SAN ANTONIO – The sheetrock walls bare except for a few small, framed photographs and his desk markedly empty of the normal profusion of documents, Julian Castro’s downtown San Antonio, Texas office had the feel of a new house, not yet broken in by the inhabitants. Castro sat behind his desk, his jacket carefully arranged over the back. He was neat, trim – almost manicured in his cleanliness. His eyes darted around the room and his eyebrows seemed to have a life of their own.
“Although neither of us is particularly loud, I guess you could say I’ve always been a little bit more introverted, a little quieter,” Castro said, describing his relationship with his twin brother, Joaquin. “But Joaquin and I have different ideas about politics and how to serve the people. I felt that I could help more people on a day-to-day basis in the city government. And so,” he finished, a quiet determination in his voice. “Here I am.”
This quiet determination was what would propel the 31-year old Julian Castro to run for Mayor of San Antonio in 2005. With almost no support from the ruling white business establishment, he managed to garner 48.5% of the vote in one of the most intense and hotly contested mayoral elections San Antonio has ever seen. Although he didn’t win, Castro accomplished something in San Antonio politics that has been in the making for over twenty years. Through grassroots campaigning and community activism, Castro challenged the status quo of San Antonio politics, kicking the city into a frenzy and generating one of the largest voter turnouts in municipal history. His campaign marked a turning point for San Antonio. He demonstrated that a Hispanic could run a successful campaign without the blessing of the white business and country club establishment. Moreover, his campaign marked an important juncture in the wider scope of American politics. Julian Castro and his campaign team—flush with a mix of Harvard Law grads and middle-school educated bus drivers, stand as a symbol of the change that is sweeping America as more minorities graduate from universities and professional schools and parlay both education and cultural background into political clout and ideals.
From an outsider’s perspective, growing up on San Antonio’s West Side—a district known for being overwhelmingly Hispanic and poor—would seem to relegate Castro’s future to a depressing statistic. Almost 60% Hispanic, San Antonio has long been beset by staggering high school drop-out, drug use, teen pregnancy and illiteracy numbers—with the majority of these figures coming from the city’s South and West sides. But, the twin’s mother, Rosie Castro, a San Antonio political figure in her own right, was determined that their future would be different.
“I’ve never wanted my kids to be provincial,” Rosie, said over cups of coffee and Diet Coke at her favorite breakfast place, Los Antojitos, a small Mexican restaurant on San Antonio’s Southwest side. “The rest of the world isn’t Texas and it especially isn’t San Antonio. I didn’t want them to grow up not knowing that there was something else – something better out there for them.”
“They grew up knowing they were going to college. They were going and that was that,” she said. “As much as it hurt to send them away, it was for their own good.” After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School—a San Antonio Independent School District high school notorious for its youth violence and gangs, in 1992, the twins made their way to Stanford. Initially unsure of the direction he wanted his life to take, Julian found his future path quickly.
“I’ve always gotten a kick out of helping people and at first I thought journalism was the best way to do that,” Julian said during an interview at his downtown law office. “However, even though I was cynical about the idea at the start, Stanford and my experience there made me realize that I could do far more for people in politics.” Service in the Student Senate coupled with a supportive thesis advisor and “mentor-figure”, the legendary political scientist Luis Fraga, cemented Julian’s plans for the future. Constantly aware of his roots, “I’ve always taken pride in my background,” he said, Castro wrote his senior thesis about San Antonio, focusing on its economic development in the 1970s and 80s.
After departing Stanford with cum laude degrees in political science and communications, Julian and Joaquin made the trek to the East Coast, specifically to attend Harvard Law School.
In 2000, the twins moved back to San Antonio and immediately threw themselves into politics—with Julian running for and winning the District 7 seat—his old neighborhood, in 2001 with a clear majority of 56% in a field of seven candidates. He quickly established himself as a political force in the city, although not without raising the hackles and eyebrows of the business establishment.
“After Julian was elected, he quickly gained a reputation as a brick-thrower and an activist,” Henry Flores, political scientist and dean of the Graduate School at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio said. “He was young and fresh and idealistic and wanted things to move quickly,” he continued. “I don’t think he fully realized that San Antonio—both economically and politically, has been controlled by this oligarchy of white, conservative businessmen for the past century. And, well…” he paused, leaning back in his chair. “They don’t like things to move quickly,” he said, steepling his fingers, “If at all.” During his two terms as District 7 Councilman, Castro established himself as a representative of the people—hesitant to allow the business establishment any more hold than it already had over the city government apparatus. However, in the end, it was his stance of reckless disestablishmentarianism that lost him the mayor’s seat.
In a race that began with seven candidates, Castro immediately broke out as the front-runner. Although not the media favorite, he quickly emerged as the most dynamic and informed candidate. After the preliminary election in November, Castro emerged as the “winner” garnering over 40% of the vote. Political “outsider” Phil Hardberger and District 9 (mainly representing middle to upper-middle class Northwest San Antonio) Councilman Carroll Schubert—both older, white men with strong ties to the San Antonio business establishment came away with the second and third-place spots. The win in the runoff seemed certain in the first few weeks after the first-round election. However, as time moved on, the chance of a sure victory began to diminish.
“I think we lost ground for several reasons. I appeared too young for many people’s tastes,” Castro said, ticking off the reasons on his fingers. “I think I came off as inexperienced and naïve. The previous mayor, Ed Garza, was also young and Hispanic and had had an administration filled with scandals,” he continued, pausing to collect his thoughts. “I think lots of people wanted a change and indirectly associated me with Garza and believed I espoused many of the same ideals,”
The Castro campaign also suffered a series of setbacks during the final stretch. From the “Twin-gate” crisis that erupted over Joaquin being passed off as Julian during a river parade to campaign finance flukes and misinformation, a series of mini-crises beset the campaign machinery. Schubert dropped out of the race and threw his support to Hardberger (thereby putting the entire weight of the business community behind Hardberger). This left the Castro campaign with only its grassroots base to fall back on for support. The race slowly began to devolve into what all had hoped it would avoid—centering on the issues of age and race. Although it is unclear as to which one “started it”, the two sides finally resorted negative advertising and mud-slinging. In the end, Hardberger came away with 51.5% of the vote with almost 20% of the electorate casting their ballots.
However, Castro’s bid for mayor, although ending in defeat, served as a turning point for San Antonio politics. Right now, the city is at a crossroads. More industries are moving into town, the economy is expanding and the population profile is in the process of diversification. Moreover, it showed that the influence of the business and country club establishment is waning. As a result, someone without the support of the business community can be a viable candidate—something inconceivable only 5 years ago.
On a national level, Castro’s campaign exemplifies the change that is sweeping the American political scene. As more minorities like Castro become better educated and more informed, they no longer are content to be bystanders in the political process. According to the Sallie Mae Foundation, the percentage of minorities amongst American college-bound seniors has doubled since 1979, from 15% to almost 30%. Coupled with this, the Bush Administration has seen the largest number of minority-held cabinet positions in American history—led by Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State.
Now that the race is over, Castro has opened a private law practice and is concentrating on erasing some campaign debt. About the future, he has some vague plans. Right now, though, he’s just taking it day by day.
“I’m definitely staying in San Antonio, maybe putting down some roots and starting a family,” Castro said, pursing his lips in thought. “I would like to stay involved in politics and I’ll probably run for mayor again in 2007 or 2009. The race was a learning experience more than anything else and I think I came away from it a much more mature person,” he continued, eyes shining with prospects for the future. “I have a vision for this city and what it can become,” he said, slapping his hand on the desk. “And now I know what mistakes I’ve made and how to correct them and I’m ready for what’s next.”
Meanwhile, life goes on in San Antonio. More people call it home every day and the demographic make-up continues to diversify. The pulse of the city still beats as slowly as ever and although it seems the same, under the surface there is anticipation, anxiety and hope for what the future will hold.