Is Julian Castro the Democrats’ Latino messiah?

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San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julian Castro

San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julian Castro.

On first appearance, you would think I shouldn’t be writing about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. A possible conflict of interest, people might wonder. We have the same last names, and we’re both from Texas.

But we’re not related, that I know of. My sons don’t go by my last name. My name dies with me. Julian, 37, is a messiah, I understand. He’s also smartpart of the best and brightest of Latinos, something no one is ever going to mistake me as being.

Julian Castro, who will deliver the opening night keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., is also a graduate of Stanford and of Harvard Law School. I have a diploma from Gurley Elementary hanging on a wall.

However, one way we’re very much alike is our frugality. I’m cheap, and Julian works as mayor for a salary of $4,000 a year, according to city of San Antonio documents.

Don’t start crying for Julian’s family, though. He’s a lawyer with his own law firm. He does well. And his wife, Erica, is a school teacher, and they have a nice college fund already in the works for their three-year-old daughter Carina.

But back to that city of San Antonio mayor’s paycheck. Four grand.

That’s probably what the Obama presidential suite in Charlotte is costing the Democratic Party per night. And it sounds like a helluva steal to get a mayor running a city with a population of 1.3 million people. By contrast, Los Angeles pays its mayor, convention chairman Antonio Villaraigosa, more than 50 times as much.

But there’s a big difference. Villaraigosa truly is a big city mayor. Being mayor is his full-time gig. San Antonio, on the other hand, was founded with a Council-Manager form of government meaning that the city is run not by Castro but by Sheryl Sculley, someone the convention will never hear about.

So how is it that a part-time mayor of a city in the biggest red state in America becomes the keynoter at a convention nominating Obama for a second term in office?

Texas Mayor Julian Castro

San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julian Castro talks to reporters at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. The mayor will give the keynote speech at the DNC. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Well, if you didn’t see last week’s Republican National Convention or if you haven’t kept up with this presidential political year, you’ve missed out on how America’s Hispanics have become one of the key voter groups both parties are wooing.

It’s a bit over simplistic perhaps, but Obama needs to at least maintain or increase the two-thirds segment of the Latino vote he got in 2008 to win re-election. Republican Mitt Romney has to get a third of the Hispanic vote, more ideally, to have a chance in the handful or so of swing states where Latinos could make a difference.

Obama likely can’t carry Texas which hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1976, in the wake of the Watergate fiasco, when Jimmy Carter carried the state. But the Obama campaign is hoping Castro can help Villaraigosa in rallying Latino support in those crucial states where Hispanics could be the lynchpin to the election.

But why Castro, who isn’t really known outside Texas except perhaps to the Democratic Latino faithful?

Why a part-time $4,000-a-year mayor to keynote when last week the Republicans showcased two Hispanic governors, a Latino senator and another U.S. senator-to-befairly young, charismatic high office-holders all elected within the last two years?

Look around, specifically into the Democratic Party’s cupboard of Latinos holding high statewide elective offices in the Southwest or South. Sadly it is bare.

There are some important congressional members from California the party could turn to. But with Villaraigosa already at center stage in Charlotte, it’s not about to flood the convention podium with Californians, especially when that state is safely in the Obama bag.

For the Democratic Party, it may as well be 1981, a period when there were as many Latino Democrats holding statewide offices as there is now.

But there was Henry Cisneros, a young dynamic part-time San Antonio City Councilman, who that year was elected the city’s first Hispanic mayor. He had already been anointed by liberals and Texas Monthly magazine as the future of the state. And the national news media and Democrats ate up the hype, notwithstanding the reality that he didn’t really run the Alamo City.

Julian Castro owes so much to Henry Cisneros. Before Cisneros no one outside Bexar County would have placed much importance to the mayor of San Antonio.

To his credit, Cisneros appeared to be the real deal. He impressed. He’s intelligent beyond anything an Ivy League degree could educate. He also had a noble Manolete, Spanish bullfighter elegance about him.

Democratic Convention

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, left, who will be the convention keynote speaker, and his twin brother, State Representative Joaquin Castro, who is running for U.S. Congress, are interviewed at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Sept. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale considered Cisneros as a running mate, and in 1992 President Bill Clinton named him his secretary of housing and urban development.

Perhaps Cisneros might have become that Hispanic statewide office-holder that Democrats yearned for, but he got into trouble and was lucky to avoid jail.

You could say, with some accuracy, that the Democratic Party’s efforts to develop that great national Latino leader died with Cisneros’ downfall.

And Republican Ted Cruz’s expected election to the U.S. Senate from Texas has just crushed Tejano dreams.

Republicans in Texas now have a soon-to-be Latino United States senatoralong with Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Governors Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval of New Mexico and Nevadafronting their national agenda. And the Democrats have a part-time, four-grand-a-year mayoralong with the playboy mayor of Los Angelesfronting theirs.

Can Julian Castro, now in his second term as mayor, be the someone the Democrats could someday develop into the national statesman that Henry Cisneros was on the verge of becoming? Hyperbole, of course, is never far from Democratic Texas politics, and Castro was declared the Latino messiah, or close to it, in a New York Times magazine profile.

“Julian Castro has a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States,” the story quoted George W. Bush-insider Mark McKinnon as saying.

Castro has the intellect and the backstory to do it. His identical twin brother Joaquin is a state legislator, and the mayor makes no secret that he got to where he is today because of the drive of their single mom Rosie, a one-time Chicano movement activist.

“Joaquín and I got into Stanford because of affirmative action,” Castro told The New York Times. “I scored 1,210 on my SATs, which was lower than the median matriculating student. But I did fine in college and in law school. So did Joaquín. I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action because I’ve seen it work in my own life.”

You can’t get more Democratic than that, and that’s what the party is counting on Julian Castro to deliver.

“It’s more about Latinos than it is about Castro,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Austin, of Castro’s upcoming primetime address. “It will be the largest thing he has ever done, and it could be the biggest thing he will ever do.”

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