Latino mayor gets spotlight

It may have had fewer memorable turns of phrase than Barack Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when the little-known state senator from Illinois spoke of “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too.”

But the speech by Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio and the first Latino to give a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention, was just as much in the spotlight Tuesday night as the one that helped launch Obama’s national career.

The similarities between the two men are obvious: young politicians from minority groups, graduates of Harvard Law School raised by single mothers. But Castro is his own breed of politician, friends and analysts say, more humble than power-hungry, more likely to work in Texas than to make a jump for Washington.

“He has a different feel than most politicians,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who worked with Castro on a recent bond measure in San Antonio. “He’s down to earth.”


It’s a quality also present in his identical twin, Joaquin Castro, a fellow Stanford University graduate who is running for Congress in Texas’ 20th Congressional District and who introduced his brother. (Joaquin wore a blue tie; Julian wore purple.) Julian, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter, is cerebral and shy, but a charismatic speaker. Joaquin, who is single, is more of a behind-the-scenes negotiator.

“Julian is known more as being the statesman, the diplomat. His brother is more the deal maker, the legislator,” said Sylvia Manzano, a senior analyst at Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm. “It’s very apparent.”

In his speech, Castro drew from his biography as proof that America is “a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation.” His grandmother, an orphan, came from Mexico with only a fourth-grade education. She worked as a cook and a maid, and taught herself to read and write in English and Spanish. His mother, Rosie, was the first in her family to graduate college, and she became a Chicano political activist.

Castro laced his speech with tributes to his mother and grandmother, telling how his grandmother had prayed for grandchildren and was ecstatic when she learned Rosie was having twins.


“She was so excited that the day before Joaquin and I were born, she entered a menudo cook-off and she won $300,” he said. “That’s how she paid our hospital bill.”

Castro served four years on the San Antonio City Council before he was elected mayor in 2009, and won reelection in 2011 with 82% of the vote. Despite the economic downturn, the city has added 34,200 jobs since mid-2009, and Castro is known as a job creator, said Federico Subervi, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets at Texas State University-San Marcos.

He pushed a local tax to fund pre-kindergarten programs and drew bipartisan support for a bond measure to support infrastructure projects, including roads, parks and flood protection.

Some detractors say Castro is too focused on attracting national media attention and not enough on running a fast-growing city of 1.3 million.

“As far as San Antonio is concerned and what he’s done, I haven’t actually seen a whole lot,” said Kevin Wolff, a Republican commissioner in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. “I see a number of different initiatives that enhance his stature on a larger stage, but a lack of the nuts and bolts of local government.”

Castro did have political ambitions from a young age, said Jose Villarreal, who knew the Castros when they were younger, and who is treasurer of Joaquin Castro’s congressional campaign.

But Villarreal said he thought Julian Castro would prefer to run for statewide office, rather than try to vault to the national stage. That in itself is a tall ambition: Texas is one of the most reliably Republican states and hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1995.

But Democrats are keeping an eye on Texas -- and on Castro -- as its Latino population grows.