Can Julian Castro, Democrats’ Keynote Speaker, Out-Obama Obama?

The Democrats’ keynote speaker in Charlotte is a savvy pol with a bright future. Andrew Romano on the hurdles he’ll need to overcome if he hopes to become the first Latino president.

Pat Sullivan / AP Photo

Henry Cisneros. Antonio Villaraigosa. Bill Richardson.

It’s a safe bet that Julian Castro, the San Antonio mayor and rising Latino star set to deliver the keynote address Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, remembers these names well.

Once upon a time, each of them—Cisneros, Villaraigosa, Richardson—was touted in Beltway circles as a future leader of the Democratic Party: the Hispanic politician who would finally become a national favorite by tapping into the vast (and growing) power of the Spanish-speaking electorate while displaying the kind of crossover appeal that often eludes lesser talents. Maybe one of them would even become the first Latino president.

And then they flamed out.

Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, was indicted on 18 counts of conspiracy, giving false statements, and obstruction of justice in relation to payments he’d made to his former mistress. (Cisneros made a deal, pleading guilty to one misdemeanor count of lying to the FBI and paying a $10,000 fine. He was later pardoned by President Clinton.)

Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, saw his public support plummet amid reports of nepotism, an investigation into alleged ethical violations, and an extramarital affair with a television reporter. (Villaraigosa said the violations were unintentional and wound up paying a hefty fine. He was never charged with nepotism, and he acknowledged having an affair.)

And Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, was forced to withdraw as President Obama’s nominee for secretary of commerce because of a federal grand-jury probe into pay-to-play allegations. (The Justice Department decided against pursuing indictments in the matter.)

So as Castro, 37, prepares to step into the spotlight in Charlotte, an opportunity that observers are already likening to Obama’s turn at the 2004 convention, it’s worth asking whether he can avoid the Curse of Next Big Latino Democrat—and follow a path more like the president’s instead.

Right now, Latino voters prefer Democrats by wide margins, with the latest polls showing Obama ahead of Mitt Romney by as much as 32 percentage points among Hispanics. But those stats tend to obscure a surprising fact: in 2012, there are actually more star Latino Republicans in office than star Latino Democrats.

Consider the Republican National Convention in Tampa—an event that seemed at times as if it had been engineered to make this very point. There was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, introducing the nominee; New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, explaining why she converted to the GOP; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, recounting his “working-class, Hispanic-American” roots; Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, declaring “we are Americans”; and Texas Senate nominee Ted Cruz, making a direct appeal for Latino support.

All five of these Republican up-and-comers hold (or will soon hold) statewide office—a near-prerequisite for any sort of national run. In contrast, no sitting Latino governors belong to the Democratic Party, and only one Democrat, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, currently serves in the U.S. Senate. On stage in Charlotte, the vast majority of Latinos will be local pols or members of the House; Menendez wasn’t even invited to speak.

"You tell me who takes the Latino vote for granted and who uses Hispanics as token,” says Ana Navarro, who served as John McCain’s national Hispanic co-chair in 2008. “These Republican Latinos are not just niche figures. They’re winning as mainstream candidates with coalitions that go way beyond Latinos. They wear many hats. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Congress were all elected in districts specifically drawn for Hispanics. They’re never going to break through because they’ve already been pigeonholed as Latino politicians.”

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For Democrats, the hope is that Castro will transcend his geographic roots and ethnic background—an admiring 2010 New York Times profile dubbed him “The Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician”—and become a leader of not just local but national significance: a liberal version of, say, Marco Rubio.

He has the raw ability. Like Obama, Castro is bright, polished, cool, calm, and collected: a Stanford and Harvard Law graduate who immerses himself in policy details (such as his current campaign to increase the sales tax to fund full-day prekindergarten for thousands of low-income San Antonians) while avoiding the emotional identity politics that often consumed his minority predecessors (he doesn’t even speak fluent Spanish). As Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor of Chicano and global studies at UCLA, told the Times, he's “one of us, but ... also comes out of a broader American experience.”

And yet Castro is a savvy political operator as well, again like the president. His mother, Rosie Castro, is an activist who fought to defend the civil rights of Mexican-Americans as one of the leaders of the radical Texas movement known as La Raza Unida. She bred Julian and his twin brother, Joaquin, who is currently campaigning for the U.S. House of Representatives in Texas’s 35th Congressional District, to be Hispanic leaders, bringing them along, according to the Times, “to political events and strategy sessions, where they ... 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.”

As mayor of San Antonio, Castro has translated Rosie’s lessons into the kind of unflappable, seemingly “post-partisan” pragmatism familiar to anyone who has followed Obama’s career. Sure, he supports gay marriage, but he also backs NAFTA, touts an all-of-the-above energy policy, and extols the virtues of balanced budgets. When Arizona passed its controversial immigration law, Castro responded with Obama-esque dispassion, saying, through a spokesman, that the measure “would fly in the face of [Texas’s] history” as “an example of how two neighboring countries can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way for the American economy.” Other Latino politicians likened S.B. 1070 to apartheid. In 2009, Castro won the mayoralty with 56 percent of the vote. Two years later, 83 percent voted to award him another term.

All of which explains why Democrats chose Castro for the coveted "Obama slot" in Charlotte. Still, Castro’s speech, no matter how inspirational, is unlikely to do what it did for the president—i.e., launch him directly into the political stratosphere.

The reason is that unlike Obama circa 2004—not to mention the GOP’s Latino class of 2012—Castro is still a local politician. Eight years ago, the only thing between Obama and a perch in the U.S. Senate was Alan Keyes; the real Republican nominee, Jack Ryan, called off his campaign a month before Obama took the stage in Boston.

Castro, on the other hand, has a much rockier road ahead of him. To become a national leader, he’ll first have to win statewide office, either as a senator or (the likelier option, given his preference for “executive positions”) as governor. But Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Lloyd Bentsen, and the Lone Star State’s last Democratic governor was dispatched by George W. Bush in 1995. Meanwhile, the last Harvard-educated mayor to run for Bush’s old seat, Bill White of Houston, lost to the gun-totin’, coyote-shootin’ Rick Perry by 13 percentage points. And White wasn’t even Latino; no Hispanic has ever won a U.S. Senate seat or the governorship in Texas. To reach the level Obama was already occupying a mere four months after his own keynote address, Castro still has to make a daunting amount of history.

That’s not to say Castro has no hope; The Daily Beast’s own Mark McKinnon, an early George W. Bush adviser in Austin, likes to tell people that “Julian Castro has a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States.” It’s just that Castro’s speech Tuesday night should probably be evaluated in Texas terms rather than national ones. As Castro’s brother, Joaquin, once explained, “A Democrat who can win the governorship of Texas would automatically be under consideration for a spot on the national ticket.”

And so the question now isn’t whether Julian Castro’s keynote convention speech can make him a star of the national Democratic establishment; it’s whether the same address can make him a star in his home state as well, and whether that stardom will be enough to sustain him in the tough races to come.

If so, Castro might even out-Obama Obama one day.