By ZEV CHAFETS
In early December, Julián Castro, the newly elected mayor of San Antonio, visited the White House to attend President Obama’s national jobs-and-economic-growth forum. Castro was one of only five mayors in attendance and, at 35, the youngest. When his turn came to speak — the subject was the creation of green jobs — the president looked at him, midway down the long conference table, and said: “I thought he was on our staff. I thought he was an intern. This guy’s a mayor?” The other participants — world-famous economists, environmentalists and politicians — burst into laughter.
“Of San Antonio, Tex.,” Castro said evenly.
Obama grinned. “I’m messing with you,” he said. “I know who you are.”
Castro was neither flustered nor flattered by the president’s bantering familiarity. Of course Obama knew who he was — gate-crashers might make it into White House social events, but they don’t get to the table of high-level West Wing policy meetings led by the president himself. Castro smiled politely at Obama’s jest and then proceeded to the business at hand, delivering prepared remarks about employment and the energy market in San Antonio. He is cerebral, serious, self-contained and highly efficient. If he were an energy source, he’d be zero-emission. A video of the event shows the president listening intently to Castro’s presentation and nodding occasionally, Harvard Law ’91 silently encouraging Harvard Law ’00.
A few days before the meeting, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited San Antonio and told the mayor that he was “on the radar in Washington.” The morning of the meeting, Castro was included in a small working breakfast hosted by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s closest advisers, was there, too. Castro was being noticed and auditioned. It had been about a dozen years since another brilliant young man from San Antonio, Henry Cisneros, regarded by many as the emerging national leader of the Hispanic wing of the Democratic Party, lost his political future in a sex-and-money scandal. Cisneros’s implosion left an opening. For a while, Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, were Great Hispanic Hopes, but scandals eventually knocked them out of contention too.
A lot of very smart people, not all of them in Texas, see Julián Castro as the favorite to fill the leadership void. “Julián really stands out,” says Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor of Chicano and global studies at U.C.L.A. “There are other talented young Hispanic politicians around, but few have his stature or national potential. He’s from San Antonio, but he’s very much admired in California. He’s like Obama — one of us, but someone who also comes out of a broader American experience.”
Castro “has all the assets to become the next favorite son,” is how John A. Garcia, a political-science professor at the University of Arizona, puts it. “He has an elite education, which has given him a national network, and a quiet, serious public persona that appeals to a lot of younger Hispanic voters,” Garcia says. “People look at him and say, ‘Finally, we have somebody who won’t screw up.’ Of course, he’s still young, and he might be too good to be true, but if I were betting on the next national Hispanic political leader, I’d bet on Julián.”
In 1984, Mexican-American political activists were thrilled when Walter Mondale publicly considered Cisneros for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. But second place no longer seems such a great prize. “In 1984, there were 20 million Hispanics in America,” according to the political activist Antonio Gonzalez, who heads the William C. Velasquez Institute. “Today, we are 50 million, and more and more people are registering to vote.” Who they will vote for and what issues will cement their party loyalty is one of the great questions of American politics. This year Democrats hope to exploit the ire among Hispanics over the new G.O.P.-inspired law in Arizona that empowers local police forces to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Mark McKinnon is prepared to be more explicit about the long-term stakes. An early member of George W. Bush’s inner circle in Austin, he knows Texas political talent when he sees it. “Julián Castro has a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States,” he says flatly.
Julián Castro is the son of Rosie Castro, a well-known ’70s firebrand who was among the leaders of La Raza Unida, the radical movement in Texas that was dedicated to defending the civil rights of Mexican-Americans and promoting a strong “Chicano” identity. One of Castro’s first acts as mayor was to hang a 1971 La Raza Unida City Council campaign poster, featuring his mother, in his private office. But this was a gesture of filial loyalty, not of ideological solidarity. A Democrat, Castro is a pragmatist, sometimes unpredictably so. He supports free trade, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, advocates an energy policy that includes fossil fuels, believes in balanced budgets and refers to David Souter as his ideal Supreme Court justice. Like a large plurality of his fellow San Antonians, Castro is a Roman Catholic, but he was the first San Antonio mayor to be grand marshal when he marched in the annual gay rights parade, and he is pro-choice. “We disagree on this, the pope and I,” he says with a smile.
Nothing seems to ruffle him. Recently, after Arizona passed its tough immigration law, most Hispanic politicians reacted with fury. Some even compared the decision to apartheid. Castro, through a spokesman, phrased his own opposition to the decision in characteristically understated and inclusive language, saying, in part: “Texas has long been an example of how two neighboring countries can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way for the American economy. A law like Arizona’s would fly in the face of that history.”
Julián Castro seems entirely comfortable expressing views on national and international matters normally outside the purview of first-term mayors. He and his identical twin, Joaquín, are scions of the west-side barrio political machine their mother helped build, and they were raised with the expectation that they would be leaders, young men of personal excellence and public spirit. They were the undisputed stars of Jefferson High School, where they played on the tennis team, earned top grades and skipped 10th grade. In their spare time they accompanied their mother to political events and strategy sessions, where they were exposed to her fiery style of radicalism (which, in any case, was softening over time); met the key figures in the Chicano political world; became practiced community organizers on political campaigns; and learned to make the system work for them.
“Joaquín and I got into Stanford because of affirmative action,” Julián says. “I scored 1,210 on my SATs, which was lower than the median matriculating student. But I did fine in college and in law school. So did Joaquín. I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action because I’ve seen it work in my own life.”
In college, Julián majored in communications and political science and tied his brother for most votes in the student senate election their junior year. During the summer of 1994, he was a White House intern. (“You think I look young now, you should have seen me then,” he says.) When Joaquín did not get into Yale Law School, the brothers settled for Harvard. Julián joined Alianza, an Hispanic organization at the school, and served on the Law School Council, but his thoughts were on San Antonio politics. In his last year at Harvard, he decided to run after graduation for the City Council seat that had eluded his mother, and he was so eager to get going that he held his first fund-raiser among his fellow students in Cambridge. He won that race and took a seat on the council in 2001. The following year, Joaquín was elected to the Texas State House of Representatives from a district that includes San Antonio. The Castro boys were back in town.
“Julián and Joaquín were young but not new,” Jim Dublin, a veteran San Antonio political consultant, says. “We’ve been reading about their exploits in the paper since they were at Jefferson High.”
A place on the San Antonio City Council doesn’t come with a salary, and the Texas State House of Representatives, which meets only 140 days every two years, pays what averages out to be about $16,000 annually. The Castro brothers already had day jobs at the local branch of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a major law firm with offices around the world. Later they started their own practice. A celebrated personal-injury case, in which they represented victims of a fatal drunken-driving accident, earned them enough to comfortably continue their political careers.
In 2005, Julián ran for mayor. His opponent was the retired judge Phil Hardberger, a Democrat who was a decade older than the combined ages of Julián and Joaquín. Rosie Castro cast a shadow; Julián found it hard to raise money in the Anglo business community, and he worked hard to reassure voters that he was not just a barrio candidate. “When I represent, I represent everyone,” he said. He won a plurality in the first round of balloting but narrowly lost the runoff to Hardberger. It wasn’t just the Rosie factor that hurt. Hardberger’s predecessor, Ed Garza, was widely regarded as lackluster, and voters weren’t in the mood for another boy wonder from Jefferson High, as Garza had been. Four years later, Hardberger retired from office, and Castro captured City Hall in the first round of balloting. At 34, he was the mayor of the seventh-largest city in the United States.
SAN ANTONIO is located in south central Texas, about 150 miles from the Mexican border. Like Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, San Antonio swallows its suburbs and expands as it goes. You can fit Chicago, Boston and Miami into the city limits and still have room for Manhattan. At the center of this sprawl is the old town of San Antonio, built by the Spanish in the early 18th century. And at the heart of the old town is the Alamo. When I visited in September, the small mission and the plaza surrounding it were full of tourists of all ages. “This place means so much to so many people,” says Bruce Winders, the curator and historian of the Alamo, who, with spontaneous Texas hospitality, had volunteered to serve as my guide. “Folks come here as pilgrims. They want to see the cradle of Texas independence. To those from around the country, it reinforces their identity as Americans. To Texans, it says, ‘You are part of this story.’ The Alamo is a place that helps parents pass their history along to their children.”
The Alamo, where a small band of volunteers held off the Mexican Army for 13 days, inspiring the ultimately successful fight for Texas independence, is run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. For a decade, according to Winders, the Daughters have been trying, in vain, to get permission from City Hall to put up some explanatory signs on municipal property bordering the plaza. He attributed this failure to “ideological hostility” in a city where some people take a dimmer view of the Alamo. People like Rosie Castro.
I met the mayor’s mother in her office at Palo Alto College, where she runs a student-services center. She was born in San Antonio in 1947 to an immigrant mother who didn’t get past fourth grade; she didn’t meet her father till she was 34. To Rosie, the Alamo is a symbol of bad times. “They used to take us there when we were schoolchildren,” she told me. “They told us how glorious that battle was. When I grew up I learned that the ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them. But as a little girl I got the message — we were losers. I can truly say that I hate that place and everything it stands for.”
That evening I dined with the mayor and his wife, Erica, at Rosario’s, a large, upscale cantina favored by young businesspeople and political types. Erica is a consultant to math teachers, four years Julián’s junior, who grew up on the south side hearing tales of the amazing Castro brothers. Julián and Erica met one summer when he was home from Harvard, and then dated, mostly long distance, for eight years.
The mayor asked about my session with his mother. “She hates the Alamo,” I said.
“Yes, I know,” he said with what might have been a slight smile.
“What about you? How do you feel about it?”
“The Alamo?” he said. “It’s the largest tourist attraction in Texas. And tourism is one of San Antonio’s major economic engines.”
I mentioned that the Alamo’s curator complained that the city wouldn’t give permission to put up signs on municipal property.
“I’ve never heard that before,” Castro said. “I’ll look into it.”
“The curator called it a shrine.”
Castro considered that briefly, then nodded. “There are people for whom the Alamo is a sacred place,” he said without any discernible emotion.
ROSIE CASTRO proudly calls herself a “Chicana,” a term that connotes political activism and ethnic pride, but she says her son is different. “I don’t think Julián would call himself a Chicano,” she told me. “A Latino maybe.” When I relayed this to the mayor, he didn’t disagree. “I consider myself Mexican-American, both parts of that phrase,” he said. “I don’t want to turn my back on my mother’s generation. But we are less burdened.”
Historically, Mexican-Americans have generally been considered “white” in Texas; they served in white units of the segregated military, including the National Guard, and were allowed, during the Jim Crow years, to marry white (but not black) partners. In the early ’40s, the Texas Legislature even passed a “Caucasian Race Resolution,” which affirmed their status as white. Today the U.S. Census treats “Hispanic,” “Latino” and “Spanish origin” — terms that apply to anyone of Spanish-speaking background — as an ethnic category. Race is a separate category, with various options, including a nonspecific “some other race.” In 2000, about half of all Hispanics checked “white” for race. Castro told me that he was planning to check “some other race” in 2010. He is uncomfortable referring to himself as “brown,” and he doesn’t use the term “people of color” when he discusses Mexican-Americans.
Whatever their racial and geographic differences, Americans from Spanish-speaking cultures in different parts of the country increasingly see one another as sharing a common identity and interests. Partly this is a result of astute marketing by Spanish-language mass media. But politics plays a major role. “The pan-Latino process in the U.S. encompasses everyone, though the Cubans lag behind,” says Antonio Gonzalez of the William C. Velasquez Institute. “And the biggest single unifier among subgroups across the Latino community is compatibility on issues.” Roughly 60 percent of Hispanics identify themselves as Democrats. And because Mexican-Americans dominate the national pan-Latino community through sheer numbers — they make up about 60 percent of the total Hispanic population — and they are concentrated in key electoral states like Texas and California, simple arithmetic and political logic make it very likely that one of the next national political leaders of Hispanic America will be a Mexican-American Democrat.
In 2000, while Castro was still in Cambridge, the political theorist Samuel P. Huntington argued that mass immigration from Mexico poses an existential threat to the United States. “Mexican immigration,” he wrote, “is a unique, disturbing and looming challenge to our cultural integrity, our national identity and potentially to our future as a country.” At the heart of Huntington’s critique, which many Americans share, is the sense that Mexican-Americans will form a permanent, unassimilated superbarrio across the Southwest and elsewhere. Julián Castro’s San Antonio is one place that counters that concern.
“San Antonio is the city of the future, the avatar,” says Karl Eschbach, until recently the official demographer of the state of Texas. “The Mexican-American population is about 60 percent of the city, but it is now several generations old. There is comparatively little immigration these days. Mexican-Americans in San Antonio experience a continual drift” into a blending with non-Hispanic whites and others.
Arturo Madrid, a professor of humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio, agrees with Eschbach’s assessment. “The power of America is undeniable,” he says. Like Rosie Castro, Madrid is a proud product of the Chicano movement, but he has no illusions about the shape of the future. “People may check ‘Hispanic’ on the census, but in San Antonio they are Tejanos, Texans of Mexican ancestry,” he told me. “This is the model of what America will look like in other cities. English will be the dominant language. Young Mexican-Americans may display minor symbols of their ethnicity — ‘I eat spaghetti, therefore I’m Italian,’ that sort of thing — but their kids will consider themselves American. We are already your neighbors and fellow workers, and are or soon will be your in-laws.”
Madrid considers it only natural that the young mayor of San Antonio is seen as the new man in Hispanic politics. “We were the first big city with Hispanic political leadership,” he says.
Paradoxically, Julián Castro’s appeal to fellow Hispanic voters may be limited by his own assimilation. Although he pronounces his name “HOO-lee-un,” he doesn’t really speak Spanish — a fact he isn’t eager to advertise. La Raza put a high premium on the mother tongue, but Rosie Castro spoke English to her sons, and Julián studied Latin and Japanese in school, while Joaquín studied Latin and German. A lack of Spanish fluency isn’t unusual in San Antonio, especially among Castro’s generation, but in the immigrant barrios of Houston and the colonias south of Interstate 10 down to the border, Spanish is the first and often only language. A Mexican-American with statewide political aspirations needs to be able to do more than pronounce his name correctly. Early in his administration, Castro assigned his chief of staff, Robbie Greenblum — a Jewish lawyer from the border town of Laredo whose own Spanish is impeccable — to discreetly find him a tutor. Rosie Castro’s son is now being taught Spanish by a woman named Marta Bronstein. Greenblum met her in shul.
IT’S NOT CLEAR what Castro can accomplish as mayor. His executive clout is limited. The daily business of San Antonio is conducted by a professional city manager. The mayor’s power derives from being the senior elected official in the city and his role as chairman of the City Council, the body that wields ultimately authority over municipal affairs. He gets an office, a car and driver, a secretary, police protection and the same per-meeting stipend paid to other members of the council. Some of his predecessors have treated the mayoralty as a part-time job, but Castro is at his desk every day. He has also surrounded himself with a high-powered staff that includes Greenblum, who was a prominent local attorney before signing on with the mayor; the spokesman Jaime Castillo, a former political columnist for The San Antonio Express-News; and Manoj Mate, a friend from Harvard Law and a Ph.D. candidate in political science who serves as senior policy adviser. This is not the sort of team you put together if you are planning to settle in for a nice long career as a politician in San Antonio.
Castro knows that his future is a matter of constant speculation; given his age and his meteoric career path, it could hardly be otherwise. But talking about it is dangerous. “There’s a push-and-pull here,” he told me. “I’ve read about Bill Clinton, how he rose. Even Arkansas people who didn’t like him took pride in his success.” But in San Antonio, he added, “nobody likes people with big heads.”
Still, in his quiet way, Julián Castro is fiercely competitive, and he keeps score. In our first conversation he rattled off the names of his Harvard Law contemporaries who have already been elected to public office around the country. Most, like Joaquín, are still in state legislatures. And being in the House of Representatives “means being one of 435 Representatives,” he told me. “You can’t really get that much done on your own. I prefer executive positions.” (Joaquín is considering a Congressional run in 2012 if there is an open seat. He is a minute younger than Julián and, for now, defers to his elder twin.) Julián conceded that the Senate might be a slightly more interesting job, but there remained the problem of being one in a crowd.
“Would you accept a cabinet position?” I asked. That was the route taken by Cisneros.
“Not likely, no,” Castro said in a way that suggested he had been considering it.
I asked what that left: “President?”
“It is way too early to be thinking about that,” Castro said.
“TO BE HONEST, I can see a path to Washington for Julián,” Joaquín Castro says. “That path leads through the governor’s mansion in Austin. A Democrat who can win the governorship of Texas would automatically be under consideration for a spot on the national ticket.”
For the moment it seems a distant goal. Texas is Republican territory — Republicans hold every statewide elected office — and polls show Gov. Rick Perry running ahead of his Democratic opponent, the former Houston mayor Bill White. But if White loses in November, it will present Castro with an opportunity. Mexican-Americans already make up a third of the state’s population, and they are registering to vote in increasing numbers.
The majority of the Mexican-American vote in Texas (and beyond) went to Obama in 2008, and it is widely assumed by Democratic strategists that their party will continue to benefit from Latino voters. This, however, is not settled political science. “The Democrats are way ahead of the Republicans,” John Garcia says, “but there isn’t a complete buy-in. The attitude is, They are better than the Republicans, but not great.”
This year, Marco Rubio is making a strong run for the open U.S. Senate seat in Florida. Rubio, the favorite son of the Cuban community, is an attractive young Republican, but his appeal doesn’t extend to the broader Hispanic community. Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based political consultant, predicts that Rubio would lose the non-Cuban Hispanic vote to Kendrick Meeks, the African-American Democratic candidate.
Rubio’s problem is not simply ethnic; it is not very likely that any Republican will make strong inroads with Mexican-American voters as long as the G.O.P. remains hawkish on border control, supports Arizona-style policing of illegal residents and calls for fewer government entitlements. If Republicans hope to compete nationally, they will need more flexible policies and candidates as appealing as Julián Castro. The name that most often arises is George P. Bush, son of Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and nephew of President George W. Bush. As governor of Texas, W. was popular with Mexican-Americans, and in the 2004 election he won more than 40 percent of the national Hispanic vote. His nephew George P. (whom George H. W. Bush famously described as “one of the little brown ones”) is now all grown up and living in Texas. He is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the University of Texas law school and recently helped found a political-action committee in Austin to recruit Hispanic Republicans. He has all the tools — good looks, fluent Spanish, ethnic bona fides on his Mexican-American mother’s side, instant name recognition and access to a network of political and financial connections on his father’s — that could make him a formidable vote-getter. Mark McKinnon, who helped put Bush 43 in the White House, half-jokingly refers to George P. as “47.”
Julián Castro and George P. Bush have been aware of each other for some time. “We have mutual friends,” Castro told me. “They introduced us in Austin, three or four years ago. George worked for Akin Gump after law school, just like Joaquín and I did. He’s a reserve officer in the Navy. There’s a lot to admire about him. And of course, he has a lot going for him.”
Still, the Castros are not intimidated by the Bush pedigree or by other contemporaries in the Anglo establishment. “Julián and I are just two guys from the bad side of San Antonio,” Joaquín told me. “When we went away to school, we didn’t know what to expect. At Stanford and Harvard, we were among all these people from the leadership class, people with fancy educations and pedigrees, and very often we were the only Hispanics in the classroom. But we listened to the people at Harvard, and I have to say, we were never overwhelmed.”
ON SEPT. 16, the Castro brothers celebrated their 35th birthday as they always do, together. This time, though, they were joined by a thousand or so of their best friends and voters at a gala held in Sunset Station, an old railroad depot near the Alamo that has been remade into an ornate party space. A long line of people waited for the chance to have their pictures taken standing between Julián and Joaquín, who were dressed in nearly identical suits and ties. In the 2005 mayoral race, the brothers caused a minor scandal when it was discovered that Joaquín substituted for Julián at a campaign event. Some voters were amused by this, others infuriated, claiming it raised questions about the mayor’s maturity.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Julián and his younger brother is that Joaquín is still single and known to enjoy his status as San Antonio’s most eligible bachelor. During the course of the evening, a number of very attractive young women posed between the brothers. Erica, who can tell them apart, kept a watchful eye, although probably unnecessarily. From an early age Julián and his brother have been taught by their mother that bad company — especially bad female company — is Kryptonite to young politicians.
The party was loud and eclectic, a mélange of Mariachi, cool jazz, R&B and country music performed by locals. A parade of men in black shirts, playing drums, whistles and maracas, and women decked out in gold lamé snaked through the party. The boys took the stage and thanked everyone for coming. Julián announced that the Senate had just confirmed Sonia Sotomayór for a seat on the Supreme Court, which elicited a loud cheer.
Rosie Castro was working the room that night, and I was on her to-do list. She introduced me to old comrades from the movement, made sure I got a piece of cake and reminded me that, while I may have come to San Antonio to write about Julián, Joaquín was just as talented. “There is a potential for them both to go much further,” she said. It was hard to disagree. When Barack Obama was their age, he was still only on the cusp of entering the Illinois State Senate.
About two months later I got a call at home from Julián. He was in Boston attending a conference, but there was something on his mind. “I looked into the problem you asked about,” he said. “The signs for the Alamo? I think there might have been some misunderstanding about that in the past.” City officials could find no record of a request for signage. “But of course we’ll allow them to put up their signs on city property. I’ll see to it personally.”
I can’t say I was surprised. You don’t get where Julián Castro is — or where he intends to go — by forgetting the Alamo.