both their backs, it has also tethered the two together. It’s what makes Rupert and Castro such a unique duo: The former is a campaign rookie and the third black woman tapped to run a presidential campaign, behind Donna Brazile with Al Gore and Maggie Williams with Hillary Clinton. The latter is trying to become the first Latino president in U.S. history.
“It was not a foregone conclusion that I was going to be working for a candidate in 2020, and the question was for whom,” she said. “This is him.
“I’m doing this because it’s him.”
“We were just in sync”
“This story has been edited for length.”