When he arrived at a forum at the White House, Barack Obama mistook Julián Castro – the mayor of San Antonio, Texas and the keynote speaker at this week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) – for a member of his staff.
“I thought he was an intern,” the president said.
Obama was, of course, joking. “I know who you are,” he reassured the 37-year-old.
Given the parallels between the lives of Castro and Obama, it would seem impossible for Obama not to have noticed the two-term mayor. Like the president, Castro earned a degree from Harvard Law School. Like Obama, Castro is the son of a single mother. And like Obama, some of Castro’s relationships can be seen as a challenge to mainstream political thought.
Obama’s personal connection with Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, and his more tangential connection with William Ayers, a 1960s radical with whom Obama served on two foundation boards, have drawn vehement criticism from some conservatives.
For Castro, however, it is his mother – a leading figure of Texas’ La Raza Unida party, a nationalist Mexican-American movement that seeks equal rights for Latinos, who could become a lightning rod.
For Julian and Joaquin, both sons of Texas, statements like the ones their mother made in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, attacking one of the greatest sources of San Antonio pride – the Alamo and the battle for Texan independence – could prove problematic in their ability to sell themselves as Mexican-Americans.
Rosie Castro said “the ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slave-holding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them”, potentially a major contributing factor to conservative criticisms of her two sons.
On September 4, the similarities between the two politicians will be kicked into overdrive as Castro becomes the first Latino to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention thrust the little-known Illinois senator into the national spotlight. Now, eight years later, some Democrats are hoping this speech will have a similar impact on Castro’s career.
Castro was born in San Antonio in 1974, and both Julián and his identical twin brother Joaquín graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law School. Julián unashamedly cites controversial affirmative action policies, which take race into consideration during the admissions process, for his acceptance into Stanford.”
|Obama has overseen an unprecedented number of deportations under his administration’s watch [Reuters]|
I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action because I’ve seen it work in my own life”, he told the New York Times Magazine in 2010.
In 2001, Castro won a seat on the San Antonio City Council, and in 2009 was elected mayor of the heavily Latino city, the seventh most populous city in the country. He was re-elected in 2011 with 82 per cent of the vote.
Samuel Filler, who worked on Castro’s unsucessful 2005 mayoral bid said that from the onset “it was clear that [Julian] was committed to making the city better by being inclusive of all groups that grouped lived in [San Antonio], especially lower class Latinos”.
Filler says Castro’s strength, and part of what led him to later victory, was his ability to draw support from the diverse population of the city – the heavily Latino neighbourhoods in the south and west, the black population in the east, alongside the financial backing of the middle class in the northwest.
The relatability of Castro’s story for the nation’s nearly 50 million Latinos may be the key to his popularity.
“There are Latinos who have been here a very, very long time, even before the borders of our nations were drawn. There are also new immigrants,” says Wendy Carrillo, host of Knowledge is Power, a weekly show on Los Angeles radio station Power 106.
With an unprecedented number of deportations under his administration’s watch – 396,000 in 2010, almost seven per cent higher than the previous peak under George W Bush – Obama is hoping Castro can provide a much-needed boost to his image among Latinos.
Speaking to The Texas Tribune, Castro said: “The president has taken the initiative to ensure that the immigration system deals with folks humanely and on a case-by-case basis… from that perspective, he certainly gets it and he understands the importance of keeping families together.”
“Julian Castro represents a new generation of young Latino leaders. His speech at the DNC could be the foundation for higher aspirations … so that maybe, Democrats begin to really work on electing Latino-Americans to higher elected offices, as opposed to simply talking about the importance of the Latino vote.“
– Wendy Carrillo, Host of Knowledge is Power
For some on the beltway, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants deported during Obama’s term in office was a purely political move signalling to the president’s Republican rivals that he can be tough on traditionally Republican issues such as national security and the economy.
Democrats will be looking to Castro, whom Stephen Colbert referred to as “a young spry thing”, to highlight what progress the party believes Obama’s administration has made on the issue of immigration since that record-setting number of deportations in the first half of the president’s first term in office.
Already, Castro has pointed to an executive order signed by Obama in June entitled “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” as an important step illustrating that the president understands the personal effects of immigration laws.
The executive order allows undocumented migrants who arrived before the age of 16 to apply for a two-year work or study visa that can be renewed indefinitely while they are in the US to work or attend school.
Are Latinos conservative?
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously said: “Hispanics are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet,” igniting a bid by the party to court the Latino vote through social issues.
|In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously said ‘Hispanics are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet’ [GALLO/GETTY]|
But Castro’s actions defy that convention. Dr Victoria M DeFrancesco Soto, Director of Communications at Latino Decisions, a research organisation focusing on states in which the Latino vote play an important electoral role, says polling data does not bear out the “the conventional wisdom of Latinos being very conservative”.
Soto points to a poll conducted by Latino Decisions and Univision that shows 43 per cent of Latinos favour allowing same-sex couples to marry, an issue the president and many in his cabinet support. Castro, a Roman Catholic, became the first mayor of his largely Catholic city to be grand marshal of San Antonio’s gay rights parade.
Another poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, a public opinion and political strategy research firm, found that 74 per cent of Latino voters believe a woman should have the right to have an abortion. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Castro said of abortion: “We disagree on this, the pope and I.”
For Carrillo, these statistics highlight that for many Latinos, moral issues “are trumped by ‘if you’re going to deport me because I’m brown'”.
Support for ‘free trade’
Though San Antonio is one of the few US cities to have escaped largely unscathed from the financial crisis, some of Castro’s economic policies may endear him more to his conservative colleagues than the Latino electorate. For some Latinos with connections to Mexico, Castro’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed into law under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton in 1994, is problematic.
The low pay, health risks and environmental impacts of the maquiladoras, manufacturing operations in a free trade zone that employ 1.3 million Mexicans in 3,000 factories, have been highly criticised by activists on both sides of the border. Conservatives, however, support the agreement.
Israel Ortega, editor at Libertad.org, a Spanish-language blog published by conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, says of immigration reform: “Politicians don’t understand the root causes of immigration. Mexicans and Latin Americans come to the US because they lack economic opportunities in their own nations.”
The NAFTA free trade agreement, says Ortega, is one way to address such disparities.
“Julian is a great political force in the Latino community. He is a humble guy from humble beginnings. “
– Denise Lopez, regional field director for Senator Harry Reid’s re-election committee
But San Antonio’s economic success could be the economic key that Castro could use to open the door, not just to Latinos, but to all Americans who feel stifled by the financial downturn in the United States.
A March 2011 report released by the Brookings Institute found that, during the fourth quarter of 2010, San Antonio managed to place among the top US metropolitan areas in economic performance. The city was also only one of four metro areas ranked among the top 20 before and after the 2007-2009 recession.
San Antonio’s jobless rate in the fourth quarter of 2010 was 7.3 per cent, well below the national rate of 9.1 per cent.
The unemployment rate among Latinos nationwide is 11.4 per cent, down from a record high of 13.9 per cent in 2010, but still an overall increase of nearly five per cent since December 2007.
Median household wealth for Latino families, in contrast, fell from $18,359 in 2005 to $6,325 in 2009 – a decline of 66 per cent; representing the largest such drop among all US racial and ethnic groups.
These daunting figures lead 54 per cent of respondents to a Pew Hispanic Center poll to say they have been hit harder than any other group by the economic downturn. “Our community, like any other, is facing the constant struggle to continue making a payment on a mortgage,” says radio host Carrillo.
The Latino population is growing rapidly in the US: today, seven states are more than 20 per cent Latino. This makes Castro’s ability to identify not only with the Latino community, but also the wider US population, in his first nationwide public introduction, an extremely important step for the Democratic party in addressing the changing face of the country.
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye