Julián Castro: Is The "Latino Obama" Ready For The National Stage?

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro at his office.Jordan Fabian/Univision
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro at his office.

SAN ANTONIO – Politics runs in Mayor Julián Castro's blood, but he didn't always like it that way. When his twin brother Joaquín and he were boys, they were constantly at the side of their mother Rosie, a leader in the Chicano movement here in San Antonio.

"They came with me to all the gatherings, and all the marches, the César Chávez marches, the elections. Whenever I was able to bring them, I brought them," she said in Spanish. Did they enjoy going to those marches when they were young?

"No, no, no," she replied. "No les gustaba. Se quejaban (They did not like it, they complained)."

Castro, 37, shed that attitude long ago. On Tuesday, he will deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. It is undoubtedly the biggest speech of his life, and as the first Latino ever to keynote the Democratic convention; many view him as a rising star in the party who could one day seek the presidency.

In choosing Castro, Democrats see in him shades of President Obama. As a little-known Illinois state senator who was running for U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama gave the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston, launching his national political career. Castro made direct comparison to that event in an Obama campaign video announcing his selection in late July.

"Being the keynote speaker at the convention this year is an honor I don't take lightly," Castro said. "I know I've got some big shoes to fill. Two conventions ago, the keynote speaker was a guy named Barack Obama."

Like Obama was eight years ago, Castro isn't a household name. So, who is this man? And is he ready for his moment in the spotlight?

His mother's child

Castro's personal background shares distinct similarities with that of the president. A single mother raised him and he took advantage of affirmative action admissions policies to attend the nation's top institutions of higher education. Castro graduated from Stanford University before earning a law degree from Harvard, the same law school that the president attended.

The Castros grew up in San Antonio's west side, a relatively poor neighborhood that remains heavily Latino. Their father, activist Jesse Guzman, and their mother, a schoolteacher, separated when the kids were just eight years old. Rosie Castro raised her two children with the help of her mother, a Mexican immigrant who dropped out of elementary school and worked as a maid, a cook, and a babysitter. The year that Julián and Joaquín matriculated at Stanford, their mother made less than $20,000.

They relied on student loans, scholarships, and part time jobs to get through school as college students. There is little question that Castro's mother is the most influential figure in his life. Hanging prominently on his office wall is a poster from his mother's 1971 run for city council as a member of the Raza Unida party, which vociferously fought for civil rights of Mexican-Americans in Texas in part by fielding Latino candidates to run for office against politicians from mainstream parties.

"Even though I grew up and I didn't always like getting dragged to the meetings or the rallies or the speeches, I developed a very strong respect for participating in a democratic process," Julián said. "She's the biggest reason that Joaquín [a state representative] and I decided to go in the public service."

But he names others who influenced him on the way as well: Bobby Kennedy, César Chávez, and controversial former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Castro counts Cisneros as a trusted friend and says that his promise inspired him as a kid growing up in San Antonio in the 1980s and 1990s. "He did such a good job as mayor of the city, the first Latino elected of a major American city, that was very exciting back then," Castro said.

(Full disclosure: Cisneros serves on the board of directors of Univision, having previously served as CEO). After Julián left San Antonio, he was bitten by the political bug. During law school, Castro already had his sights set on winning a city council seat in his hometown. He held a fundraiser and collected $2,000 from his classmates for his campaign during his final year at Harvard, the San Antonio Express-News reported in 2009.

The other driving force in Julián Castro's life is his twin brother Joaquín, who is younger than the mayor by exactly one minute. Joaquín has a budding political career of his own. He has served as a state representative since 2002, but is now running for Congress. The younger Castro is likely to win his race in November; it is in a safe Democratic district.

As children, the two shared a bedroom and a healthy sibling rivalry. Julían said that during his childhood, he rooted for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles simply because his brother was a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.

"Growing up, we were very competitive. We were actually competitive in school, competitive in sports. He was a little bit better in school, and I was a little bit better in sports," Joaquín said.

Always pushing each other to compete, Julían says that his brother helped him become the person he is today.

"In the end, the, the result of that was that we became better at both [school and sports]," he said. "So, I was really fortunate in that sense that that we had a good upbringing."

A new political outlook

While Castro may have gotten his political inspiration from his activist mother, his style is much more Ivy League.

"My mother came up when there were definitely very, very many reasons to try and get out there and protest and to try and beat the door down," he said. "But one of the blessings of my generation is that their struggles have helped move America forward and we're the beneficiaries of that."

While he comes across as friendly, he has a quiet, analytical persona; the opposite of another prominent Latino politician — Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) — who still likes to "beat the door down."

In that sense, Castro is like Obama as well, a minority politician who also has appeal beyond his own community. "The destiny of the Latino community is interwoven with the destiny of the United States," he said.

When asked about what's the best way for members of the Latino community to combat Arizona-style immigration laws, Castro gives a pragmatic response rather than an emotional one. Instead of getting angry and demonstrating, "the best way to address that is to participate in the democratic process," he says.

While the concept of a national Latino political leader has proven to be elusive over time, Castro's hometown of San Antonio is a place where Latinos have long played a prominent role in politics. A city of 1.3 million, it has grown to become the seventh-largest city in the U.S. It's a major population center for Mexican-Americans, over 60 percent of city residents are Latino, and it was the front line of many civil rights battles in the 1960s and 1970s over matters like bilingual education.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D), who represents sections of San Antonio's west side, including Castro's childhood home, says that he and Castro benefited from those fights, but have a slightly different outlook than their predecessors.

"The future of statewide leaders in the state of Texas [is] pro-business Hispanics. But people who also have never forgotten their history when it comes to civil and social justice," he says.

San Antonio's city government structure is such that Castro doesn't have as much power as other big city mayors. A city manager takes care of the day-to-day-management. But Castro has worked to define his own policy agenda. He's positioned himself as pro-business and pro-free trade, but he stresses his biggest priority is education.

His main priority now is a 1/8-cent sales tax increase that would fund full-day public pre-K classes, an initiative targeted to aid the city's low-income families. The measure passed the city council earlier this month and will have to be ratified by city residents in a November ballot initiative to take effect.

"The number one way that we can address these long-term challenges of poverty, of education is to invest in early childhood education. So I'm trying to stretch sometimes the role of a mayor to address those fundamental challenges that we still have as a community," he said.

The measure has positioned him as an ideological analog to Republicans, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who enacted major education cuts last year including $200 million from full-day pre-K programs.

He's also been a strong proponent of gay rights. He served as the grand marshal of San Antonio's gay-pride parade in 2009 and worked to approve domestic partner benefits for city employees in same-sex relationships.

While gay rights have become a mainstream position in the national Democratic Party, that hasn't always been the case for the older generation of Latino Democrats, who identify strongly as Roman Catholics and tend to hold more socially conservative views.

But the biggest symbol of his status of a "new generation" of Latino leaders might be the fact he does not speak Spanish. That's not uncommon in San Antonio's Latino community, but it is for a national Latino political leader. His mother says she is the reason he does not know the language; she spoke to him only in English as a child. Castro is trying to learn the Spanish now (he can understand interview questions asked in Spanish and speaks some phrases), and acknowledges it could help his political career if he knew the language better.

"Sí. Es — es importante y es — da beneficio hablar español," he said.

Castro has been on the White House's radar almost since he was first elected mayor in 2009. That year, he attended a economic forum at the White House. As he began to speak, Obama interjected "I thought he was an intern. This guy's a mayor?"

When Castro broke through the laughter to identify himself, Obama replied: "I know who you are." He sat in the guest box of First Lady Michelle Obama at last year's State of the Union and he has been to the White House more times (12) than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (11), according to National Review.

For Democrats, Castro's promise is about cultivating a figure from their party who can unlock the potential of the Latino vote. While a record 12 million Latinos are expected to vote in 2012, 10 million more are eligible but don't vote. Democrats believe those potential voters could make red states like Arizona and Texas perennially competitive. And perhaps a figure like Castro – young and Mexican-American like the bulk of the Latino population in the U.S. – can make that happen.

"You're not considered one of the battleground states, although that's going to be changing soon," President Obama told a crowd of donors at a fundraiser in San Antonio, where Castro was in attendance.

Castro and the Latino vote

But Castro says that there are significant problems in motivating Latinos to vote in areas where they don't. The population is overwhelmingly young and is not as educated as the general population, two factors which contribute to lower voting levels.

"I don't think there is any easy answer." he said. "It will also take getting out there to the grassroots and convincing them of why they should be participants in the process. And there hasn't been enough of that, especially in a state like Texas where it's written off as being controlled by one party."

There's no question that the choice of Castro is also meant to pay short-term dividends for Obama, who needs a strong showing from Latino voters in November to win a second-term. Though Castro's home state is not in play for Democrats, his Mexican-American heritage fits that of most Latino voters in western battleground states like Nevada and Colorado.

"I think I was chosen because it's one more signifier of how important the Latino community is to President Obama," says Castro. "It's one more reminder that for Latinos, he's been a very effective advocate over these last few years."

Castro also has his doubters, whose criticisms echo those of then-candidate Barack Obama. They say his record is too thin to be considered for national office. For example, the Milken Institute last year named San Antonio as the top job-creating city in the U.S. but conservatives say that's because of Texas' low-tax policies and not Castro's efforts. They also note San Antonio continues to suffer from large high school drop-out rates despite Castro's initiatives to improve education.

Some even scoff at Castro's 81 percent support in his reelection race last year, saying that only 7 percent of city voters showed up in the off-year election.

"We don't need a Spanish-speaking Obama," said George Rodriguez, president of the conservative South Texas Political Alliance. "We don't need affirmative action politicians. By that I mean, we need the best-qualified person as well as a person who has the values of America at heart to lead us."

What's next?

While Democrats have heaped sky-high expectations upon him, Castro is working to downplay them ahead of his keynote speech.

He dismisses the Obama comparisons and claims that he will serve as mayor until 2017, when he is term limited. After that, Castro said he will consider his options. He doesn't outright say he doesn't want to run for president one day, but he calls the prospect unlikely.

"It's very likely that the first Latino president has been born, [but] I don't think that I'm going to be that person," he said. Castro says he has a tough path upward in Texas. There are 29 statewide elected offices in the Lone Star State and a Democrat has not held one since 1994.

Asked if he would turn down a potential cabinet appointment, to a position such as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the position his role model Cisneros held in the Clinton administration, Castro says he would.

"Yeah," he said. "I can't imagine what they would offer me."

Castro says he is trying to stay focused on giving a memorable speech on Tuesday, not on what might lie ahead.

"I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit nervous because it's such a huge opportunity. But I'm also taking it very seriously and I know it's a great chance to speak to the nation in a meaningful way," he said. "So I'll be ready by the time I take the stage. My boots might be shaking, but I'll be ready."

This piece is based on interviews conducted by Univision's Maria Elena Salinas as well as the author.