HOLLIS CROSSROADS — The man who brought the Confederate battle flag to the side of Interstate 20 now wants voters to send him to the U.S. Senate.
“Yes, I’m serious,” said Robert Castello, 67. “It’s not a game or anything.”
Castello is the owner of the Dixie General Store, a rural Cleburne County business that sells, mostly, Confederate battle flags and items embossed with the same. He’s best known for the flags and signs he’s placed in a field near Exit 191 on I-20 — and for his legal battle with state officials who say his display is in the state right-of-way and has to go.
Now another sign has joined that roadside display: “Castello for Senate.” Castello said he’s still working on paperwork to qualify with the Federal Election Commission, and he has yet to hold any sort of campaign kickoff. Right now his candidacy is known only to Castello, his customers, his neighbors — and everybody who takes the most direct route from Birmingham to Atlanta.
“We need some candidates who come from a normal background,” Castello said. “Not people who’ve been in office their whole life.”
He’s planning to run as a Republican, and if he qualifies, he’ll join a big club. FEC records show 10 GOP candidates already officially in the running in 2020, including former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, Rep. Bradley Byrne of Mobile and Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.
The Republican field is so crowded because on the other side awaits incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, who became Alabama’s first Democratic senator in a quarter-century. Jones squeaked out a narrow special election win against Moore in 2017, just weeks after several women levelled sexual misconduct allegations against the Republican former judge. Castello, like many Republicans, believes Jones’s re-election chances are slim.
“You always get a lot of competition for an open seat, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s an open seat,” Castello said.
It’s not Castello’s first run for office. He ran for Congress as a Republican in Georgia’s 9th Congressional District in 1994. It was a wave election for the GOP, though FEC records show Castello lost to then-Democrat Nathan Deal by a 16-point margin.
“Nathan Deal went on to become governor and I’m running the Dixie General Store,” Castello said.
Castello said he started the store several years ago after losing money in real estate during the 2008 economic crash. His name appears about two dozen times in foreclosure notices in the Anniston Star’s archives from 2009 and 2010 — a time when the classified ads were thick with foreclosure notices.
Since 2017, Castello has been in a legal battle with the Alabama Department of Transportation, which asked a judge to order him to remove flags and signs from the I-20 roadside, arguing that the display is in the right-of-way. Castello claims he’s being regulated because of the content of his signs.
“I’m a state’s rights guy,” Castello said. He said he believes in enforcing immigration rules, protecting speech and gun rights and traditional family values.
There may be little need for Castello to lay out a detailed platform, not when he runs a store full of right-wing political merchandise. Hanging in front of his store Monday, next to the rebel flags, was a banner bearing an image of Donald Trump riding a tank, and another featuring Trump drawn as a Rambo-like figure.
While he’s been vocal, it’s not clear that Castello has been involved in local GOP politics, at least at the local level. His name doesn’t ring a bell for Tracy Lambert, chairman of the Cleburne County Republican Party.
“I wouldn’t know him if I saw him,” Lambert said. He was quick to note that U.S. Senate candidates don’t have to file anything with the local party.
In 2016, 87 percent of Cleburne County residents cast their ballot for Trump.