I’m convinced that, when planning their next move, all great American political families get together in late-night strategy sessions at the kitchen table. Over endless cups of coffee, they make lists of pluses and minuses, identify the obstacles and opportunities, and try to contemplate every possible scenario. Nothing is left to chance.
And something tells me that a certain Mexican-American family in San Antonio is no different.
The Irish have the Kennedys of Massachusetts. The Italians have the Cuomos of New York. And the Mexicans, who represent as much as two-thirds of the 52 million Latinos in the United States, now have the Castros of Texas: Joaquin and Julian.
The 39-year-old twins, for whom degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Law School were just a launching pad, are taking the Democratic Party by storm. Joaquin is a first-term congressman, representing San Antonio. And Julian, well, you could say that he’s applying for a new job.
Today, in a ceremony in the Rose Garden, President Obama nominated Julian Castro to join the Cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
I’ve known both brothers for 12 years, and I consider them friends. Here’s something a lot of people don’t know about them. Their two greatest assets aren’t political connections or fancy degrees. It’s their humility and levelheadedness.
I once asked Joaquin where the humility came from, telling him that I routinely run across Latino politicians who have accomplished a lot less but have much more swagger. He told me it came from the fact that they grew up poor—not in Hyannis Port, but in a hardscrabble city in South Texas where folks scratch out an existence.
“We grew up on the west side of San Antonio,” he told me. “It’s a place of humble, hard-working people who basically grind out a living. That’s always stuck with us. Now, we never saw ourselves as poor. But we also never saw ourselves as anything special.”
The levelheadedness is reflected in the fact that, while New York and Washington journalists are churning out copy suggesting that Texas is turning purple, the brothers haven’t let that kind of talk turn their heads. When they look around their home state, the only color they see is red. The Castros are realists who understand what a lot of outsiders don’t: The political careers of most Texas Democrats have expiration dates. Unless they leave Texas.
As a friend, I want the best for Julian. And yet, I’m still not completely sold that heading the federal housing department is it.
Castro hasn’t even been confirmed yet, and already, I gather, some people expect him to be of symbolic use to the White House. Recently, a national reporter asked me if I thought the Castro nomination would help the administration smooth things over with Latinos.
Before I get to the answer, it’s true that the relationship needs fixing. According to polls, the nation’s largest minority—while still supportive of Obama by a slim margin—is furious that this administration has so aggressively deported a record number of illegal immigrants, most of them Latino.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, Obama’s approval rating among Latinos has dropped nearly 20 points since the 2012 election, from 73 percent to 54 percent.
Two million deportations in five years may have solidified Obama’s reputation as a tough guy on illegal immigration and soothed the anxiety of blue-collar workers who feel that illegal immigrants threaten jobs and put downward pressure on wages. But removing all those people has also resulted in thousands of divided families, thousands of children dumped into foster care, thousands of unaccompanied minors shipped to Mexico, and more.
This undeclared war on the Latino immigrant family was bound to haunt Obama. For Latinos, there is no more sacred institution than the family. You mess with it at your peril. Yet, at the same time, Latinos, and Mexican-Americans in particular, are also notably proud when one of their own accomplishes great things. My 72-year-old father, having grown up in California in the 1940s when Mexican-Americans were treated as second-class citizens, still lights up whenever he spots a brown face in a high place. “Look,” he’ll say, “a Latino!”
At the moment, the person going places is Julian Castro. The 39-year-old political rock star is on a roll. His achievements include being called to the White House to discuss policy issues like immigration and delivering the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic Convention.
Many Latinos are understandably proud of Castro, and they want to see him succeed.
About four years ago, I was at breakfast in Los Angeles with the brothers.. Two older women approached our table, and introduced themselves. After visiting for a few minutes, as the women turned to leave, one of them told the twins: “Que Dios los bendiga.” (May God bless you). Then they all hugged. Not your typical public reaction to politicians.
Joining the Cabinet could set Castro up for bigger things, like being considered for the vice presidential spot on the 2016 Democratic ticket, or possibly a return to Texas to run for governor or U.S. Senate.
Yet, if the upside is evident, so is the downside. Castro could be good for Washington, but Washington isn't likely to be good for Castro. Trying to manage a federal bureaucracy can lower your profile, and the nation’s capital can be a treacherous place—especially for those who are thought to have bright futures. You have to command an army of lifers who have seen lead administrators come and go, and aren’t known for falling in line.
Besides, it’s easy to speculate that an elected official can take a sabbatical from Texas and spend a few years in Washington and then return home to run for statewide office. But pulling it off could prove more difficult. I lived in Dallas for five years, and the elected officials who have the smoothest road in the Lone Star State aren’t identified with Washington but, like Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz, are known for battling it.
It would be tricky for Castro to craft that kind of outsider reputation as housing secretary, especially being identified with an administration that is so unpopular in Texas. He might be better off staying in San Antonio, running for reelection next year and then putting together—with the help of a national fundraising network that he might already have started to build—a campaign for governor in 2018.
Now, for the reporter’s question. Will putting Castro in the Cabinet be enough to placate those Latinos disillusioned with Obama?
No. To be honest, it probably won’t be. The student activists staging hunger strikes outside the White House, or being arrested outside the front gate, are so focused on the immigration issue that they probably couldn’t care less who is U.S. Housing Secretary. The only Cabinet position they care about is Secretary of Homeland Security, and only because that person has a say over whether the undocumented can legally remain in the United States.
For the immigration activists who are turning the screws on Obama, what matters isn’t personnel but policy. And the only thing that will soothe their rage is something that won’t happen: a complete end to all deportations.
These activists aren’t likely to think any better of Obama just because he invited Castro into his administration. A more realistic scenario is that, as time goes on, they’ll come to think less of Castro for accepting the invitation.
You can bet that much of this made its way into the brothers’ calculus when they were in that kitchen in San Antonio, trying to decide whether it was in Julian’s best interest to say “yes” to the Cabinet job. They probably even made a list of pro’s and con’s.
The biggest pro: Texas is a dead-end for Democrats. The dependable red state is going to stay in Republican hands for a long time, and so—if he wants to climb the ladder—Julian has to find a way to circumvent the Lone Star State. This could be the way to do that.
The biggest con: Washington is a merciless meat-grinder of a place that ends as many political careers as it launches. The hyper-partisan tone, and the fact that bright young stars like Castro often come into town with targets on their chest, is enough to make his supporters worry that he’s made a mistake.
Ambition makes people do dumb things. Before long, we’ll know whether this is one of those times.