Is Julian Castro the Answer to Democrats’ Prayers?

San Antonio mayor rises to national prominence with convention speech.
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PHOTO SOURCE FACEBOOK.COM/MAYORJULIANCASTRO
Julian Castro

It’s three days before San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is set to deliver the keynote address on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, and he steps into the community center at St. Paul Catholic Church to rousing cheers.

A recording of The Texas Tornados’ “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” blares. Children wave glittery homemade political posters saying “Don’t Mess with Castro” and “Making Texas Proud.” Together with his twin brother, Joaquin, the young mayor squeezes through a throng of well-wishers and back-slappers.

The folks who turned out for this breakfast tacos and coffee send-off party are feeling they are taking part in history. They believe in the not-too-distant-future they’ll tell the story of how Castro left San Antonio a mayor and came back a major national political figure on track for the White House.

These are Castro’s people. This is the parish where the Castros attend mass. The Catholic Church is located just few blocks away from Jefferson High School, where the two graduated. It’s a mucho majority Hispanic neighborhood, hosting a mix of middle class and working-poor families. This is the community where the two grew up and grew into politics. Julian represented the neighborhood on city council and it’s within Joaquin’s state house district. And now Joaquin is heavily favored to represent the area in Congress.

But this is Julian’s day. “I promise you—I won’t be talking to an empty chair on the stage,” Julian tells the crowd from the community hall stage.

Immediately after the event the twins grab their flight to Charlotte, where a much bigger stage awaits. Tuesday night, Joaquin gets 90 seconds to introduce his brother to a national audience before Julian makes his keynote speech.

To prepare for the keynote speech Castro’s team rented a ballroom at the El Tropicano hotel downtown and bought a teleprompter. Julian practiced delivering the speech and getting used to the prompter, which he’s never used before. He normally speaks without notes or even talking points.

He’ll have to adapt to the teleprompter. Castro is often talked about—especially among Texas Democrats—as the next big thing in the national Democratic Party. He will be in the media spotlight. Any gaffe now has the potential to become national news. And Castro said he knows that. “The currency of partisan politics is the politics of personal destruction. It’s inevitable,” he said. Republicans will find plenty of material in his record to go after.

He’s been a business-friendly mayor who’s promoted solar energy and a new economy based around renewable energy. But he’s now pushing a pre-kindergarten initiative that, depending on your point of view, is a refreshingly ambitious proposal to educate kids or a big government tax-and-spend scheme.

There’s little doubt that Castro represents Texas Democrats’ best hope in years to not only recapture some power in the state but send a star to Washington. On Tuesday night, we’ll begin to find out if he can live up to it.

 

Of course, not everyone in San Antonio is enamored with Castro. “All you need to know about Castro is he’s a typical know-it-all tax-and-spend liberal,” said San Antonio Tea Party leader George Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said that Castro and his brother are both tremendously ambitious. “They are literally being groomed, just like Mr. Obama was, for higher office.”

Rodriguez foreshadows where the anti-Castro jabs from conservatives will fall by offering further unflattering comparisons to Obama. “There’s a similarity between being raised in a non-traditional home and being mentored by radicals. And the Castros were raised by their mother Rosie, who was a member of the Raza Unida Party, which was very, very radical.”

The extent of Raza Unida’s radicalism is a matter of opinion. Castro defends the movement saying “encouraging people to vote is not radical. It’s democracy.”

In the 1970’s Raza Unida was known for shattering racial barriers in Texas when Latinos were subjected to Jim Crow-like oppression. The party organized to put Latinos on the ballot for the first time in many communities, mounted voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts while also campaigning for better housing, work, and educational opportunities for Mexican-Americans.

And during those days, Rosie Castro was out front. She was known for frequently wearing a button that read “By any means necessary.” And during those marches and long, dull meetings at her feet there were those two little boys.

Rosie laid the foundation for the Castro twins’ progressive impulses with her involvement with Raza Unida. She had been the Bexar County party chair. In 1971 she ran for city council with the Raza Unida’s Committee for Barrio Betterment. A poster from that failed campaign is framed and hangs in the mayor’s office.

Nevertheless, Raza Unida was tame compared to other movements of the age and eventually was absorbed into the Texas Democratic Party.

But despite his opposition to Castro, Rodriguez grudgingly predicts that he’ll hit a “home run,” with the convention speech and “the main press will fawn over him and you’ll be hearing wonderful things about him.”

 

It was another 100-degrees-plus afternoon on July 31 when Castro walked in to the trendy La Gloria Mexican restaurant on the San Antonio Riverwalk. News had just broke he was giving the DNC keynote and he needed to give the media some remarks and facetime.

The restaurant had the energy of a high-powered pachanga. In addition to the Castro friends, family and hangers-on, it was full of customers who just wanted some tacos for lunch and waiters squeezing through the crowd to get to their tables. A row of TV cameras and reporters jockeyed for position while waiting for Castro. “I hope the convention is better organized than this press conference,” one frustrated member of the media grumbled.

At one table right in front of the action was Castro’s mom, Rosie. “We are not just excited for the family and for the city but also by the fact that he is the first Latino to have this honor,” she said.

When Julian entered the restaurant with his wife Erica at his side, the clanking of plates, cross talk and overhead piped-in music stopped and the crowd broke into cheers and applause.

“It’s a great honor to be able to speak at the Democratic National Convention—particularly because I’ll be going in on behalf of a president who is a great leader for the United States of America,” Castro told the crowd—already demonstrating he understands his new job as a campaign surrogate: turn every sentence into an opportunity to heap praise on the big dog.

It’s a role that Castro accepts willingly for now. He knows his job is to get Obama re-elected. And then later, if all goes well with the keynote, someday it could be his turn.

But jumping straight from mayor to president? That’s never going to happen. There has to be a step in between. And it’s called “governor.”

However, in a state where the Democrats have been on a statewide losing streak since 1994, getting the keys to the governor’s mansion appears virtually impossible. But the state’s demographics are shifting. Democrats hope that a charismatic Latino politician with a proven business-friendly track record could have what it takes to break the party’s losing streak.

 

Before the news broke that Castro would deliver the keynote, the young rising Latino political star had already been thoroughly vetted by the DNC and the Obama campaign.

And he was sent to “Camp Obama,” where he spent several intense days being schooled on the administration’s policies.

Even though Castro, for the most part, isn’t a national political figure, Obama figured that casting him in this role would accomplish a number of goals, including appealing to the much-needed Latino voting bloc.

But Castro wasn’t an automatic lock for the plum assignment. The decision makers were also considering Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard University professor, consumer advocate and Massachusetts Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate.

Eventually the final decision on Castro’s role in Charlotte had to come from one person—President Obama himself. It’s an important decision. Castro’s speech could not only cement him as a rising star, but also contribute to how the theatrical national political convention in Charlotte is perceived by voters and pundits.

In the speech Castro will be highlighting his own family’s story pursuing the American Dream. His grandmother was an orphan from Mexico, came to San Antonio, and worked menial jobs to survive. Her daughter, Rosie, received a college degree and had twin boys. They went through the San Antonio public school system, then to Stanford and Harvard and are now in positions to build a more egalitarian system.

Castro‘s DNC speech should also set a positive tone for the convention. He will highlight job creation (San Antonio has been a national bright spot for jobs thanks to drilling in the Eagle Ford shale and to military spending. His speech will also hit on another Obama favorite—a green-energy economy (San Antonio’s city owned utility, CPS Energy, is a leader in solar and wind development) while also telling a compelling personal story of upward mobility—much like Obama’s own life story.

There was some concern in the Castro camp that the presidential reelection campaign would demand hurling of red meat to the left-wing faithful, which isn’t Castro’s style. But apparently the DNC wasn’t looking for Gov. Ann Richards-style barbs. So don’t expect Castro to crack wise with jokes about Mitt Romney’s tax returns or strapping a dog to the top of the family’s car.

He watched the Republican National Convention coverage and said he will have a more positive tone.

“I know what I want to say, and I’m going to say that on Tuesday, and I think that’s going to resonate with the American people,” he said.

 

Castro may be a mystery to many Democrats outside Texas, but he was not an unknown to Obama. Castro had already signed up to be a co-chair of the Obama re-election campaign. Earlier this year, Castro was invited to sit in Michelle Obama’s box during the State of the Union.

Castro and Obama first came face to face in December 2008 when the newly elected mayor was invited to a White House summit on creating green jobs. When it was Castro’s turn to speak, Obama stopped him and said “I thought you were one of our interns,” according to a New York Times Magazine account. The room of officials burst into laughter, but Castro kept his cool and introduced himself.

“I’m just messing with you. I know who you are,” Obama replied.

At 37 years old, Castro is young for a mayor of a major American city, and with his slight frame and baby-faced features he looks even younger.

He looked even younger during his first campaign for mayor in 2005. The headquarters was at the corner of Mulberry and Broadway in San Antonio—next to an old mini-amusement business called Kiddie Park. Some gadflies would snicker that Castro looked so young that his campaign was an extension of Kiddie Park and he still didn’t look old enough to ride the big kids’ rides there.

Castro had just wrapped up serving on city council and was expected to easily win that race. But he lost in a run-off shocker to Phil Hardberger. The plucky former judge with a West Texas drawl was able to position himself as a more business-friendly leader and pin down Castro as too young and liberal to run the city. But a lot of the credit for the win should go to Hardberger’s crafty campaign manager, Christian Archer.

It was during that campaign that Archer first met the Castros. Now he’s frequently at their side.

Sandy haired and scrappy, Archer was born into Texas politics. His father worked for President Lyndon Johnson. While the Archer family was in Washington D.C. Christian was born but the father made certain that a box of soil from the family’s farm in Liberty County was under the hospital bed. That way the boy would be born a Texan.

He grew up going to White House Easter Egg rolls and talking politics. And Archer has managed political campaigns across Texas most notably Bill White’s run for mayor of Houston. But it was after Hardberger’s first mayoral victory that he saw his political future, the Castros.

Days after the run-off Archer was leaving Mi Tierra Mexican restaurant in downtown San Antonio and he ran into the Castro twins.

He thought they were going to cuss him out but instead they invited him to the table and eagerly quizzed him. They wanted to know everything they had done wrong.

A bargain was struck. Archer would become the combative political general for Castro. Today he’s his chief political strategist. And if Castro does break “the streak,” then Archer will be due much of the credit.

Julian Castro did not challenge Hardberger for his second term. He sat out the four years and got a little bit of needed age on him, made some money practicing law and built a network of supporters in the local business community.

In that sense, his loss in his first run for mayor might have been the best thing that ever happened to Castro.

During his second term as mayor, Hardberger managed to pass new, more relaxed term limits. Mayors are now eligible for four two-year terms. Without that change Castro wouldn’t be on such sure political footing and ready to launch.

In 2009 Castro won his second attempt for mayor with 56 percent of the vote—making him the fifth Mexican-American mayor in San Antonio’s modern history. Running for re-election in 2011 Castro captured nearly 82 percent of the vote. And he’ll be eligible to run again in 2013 and in 2015.

“I’m going to be in San Antonio as long as the voters will have me,” Castro said. “If I do a great job then as my tenure comes to an end then I’ll look at what’s possible.”

If Castro decides to run for governor, he’ll need to make his move in 2014, or else wait until 2018.

But it’s clear that Castro isn’t playing it safe while mayor. Some of his initiatives have fallen flat like his attempt to push a personal slate of candidates on the troubled San Antonio Independent School District. Castro managed to get only one elected but made some political enemies in the process.

And on November 6th he could be taking the biggest political gamble of his career.

The stakes will be huge for Castro on Election Day. He will be watching three sets of returns that Tuesday night: the presidential race, his brother’s congressional bid, and one of his own initiatives. Called “Pre-K 4 SA,” voters will decide whether to approve a one-eighth of a cent sales tax increase that will pay for a city-wide pre-K program.

The proposal stems from Castro’s SA2020 plan that he launched when first elected mayor. Castro held public meetings folks to voice their vision for San Antonio. The result was a laundry list of what cynics would call slices of pie-in-the sky: creating high tech jobs, reinvigorating downtown, fast-tracking rapid transit, celebrating the arts, kick-starting the green economy and fixing the drop-out problem, just to name a few of the lofty goals.

Castro began looking for ways to achieve these expensive goals. Last May, amid an anti-government mood, San Antonio voters overwhelmingly approved $600 million in bonds to pay for streets, drainage and parks improvements as well as infrastructure upgrades that would support a downtown streetcar system.

Soon after that victory Castro announced “Pre-K 4 SA.” The plan would generate roughly $30 million a year to help put nearly 5,000 four-year-olds through quality full-day pre-kindergarten classes.

Castro said that despite federal Head Start programs and half-day pre-K programs offered in some local schools, there are thousands of children across San Antonio that would benefit from new, city-backed education centers.

Under the proposal the city would contract with school districts and charter schools to provide the classes. The city would track outcomes to ensure the classes aren’t just a glorified daycare. The proponents want the students to be prepped and ready to read when they hit first grade. The logic is that if a student isn’t reading by 3rd grade they are essentially lost and will be forever struggling academically. Put another way, you can use third grade reading scores to figure out how many prison beds you’ll need in the future.

On August 9th Castro was able to secure a unanimous vote from the city council to put Pre-K 4 SA on the Nov. 6 ballot, even though three of the council members are more than slightly critical of the proposal.

Once again Archer is providing the strategic consulting for the Pre-K 4 SA campaign. He and Castro know that the passage of the tax increase will prove that the mayor is capable of doing big things, building a broad consensus with progressives and business leaders, while also finding innovative solutions for complex problems.

This would be a record of success that would come in handy during a future statewide campaign.