Castro’s ‘Bootstraps': American Dream

Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, waves before speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Sept. 4, 2012.

Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, waves before speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Sept. 4, 2012.

When Julian Castro delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention two years ago, he didn’t talk about his role as an Hispanic leader in American politics.

He spoke of being “a young American, a proud American, of a generation born as the Cold War receded, shaped by the tragedy of 9/11, connected by the digital revolution.” And he told his tale of humble roots in San Antonio, in a state “where people actually still have bootstraps,” and  how his grandmother with a fourth-grade education pulled him and his twin brother, a congressman today, out of poverty.

And the mayor of the nation’s seventh-largest city spoke of the formula for achieving the American dream, starting with education. This Stanford and Harvard Law-educated politician campaigned for and won a sales tax increase in San Antonio to pay for pre-school education.

Yet now, as President Barack Obama prepares today to nominate for a Cabinet post the man who stood to speak for his own nomination for a second term as president in Charlotte in 2012, the public spotlight inevitably turns to Castro’s role as an Hispanic leader in American politics: One who might even be catapulted to a place on a national ticket.

The narrative is driven in part by history, in part by electoral calculations.

Obama was re-elected with 71 percent of the Hispanic-American vote. The Democratic Party stands a chance of cementing the allegiance of the fastest growing bloc of American voters — and as party leaders speak of making some more history in 2016, with the potential nomination of Hillary Clinton for president, imagine the wheels turning about offering, for the first time, an Hispanic running mate from Texas.

That is, “Battleground Texas,” the red state Democrats are struggling to turn blue. Obama’s campaign operatives are working there today to enlist and rally voters. And remember how Obama, the first African-American president, launched his brand: With his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

Henry Cisneros also served as mayor of San Antonio (1981-89) and as secretary of the agency for which Castro is now being nominated, Housing and Urban Development (1993-97). He has called the HUD appointment the sort of perch the three-term mayor needs if he is going to play a role as a national political leader. “Probably wasn’t going to happen from the mayor’s job,” Cisneros told Politico.  “You have to have national positions of greater responsibility, breadth — and this begins that course.”

Obama used his debut on the national stage to talk about his vision of America — not a red-state America or a blue-state America, “not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

Castro used his debut to explain what any American can achieve.

“My brother Joaquin and I grew up with my mother Rosie and my grandmother Victoria,” he said in his keynote. “My grandmother was an orphan. As a young girl, she had to leave her home in Mexico and move to San Antonio, where some relatives had agreed to take her in. She never made it past the fourth grade. She had to drop out and start working to help her family. My grandmother spent her whole life working as a maid, a cook and a babysitter, barely scraping by, but still working hard to give my mother, her only child, a chance in life, so that my mother could give my brother and me an even better one.”

In his address, he directly said that the Republican Party’s nominee, Mitt Romney “quite simply, doesn’t get it.”

“Now, in Texas,” he said, “we believe in the rugged individual. Texas may be the one place where people actually still have bootstraps, and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them. But we also recognize there are some things we can’t do alone. We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow.”

“It starts with education,” he said. “Twenty years ago, Joaquin and I left home for college and then for law school. In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world. But at the end of our days there, I couldn’t help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity.”

The Democratic Party is seeing a certain opportunity in the keynoting mayor joining the White House’s Cabinet. The Republican Party may well seek a similar opportunity within its own ranks: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s apparent bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 could well become a path to another place on the party’s ticket.

Yet neither party is likely to fulfill the opportunity they see in these candidates by focusing on their roles as Hispanic leaders in American politics.

It’s still the ideas that drive a national campaign.


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