Politics & Policy

Loud Praise for a Mayor of Quiet Record

San Antonio mayor Julian Castro
Meet the Democrats’ keynote speaker, Julián Castro of San Antonio.

When Democrats announced that San Antonio mayor Julián Castro would deliver the keynote address of the 2012 party convention, the media’s comparisons of the mayor to President Obama intensified: a little-known, charismatic member of a minority group, getting a big opportunity to address his party and the country — perhaps a steppingstone to the highest of offices.

In fact, Castro’s dramatic debut on the national stage seems almost preordained: In May 2010, The New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy profile portraying Castro as “The Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician,” with explicit comparisons to President Obama and predictions that he will be the first Hispanic president of the United States. NPR notes he’s been called “the great Latino hope.” CNN’s Soledad O’Brien featured Castro in a documentary about Latinos in America. He’s given a TED talk on “The Power of Education: How It Changed My World.”

Castro is indeed a lot like the Barack Obama of 2004: a subject of endless glowing media profiles, touted as the voice of an entire ethnic group, charisma by the bucketful . . . and a short record of quite modest achievements. The vast majority of the discussion about Castro focuses on his enormous potential and what is to come, not on his accomplishments and what he has done.

That is not an accident. Castro was elected by a populace facing serious problems, and in his time in office, the city has made very little measurable progress in addressing those problems.

CRIME

When Castro took office in June 2009, the city had, by one measure, the highest crime rate of any large city in the country. In his first winning bid for mayor, Castro declared, “Making our communities safe is my top priority.”

The good news for Castro is that in the most recent completed year, 2011, San Antonio had fewer reported incidents of most categories of crime compared with 2009. The bad news is that the declines are pretty modest: Homicides are down from 99 to 89, larceny theft down 13 percent to 59,644 reported incidents, burglaries down 16 percent to 15,334 reported incidents. Robberies are down by a third, to 1,785 incidents. But for some categories of crime, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction: Rapes are up 5.3 percent from the previous year, to 492 reported incidents; aggravated assaults are also up 5.3 percent from 2009, to 4,672 reported incidents; and motor-vehicle thefts are up 1.5 percent from 2009, to 5,893 reported incidents.

Local newspapers are noticing the disturbing development that more murders are going unsolved: “In 2010, about 24 percent of SAPD’s homicide cases weren’t solved. Last year, that figure jumped to 39 percent.”

Yet in his most recent state-of-the-city address, in March, Castro did not mention the issue of crime at all.

#page#EDUCATION

When announcing his mayoral bid in 2008, Castro declared, “No issue is more important to creating opportunity in our city than improving education.”

Three years later, the signs of improved education are few and far between. Although select groups of San Antonio children attend successful schools, the overall picture of the city’s public schools is dismal.

Annual rankings by Children at Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit, find that San Antonio schools continue to perform the worst among schools in Texas’s large cities. The most recent assessment placed only 13 percent of the area’s schools in the top tier and put 37 percent in the lowest-performing group. By contrast, 32 percent of schools in Dallas and Houston, and 35 percent in Austin, qualified as “top tier.” The research also found that average reading and math scores declined slightly citywide from the previous year.

In 2011, the state changed the way it evaluated schools, dropping a controversial “Texas Projection Measure” that credited schools for students who did not pass their tests but were projected to pass in the future. Under the more stringent standard, San Antonio’s Independent School District’s number of “exemplary” schools dropped from twelve to three, and the number of schools rated as “unacceptable” increased from two to seven. The tougher standards meant lower grades across the state — the percentage of Texas schools rated “exemplary” slid from 19 percent to 5 percent, and the percentage rated “unacceptable” increased from 3 percent to 7.2 percent — but by either the old standard or the new, San Antonio’s public schools remain largely troubled.

Campaigning for reelection, Castro called the city school district’s performance “unacceptable.” This November, voters will vote on a referendum for an increase of one-eighth of a cent in the city sales tax to fund new math and reading programs for preschoolers.

Castro’s sales pitch for his referendum earlier this year could easily be echoed by his critics as indictment: “Many of us have been wondering for years, when is that point when we pivot on education? When is that point when we bring our dropout rate underneath 40 percent?” Castro asked. “When is that point when — that Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas study that we saw a couple of years ago, that San Antonio had the lowest college-attainment rate for folks 25 and older compared to any competitor city — when do we change that? The evidence is that we have to start early.”

UNEMPLOYMENT RATE

When Castro took office in June 2009, the unemployment rate in the San Antonio–New Braunfels, Texas, Metropolitan Statistical Area was 7.2 percent. Since then it has dipped as low as 6.6 percent (twice) and risen as high as 8.1 percent, and it was at 7.3 percent in June 2012. That’s a bit higher than Texas’s statewide unemployment rate, which is usually about one percentage point below the national average.

The mayor can point to a generally cheery jobs outlook for his city, as some major employers have moved to San Antonio in recent years. Kinetic Concepts Inc., a firm specializing in medical devices and biotechnology, broke ground on a new global headquarters (although it also announced layoffs twice in the past year). Nationwide Insurance announced an expansion in the city that will add 800 jobs. The Milken Institute rated San Antonio “the top-performing local economy” for 2011, but some analysts said San Antonio’s growth was modest, not spectacular, and the city earned the top ranking only in comparison with other cities nationwide, which continue to limp along. The report noted, “Home to several military installations, San Antonio has benefited from the Base Realignment and Consolidation (BRAC) process that has caused an influx of facilities and personnel.”

Of course, there are powerful economic forces beyond the reach of local policies. But if the nation’s economy is hindered by “headwinds,” to use President Obama’s favorite term, San Antonio has enjoyed three powerful gusts at its back in recent years: Department of Defense spending, the overall strength of the Texas economy, and the fracking and energy boom.

#page#DEFENSE

The most commonly mentioned figures are that the defense industry is worth $5.25 billion to San Antonio; Standard & Poor’s analysis points to the four military bases in the city and one large Army medical center and concludes: “San Antonio, a city with one of the largest military concentrations in the nation, was one of the beneficiaries of the 2005 base realignment and closures. City officials are expecting a net gain of approximately 4,800 new personnel, 9,000 additional students, and roughly $2.1 billion in construction of military facilities. The defense industry accounts for roughly 68,000 Department of Defense (DoD) military and civilian employees, in addition to roughly 44,000 defense contractors. In addition, there are an estimated 48,000 military retirees living in San Antonio.”

By contrast, the troubles of the manufacturing sector barely affect the city; as of 2008, only 6 percent of the city’s jobs were in that sector.

THE TEXAS BOOM

The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce declares that among large states, “Texas is the strongest economy in the country.” When Texas’s governor, Rick Perry, ran for president, pundits debated how much credit Perry deserved for the state’s relative prosperity compared with the rest of the country.

As Ross Douthat noted, one of the reasons that Texas leads in job growth is that it has a culture of entrepreneurship, drive, and innovation. Its leaders didn’t create this culture, Douthat observed, but they have managed to avoid impeding it. “When Perry became governor, taxes were already low, regulations were light, and test scores were on their way up. He didn’t create the zoning rules that keep Texas real estate affordable, or the strict lending requirements that minimized the state’s housing bubble. Over all, the Texas model looks like something he inherited rather than a system he built.”

#page#THE SHALE BOOM

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas credits a huge regional economic boom to the Eagle Ford Shale, an oil and natural-gas discovery spread out across 23 Texas counties including three counties just outside San Antonio. Since the Eagle Ford Shale discovery in 2008, the counties have benefited from lease payments, drilling, pipeline and other infrastructure construction, royalties, and the purchase of local goods and services. Retail sales are up 55 percent in some counties, 15,773 net new jobs have been created since the beginning of 2010, and wages have increased by 25 percent throughout the counties.

The Fed’s report concluded: “The scale of development has surpassed the capacity of local industry. Hotels, restaurants, and gasoline stations are jammed with outside managers, crews, and technicians. As the Eagle Ford matures and the local service industry expands, many outside workers may become local residents and employees.”

Despite this modest record, Castro won reelection handily in 2011. Running against four other little-known candidates, Castro took 81 percent of the vote.

San Antonio Democrats appear thrilled with their rising star, and it is worth remembering that even though Texas overall is trending heavily Republican, the city of San Antonio remains heavily Democrat. The congressman who represents most of the city, Representative Charlie Gonzalez, hasn’t won less than 63 percent in any race since 1998; his father represented the area in Congress for 37 years. Congressional Quarterly rates the current congressman’s “party unity score” each year; in the past five years, Gonzalez has never scored lower than 97 percent. This district has not voted for a Republican for president since 1956.

Despite a short record in office — 37 months —Castro has quickly become a White House favorite. The oft-mentioned anecdote is that Obama joked that Castro looked young enough to be an intern during a White House green-jobs summit in late 2009. But since then, he and Obama have crossed paths with striking regularity: In April 2011, he was at the White House to discuss immigration. In October 2011, he met with Obama at the White House to discuss transportation projects. Then he attended a White House state dinner for President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. In January 2012, Castro attended President Obama’s State of the Union address, with a seat in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box. In April of this year, he participated in Obama-campaign conference calls. He helped judge Michelle Obama’s “Joining Forces Community Challenge,” and Obama attended a campaign rally with Castro in July 2012.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Castro visits the White House more frequently than some top military leaders; according to White House visitor logs, Castro had visited the White House twelve times as of August 1. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey had visited eleven times.

What should the national television audience expect from Castro? He has a warm, smiling onstage presence; it’s not surprising that national correspondents could be taken in by his charisma. Of course, his rhetoric does come served with heavy doses of syrup, as seen in his most recent state-of-the-city address: “There comes a time in the life cycle of every city when that community faces a wonderful moment: a moment of opportunity, a moment of aspiration. A moment when the stars align and offer a chance to fundamentally transform the trajectory of the city. For us in this year 2012, that moment is here. It is a moment to become the world-class city that so many folks have talked about for generations — if we’re willing to make the right investments in ourselves, in our community, in every facet of it, to create that city.”

In that address, Castro rattled off a lot of bells and whistles of city policy — $2 million in walking-trail improvements, new bike lanes on city roads, and the installation of 108 salad bars in city schools – that obscured the more fundamental and pressing problems facing the city. He also found time to mention his appearance at the State of the Union and to awkwardly joke that no members of the city council would be offering a televised rebuttal. (Still, one has to admire a mayor audacious enough to approach the podium to the music of Starship’s “We Built This City on Rock & Roll.”)

As a two-term mayor, Julián Castro looks and sounds the part of a leader. He just doesn’t have the record of accomplishments that used to be a traditional requirement in American politics.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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