Julian Castro Is in VP Training Camp

Can HUD Secretary Julian Castro make it in the big time?

He apologized for the makeup still half-caked on his face. He had come from another interview, he explains to a small group of reporters invited to hear him discuss his vision for HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development that he has been leading for about eight months. Tapped for the job last summer by a lame duck president and by definition a short-termer, HUD Secretary Julian Castro wants to make the most of the time he’s got in a Cabinet post that he once said held “no upside politically.”

Castro and his identical twin brother, Joaquín Castro, a member of Congress, are on the fast track—young, smart, energetic, Hispanic, and with a story that resonates not only with Hispanics, but all Americans. No elective office appears out of reach for the 40-year-old brothers, and if the Democratic ticket is headed by an almost-70-year-old Hillary Clinton, HUD Secretary Castro could be, should be, will inevitably be a serious vice presidential possibility.

Reminded of his dismissive comment about HUD as a political proving ground, Castro said, “That may be true.” Then, flashing a big smile, he gives his practiced answer to any question that hints at his ambitions. “There is no grand plan for the future. We’ll see what happens in the years to come. I’m trying to do a great job as HUD secretary. If you do a great job, that opens up opportunities, sometimes opportunities you don’t even see in the future.”

His allure as a potential veep gives Castro a platform for the issues he cares about, and he is serious about governing and giving a voice to people struggling to get into the middle class, or to stay there. His top program goal is meeting President Obama’s call of effectively ending veterans’ homelessness, which means pushing housing authorities across the country to give priority to vets in granting public housing and housing vouchers. HUD is also expanding housing vouchers for victims of domestic abuse, a program that Vice President Biden highlighted when he visited HUD for a fair housing event on Tuesday.

When he got the call from Obama about a year ago to assess his interest in HUD, Castro says he saw “a chance to use housing to create opportunity in people’s lives.” He’s about to announce a push for more broadband access into public housing. “If you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to move up,” he says. The most “impactful” work HUD does is working with the FHA to make housing more affordable, he says, “so people in public housing can be upwardly mobile.” Securing loans for people of modest means was “too easy” before the housing bubble burst; “now it’s too hard,” he says.

Castro was reelected twice as mayor of San Antonio, a largely symbolic position (the city is effectively run by a manager). He wants to leave his mark on HUD, a storied if often troubled department created in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson to serve American cities and communities. This year is the 50th anniversary of HUD, whose first secretary, Robert Weaver, was the first African-American Cabinet member, “a ground-breaking appointment,” says Castro.

Asked who his role models are in the job, he cites Weaver and Castro’s immediate predecessor, Sean Donovan, who is now at OMB (Office of Management and Budget), but also Jack Kemp, who decades after his service and years after his death is remembered with reverence. “He brought a lot of energy to the job, and he was willing to go against the grain as a Republican,” says Castro. Kemp was not just supportive of programs not normally championed by Republicans, he offered his own creative solutions, he says, reaching out to minority communities and championing “enterprise” zones to encourage economic development.

Kemp was Bob Dole’s running mate on the Republican ticket in 1996, and the choice of the former Buffalo Bills quarterback, 12 years younger and a vigorous athlete, was designed to partially offset concerns about Dole’s 70-plus years. It wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. The two had significant policy differences, and Kemp was not an easy personality to rein in.

Unlike years past, where a nominee might select someone he barely knew as a ticket balancer, as George H.W. Bush did with Dan Quayle, hoping to win over women with the handsome young senator, today’s nominees want to know exactly what they’re getting.

That’s why for the next year or so, HUD Secretary Castro will get more attention for himself and for his issues than is typical. The way Washington politics works, HUD is rarely headline news unless there’s a scandal, but Castro sees an opportunity, and he’s savvy enough to use it to present himself and his department in the best light. With candidate Clinton, it will be about confidence and chemistry. They don’t know each other well; they’ve met a couple of times, and they shared a panel on renewing America’s cities last month at the liberal think tank, Center for American Progress.

Castro is a careful politician, prepared and respectful, and if you assume Clinton, if nominated, will look for someone other than a white male as a running mate, he’s got to be near the top of the list.

Is he ready to be president should the need arise, the first qualification of any vice president? “If we’re setting the bar at Sarah Palin, he’s well more than qualified,” says Paul Equale, a longtime lawyer in Washington who is active in Democratic politics. “If we’re setting the bar at Joe Biden, he has a ways to go.”

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For the next year or so, Castro will be auditioning, and Democrats will be taking his measure. “I haven’t met him, I don’t know him, I only know what I’ve seen,” says Equale, “and in the modern arena of politics, he’s a natural.” With the Hispanic vote a rising tide for Democrats, he has the potential to turn key electoral states. “A state like Texas could be in play,” says Equale. “There are things that could happen in terms of turnout that are mind-boggling.”

Castro is not in politics to have a long government career in Washington and maybe someday like Biden end up as vice president. “He’s like Obama, he’s young, the opportunity is there, and with Hillary at almost 70, age is an issue. It would be sexist if they [her opponents] didn’t raise it,” says Equale. For those who are counting birthdays, Richard Nixon was 39 when he became Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. On the Republican side, except for Jeb Bush, they’re not much older than Castro. If Clinton isn’t too old, then Castro isn’t too young, assuming he can live up to the hype.