In 1975, Rosie Castro took her baby twins, Julian and Joaquin, to a farmworkers’ rally. They slept in strollers while she handed out union fliers.
The boys have grown up to become two of the more recognizable faces in San Antonio. Julian is a member of the City Council, Joaquin is a state legislator, and both are seen as modern-day successors to Chicano leaders like their mother -- as comfortable in a boardroom as a barrio.
They are just 30 years old. Nevertheless, Julian Castro has become a leading candidate for mayor here, and the election is expected to hinge on whether voters see him as a political wunderkind or an upstart who needs more seasoning before taking the helm of the nation’s eighth-largest city.
Though he has been outspent by a large margin and has failed to win the support of a business establishment that frequently has handpicked mayors, one independent poll has given him a 19-point lead over his closest competitor.
The man running second, 70-year-old Phil Hardberger, is a former judge who had earned three college degrees, served in the Peace Corps, flown planes in the Air Force and worked as a newspaper copy boy before Julian Castro was born.
Some say a mayoral victory for Castro would be part of an important chapter for Latinos. Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor and Housing secretary under President Clinton, has pointed out that two major cities could elect Latino mayors within two weeks -- Castro on May 7 and Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles on May 17.
A Castro win would fuel descriptions of the twins that already border on breathless. In some quarters, their potential is compared to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat whose skin color is seen as having shaped, but not defined, his public persona.
Raised by a single mother, the twins finished high school in three years, received scholarships to Stanford University, gained encyclopedic knowledge of public policy and urban development, went to Harvard Law School, then came home and got hired by a powerful law firm. They were soon elected to public office.
“When I was in college, in the early 1970s, you were either with the system or against the system,” said Luis Fraga, a Stanford associate professor of political science who taught the twins and mentored them while they were writing senior theses on economic development in San Antonio.
“Julian is an example of young people who understand that that kind of dichotomy was false, that the deeper challenge is simultaneously serving the interests of both -- communities that traditionally benefit from policy and those that don’t.”
The final stretch of the San Antonio campaign, however, will not be easy for Castro despite his poll numbers.
He is running to replace Ed Garza, who has served two two-year terms and must leave office because of one of the nation’s most restrictive term limits laws.
Garza is a close political ally -- a little too close, many believe. His tenure has been marred by corruption and criticized as ineffectual despite some successes, such as landing a Toyota plant in the historically poor city. Garza, 36, rose to office as another fresh-faced Latino, and there have been persistent murmurs that City Hall is ready for a grown-up.
Castro has laughed off questions about his age, reminding voters at forums that he is, after all, old enough to drive. But youth is hardly his only problem.
After he opposed and helped to kill a 2,600-acre resort and housing development, he was painted -- unfairly, he says -- as a knee-jerk opponent of growth.
And in April, he handed in a campaign finance report that was riddled with errors. His opponents pounced, charging that he was unfit to lead a city with 12,000 municipal employees and a $1.4-billion annual budget.
Then there is the curious incident that some have called Twinsgate.
Two weeks ago, more than 200,000 people lined the famous River Walk for a parade. Castro was scheduled to ride on a City Council barge, but at the last minute decided to go to a neighborhood forum, he said. His brother, an identical twin, was on the barge. The public announcer told the crowd it was Julian while Joaquin waved to the crowd.
Julian Castro called it an innocent mix-up. And the two brothers displayed T-shirts reading “I Am Julian” and “I Am NOT Julian” and appeared on national talk shows.
“No one was sure how it would play,” Cisneros said. “But they were able to effectively deflect it by making it humorous. People ended up enjoying it as opposed to getting angry about it.”
An Internet message board established by the San Antonio Express-News in response to the incident has been flooded with comments. Many residents accused Castro’s opponents of seizing on trivia. Others were less charitable. One said the incident made him realize that he had “socks older than Castro.”
“I’m very troubled by it,” said Councilman Carroll W. Schubert, 57, the third major candidate in the race, who trails Castro and Hardberger. “The people I’ve talked to did not find it funny.”
Despite the hullabaloo over Twinsgate, the most serious threat to Castro’s campaign might be a measure on the same ballot that would freeze property taxes for homeowners 65 and older. In early voting last week, the plan appeared to draw thousands of seniors to the polls, said Larry Hufford, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Turnout here for municipal elections is typically an embarrassment; it was 5.5% two years ago. So an unusually large turnout of seniors who might be inclined to vote for an older candidate could spell trouble for Castro, Hufford said.
He said the most likely scenario was that no candidate received 50% of the vote, meaning that the top two -- probably Castro and Hardberger -- would go head to head in a runoff.
Castro would then have a tough time winning, Hufford predicted. Both are Democrats, and Hardberger would have stronger appeal among seniors and white conservatives who had backed Schubert, a Republican, in the first round of voting, Hufford said.
At Castro’s campaign office, volunteers pulled up with shipments of bottled water and aides race-walked to meetings with cellphones attached to their ears. Castro sat at his desk, his hands folded before him, his hair carefully parted, his button-down starched and his auburn tie perfectly dimpled.
Although his opponents have stuck to talking about essential programs such as flood and traffic control, Castro has tried to make the race a referendum on the city itself. Castro wants to turn San Antonio, which maintains the feel of a small town and can be a parochial place, into an important metropolis while retaining its colorful identity -- no small task, he says, in an age of gated suburbs and strip malls.
“San Antonio is at a crossroads as an emerging American city,” he said. “Will we become like every other generic city? Or will we retain a sense of community, a sense of belonging?
“That is what is at stake. You have to have some substance behind you. You can’t be a cream-puff politician.”
Outside, his mother took a puff from a cigarette and marveled at how the political landscape had changed since her days as chairwoman of the local La Raza Unida Party.
In 1977, she was instrumental in making San Antonio shift from electing City Council members at-large to creating districts. That allowed the faces on the council, for the first time, to represent the racial and ethnic makeup of the city.
Four years later, Cisneros became the first Latino mayor of a major U.S. city.
“Back then, nobody was going to give you power. You had to fight for it,” she said. “Today, we have an opportunity to sit at the table.”