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Can Julian Castro Make It In Texas?

SAN ANTONIO, Texas—Last week, on a typical 100 degree late summer afternoon, the San Antonio city council sat in session in the city's municipal building, listening to presentations on upgrades for the airport and permitting requirements for nursing homes. But the man who usually moderates these meetings, Mayor Julian Castro, was absent. Castro has been rather busy with something else these days—preparing to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday evening.

With his youth (only 37), his charisma, and his path-breaking minority status (he will be the first Latino to ever deliver the keynote), he is compared to no one so much as the man who delivered the 2004 DNC keynote speech—Barack Obama. And it’s clear that the White House sees in Castro a rising national star. Castro was first called to Washington by the president in 2009 for a forum on economics; he was a guest of the First Lady for the president’s State of the Union address in January; and today he co-chairs the president’s re-election campaign. Speculation abounds that Obama has a cabinet position in reserve for Castro should the president win re-election (one local journalist went so far as to ask White House press secretary Jay Carney about it). Could Castro be the next great force for Democrats in Washington?

The one problem is that Castro professes to have no intention of leaving Texas. “I’m not interested in that; it’s not what I want to do. I would rather stay here,” he told me. Castro plans on running for re-election, and if things go well, wants to remain mayor through May 2017. “Afterwards, as my tenure in San Antonio comes to a close, if I were to look at another position, it would be in Texas.” Much as Castro will be on the national stage, he seems to have little interest in achieving further prominence by going to Washington. Instead, he is intent on walking the muddy path for Democrats in Texas. But in committing his future to Texas, will Castro be remembered as a Democratic pioneer or a Democratic martyr?

BY ANY OBJECTIVE measure, Castro’s party affiliation is a liability in Texas—of the twenty-nine state-wide offices in Texas, zero are held by Democrats—but Castro doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a “proud Democrat.” (Any suggestions to the contrary will be undone by his appearance on Tuesday night in Charlotte.) Still, Castro is a realist about the Democrats’ current prospects for state-wide office in Texas. “For me, or for any Democrat, something has to change in the state before a Democrat is going to get elected.”

Perhaps the “something” he is waiting for is the supposed destiny of demographics. Latinos now make up 38 percent of Texas' population, and by various estimates, Latinos will reach above 50 percent in the 2030s, maybe even sooner. Texas is no exception to the trend that Democrats attract the majority of their votes in elections at the local, state, and national levels, and forces might be coalescing that could make that majority even bigger (“The emergence of immigration as a major GOP policy issue has virtually wiped out the gains Governor Bush made in the late ’90s, [the] inroads into the Latino vote,” Jerry Polinard, an expert on Mexican-American politics at U.T. Pan America, told me. “Democratic leaders fall on their knees every night, praying that the GOP … take a hard line on immigration.”)

And despite being described as “The Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician” in a 2010 New York Times Magazine profile, it’s Castro’s identity as a Latino that resonates. “To us, to the Latino community, they [the Castros] are our representatives in this country,” Choco Meza, the former county party chair, told me.

But counting Latinos’ total population isn’t the same thing as tallying votes. First is the basic reality of eligibility. Although the Hispanic community is growing rapidly, “Most of that growth is birth rate and those Hispanics aren’t 18 yet,” Dave Rausch of West Texas A & M University wrote me in an email. Today, more than half of the population under 18 in Texas is Hispanic and a third are White. The numbers are reversed for those of voting age. By 2015, 30 percent of Latinos in Texas will still be too young to vote. 

Of course the number of Hispanic voters will grow as this young population ages, but Hispanic voter turnout has not kept pace with the expanding Hispanic electorate. Latino turnout lags far behind all other groups, and in Texas, average turnout ranges from 11 to 15 percent. A few factors play into their lack of engagement, according to Rausch’s colleague Reed Welch. Hispanics, especially in rural counties in the reddest parts of the state, are greatly disadvantaged socially when compared to Whites. “Many Hispanics work here [in rural Texas] in agricultural capacities. Many of them are less educated or don’t feel comfortable in English,” Welch said. “That’s a description of a non-voter in the United States: education is the number one determining factor.” 

It should come as no surprise, then, that education in the state is the number one concern for Texas Democrats, according to a May 2012 poll from the Texas Politics Project. Education is also the centerpiece of Castro’s agenda in San Antonio, where he has launched two big education initiatives: a counselor program to help students apply for university called “Cafe College,” and a proposed plan to use a portion of sales tax revenue to fund pre-kindergartens for the city. “I’m convinced that Texas has been moving in the wrong direction” with regards to education, Castro told me. “It’s my hope that in San Antonio, if we get this right, it can become a model for other Texas cities.”

That kind of focused localism may win Castro plaudits in San Antonio, but it is starkly incongruous with his party’s outsized hopes for him, both on the national and the state level. “Julian could be the governor, a U.S. Senator, the vice-president, or the president of the United States. Yes, ma’am,” Meza, the former party chair enthused to me. Texas Democrats are overwhelmingly eager for Castro to assume their banner. “There’s a lot of space on the Democrats’ side in Texas,” James Henson of the Texas Politics Project told me. “Because there are so few viable candidates, that’s part of what’s fueling the enthusiasm for Castro.”

The DNC speech has clearly given the state’s Democrats a boost in momentum, and the national attention has rallied supporters behind Castro. “I never grew up having a Hispanic leader to look up to,” Marvin Morado, a young man from the heavily Democrat, predominantly Hispanic South Side of San Antonio, told me. “So for me, I’m hoping that as [Castro] becomes more popular, he can fire up other Hispanic, and other minorities as well … as he gets national attention.” Will that momentum still remain behind Castro as he bides his time, following a much more protracted trajectory?

But Castro seems intent on staying, for now, a local politician. “I have a real competitive streak,” he told me, “in making San Antonio become the best city in the whole country.” It’s a message he repeats the next day to the crowd gathered at his send-off, and it’s growing up in San Antonio that he plans on talking about in his keynote address. “My real interest … is San Antonio.”

Skeptics might dismiss such rhetoric as an attempt to shirk responsibility for the troubled condition of his party elsewhere in the state (in the last gubernatorial election, Democrats carried just 28 of the 254 counties in Texas). But his pragmatic localism may well be a strategy to turn the tide for Democrats throughout Texas. In city government, you deal with the daily “front door issues” people are facing, Diego Bernal, the city councilman from District 1 told me. “It isn’t glamorous stuff,” but it’s Castro’s talent at engaging on this level that people appreciate about his politics. “My brother enjoys these bigger issues, these overall issues on education, on health care, on transportation,” Castro says of his twin brother, Joaquin, who is running for Congress. Castro’s focus is on “making the right investments” in the community: That’s the kind of thing people care about locally. If they do turn out to be right, that record could eventually help Castro turn the tide for Democrats throughout Texas.

For now, Texas Democrats will have to content themselves with Castro leveraging his talents on behalf of the presidential campaign. Almost everyone I spoke to is confident that his performance on Tuesday will get out the Latino vote for Obama. “Do Latinos vote? Yes. Do they vote enough? No, not nearly. Is there someone who could get them to? You’re about to meet him on Tuesday,” Councilman Bernal told me. Castro doesn’t admit it, but he is hoping that, when he decides the time is right and the “change” has come to Texas, they will still be coming out for him.

Boer Deng is a former TNR literary intern.