Julian Castro's moment in the spotlight at the DNC

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They were both young, relatively unknown politicians from a key demographic chosen to give a keynote speech at one of the nation’s biggest stages — the Democratic National Convention — and expected to wow the crowd.

But the similarities between then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, who gave the keynote address at the DNC in 2004, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Tuesday night’s keynote speaker, end there.

Castro, 37, is by all accounts a relatively shy and humble mayor devoted to his young family and tight with his twin brother, a congressional candidate who will introduce him at the convention. (Friends say its nearly impossible to tell them apart). He’s never played a big role on the national political scene and would probably be embarrassed by headlines calling him the Democrats’ “messiah” and a potential first Latino president of the United States.

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“He’s a very humble guy, he wouldn’t even say that about himself,” said Sylvia Manzano, a Houston-based senior analyst at the polling firm Latino Decisions.

Julian is known for being a little bit more reserved and cerebral than his brother Joaquin, who is single and known for being more of a behind-the-scenes negotiator. 

It’s a description echoed by Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who worked with Castro on a recent bond initiative in San Antonio.

“If you ever meet the guy, he’s down to earth, he’s very grounded,” he said. “That’s part of their success, they both seem very grounded, like real people.” 

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Still, Democrats have high hopes for Castro, who will be the first Latino to keynote a convention for their party. He has an impressive pedigree — he went to Stanford and to Harvard Law School, and was raised by a single and politically active mother in Texas. Democrats are looking both for someone who can electrify the crowd, and remind Latinos that Democrats are on their side, Manzano said.

“He’s chosen so the party can say, ‘Here’s what the next generation of Democratic leaders looks like, here’s a preview of the future leaders of the party,’” she said. It’s an important point, especially as the Republican convention showcased prominent Latinos such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

Castro probably will talk about his family history, likening his immigrant roots to those of many Americans, Tulchin said. There are a record number of Latino delegates at the Democratic Convention this year, and a record number of Latinos who will likely vote in the election. There are 50.5-million Latinos in the U.S., a 43% increase since 2000. 

“This is one effort to say, hey, we do have Latino leaders in significant roles,” said Federico Subervi, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets at Texas State University.

But Castro will also likely draw on another issue especially important to voters this year – jobs.

San Antonio is experiencing strong job growth, and Castro can take some of the credit for that, Subervi said. The region has added 34,200 jobs since July 2009.

“Among the Hispanic population, he is a person who’s been kept an eye on because his administration is keeping a solid economy for the city of San Antonio,” he said. “The buzz is that he’s had an effective administration.”

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Part of that job creation can be tied to an energy boom occurring throughout the state. But Castro has also been successful at reaching out to businesses and Republican politicians to get bipartisan support for job initiatives, Tulchin said.

His biggest initiatives have been a local tax to fund pre-K programs in the city, and the biggest bond measure ever passed in San Antonio, which suppports infrastructure projects including roads, parks and flood protection.

“He brought a coalition of labor and business together to get the business community behind him to support a bond measure,” Tulchin said. “These are business leaders he got support from, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, moderate Republicans joining a young Hispanic Democratic mayor.”

Some Democrats are hoping that both the Castros will help achieve what seems a nearly impossible task – turning Texas blue again. It’s something that can happen only with the help of the state’s growing Latino population, Subervi said. About 38% of Texans are Latino, according to the census. 

“The Democrats have their eye on Texas, they’ve not given up Texas as a perennially red state,” he said. Demographics in the state could help Democrats regain statewide and national offices in Texas in as soon as a decade, he said.

“They don’t want to leave the leadership positions to the Ted Cruzes of the world,” he said, referring to the probable next U.S. senator from Texas, a Latino Republican. “They want to highlight the Democratic Latino.”

There may be one more similarity Castro has to Obama — after his speech tonight, he’ll likely be much more well-known politically. That bodes well for both brothers.

It’s not exactly surprising for those who have known them since they were children, including Jose Villareal, a San Antonio attorney who is treasurer of Joaquin Castro’s congressional campaign. He remembers meeting with them when they were still in law school, where both twins showed up in red T-shirts and jeans for a mentoring program they had founded. Both are disciplined and devoted about a multitude of causes, including education and job creation, he said.

“These are serious guys who care deeply about public service,” he said. “They are not reckless or haphazard about the way they conduct their lives. The sky’s the limit for them.”

[Correction, 4:00 p.m. Sept. 4: An earlier version of this post said Castro would be the first Latino to keynote a convention. In 1984, then U.S.-Treasurer Katherine D. Ortega delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention.]

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