Politics & Policy

Castronomically Overhyped

San Antonio mayor Julian Castro (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Julian Castro’s star continues to rise — as his city plods along.

Reports suggest that President Obama will nominate Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, to be the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development — a triumphant promotion for the man who is the Democratic party’s perpetually rising star, in spite of a quite modest record of accomplishments as mayor.

#ad#Pundits expected Castro to head to Washington someday, even before he was spotlighted as the keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic convention, after just three years as mayor. The common wisdom on the HUD move is that Castro is headed to Washington to get a bit of federal experience so he can become Hillary Clinton’s running mate


(Chuck Kerr, the artist at Current who created the memorable image above, invites Campaign Spot readers to build their own Castro campaign posters, proudly endorsing Castro for president, governor, senator, mayor, Jedi master, or Top Chef contestant.)

Not long ago, Texas media were seriously touting the possibility that that he, his twin brother, Representative Joaquín Castro, and Wendy Davis were the team that could turn Texas blue.

But with Davis unable to get much traction in polls and national Democrats writing her off, Texas Democrats’ dreams of winning their first statewide race since 1994 still appear to be just that — dreams.

#page#Some argue that a Cabinet appointment is an easier way for a Texas Democrat to get a job in Washington than, say, winning a Senate race:

Former San Antonio Mayor Nelson Wolff said he has recommended to Mr. Castro that he consider a cabinet appointment, if one were ever offered, because of the challenges a Democrat faces in winning a statewide office in GOP-dominated Texas.

“We are so conservative it will be hard for a Democrat to break through,” he said.

#ad#An alternative explanation for Castro’s move is that he needed to get out of the mayoral office because he was no longer able to speak convincingly about his potential. In his fifth year as mayor, there’s still little sign of real progress from his much-touted initiatives.

Castro talks about education policy with passion and great knowledge. But it’s hard to point to any of his policies that have borne fruit. In fact, some studies indicate the schools are getting worse:

Despite years of work and innovation, a more competitive environment, and a sustained focus on education by San Antonio’s civic leaders, a higher percentage of schools here ranked lowest among Texas’s major metropolitan areas in the annual report of the nonprofit Children at Risk.

The Houston-based think tank and advocacy group will release the report Monday. It gives 43 percent of schools in the greater San Antonio area a letter grade of “D” or “F.” . . . Last year, only 21 percent of San Antonio schools got those grades.

Compared to other major Texas metropolitan areas, Children at Risk’s analysis of student achievemeilesnt and progress shows San Antonio at the bottom and losing ground.

Castro doesn’t talk about crime as often as he used to, but the issue was once one of his principal focuses. When he took office in June 2009, the city had, by one measure, the highest crime rate of any large city in the country. In his campaign for mayor the year before, Castro had declared, “Making our communities safe is my top priority.”

San Antonio may be marginally safer since Castro took office, but there appears to have been some backsliding after some initial improvement. Crime statistics through 2012 point to a slight decline in violent-crime rates from 2009, but these rates were still higher in 2012 than in 2011, and crime rates in general are still pretty awful by national standards — 89 murders, 549 rapes, 4,441 assaults, and more than 15,000 burglaries. The 2014 CQ crime rating said San Antonio was the tenth-safest in the nation among cities its size — which still gives it a ranking of 298th overall out of 437. For comparison, New York City ranked 196th.

San Antonio has also experienced alleged crime of a different sort, as Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni, one of the men selecting the contractor for the largest contract in city history — a $300 million deal to expand the Convention Center — was simultaneously discussing terms of his future employment as CEO of a nonprofit with the head of the firm that eventually won the contract. After the contract was approved, Castro declared, “The process was done with integrity,” but afterwards he felt the need to offer a series of reforms to “enhance trust and confidence” in city government.

Castro’s confirmation hearings are likely to feature questions about the seven-figure payment he received in 2007 for referring a case from his small law firm to “Mikal Watts, a prominent personal injury lawyer and Democratic contributor.” At the time, Castro was a San Antonio city councilman who had run for mayor and lost three years earlier. The following year, Castro loaned his mayoral campaign $215,000 and won. (Watts is currently fighting a lawsuit from BP “accusing him of claiming to represent tens of thousands of ‘phantom’ claimants in litigation concerning the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.”)

One bright spot for Castro is San Antonio’s economy, which has largely thrived in the past five years. The city’s unemployment rate is 5 percent, the fifth-best in the country; it was 6.8 percent when Castro took office. The fantastic rate of job creation in and around San Antonio is heavily driven by the fracking revolution and “one of the biggest oil booms ever to hit Texas — and possibly the U.S.A.,” according to USA Today. “A vast oil and gas reservoir in south Texas known as the Eagle Ford Shale, along with another in west Texas known as the Permian Basin, is driving the boom and could make Texas one of the leading oil producers on the planet.” The University of Texas at San Antonio calculated that the oil boom created 38,000 jobs in south Texas and brought $500 million into local and state coffers in 2011 alone. (Environmentalists argue that the economic boom comes at significant cost to the region’s air quality; the air in San Antonio’s Bexar County earned an “F” from the American Lung Association in its most recent report.)

#page#But for a city that is enjoying a large share of the most spectacular economic boom of the Obama era, San Antonio is still home to a lot of poor people: more than 277,000 people, 20.1 percent of San Antonio’s residents, live below the poverty level; Texas’s average is 17.4 percent, and the nation’s is 15 percent.

The White House named San Antonio’s East Side a “Promise Zone,” one of five areas in the country where the federal government will provide tax incentives and grants to help communities tackle endemic poverty. (The White House’s selection of San Antonio may partially reflect the fact that Castro visits the White House literally more often than some Cabinet officials. The name “Castro, Julian,” appears in White House visitor logs 34 times since February 24, 2010. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s name appears in the logs 31 times.)

#ad#In 2011, Castro unveiled his most ambitious city initiative, SA2020, laying out a series of goals for the city to achieve by the year 2020. The latest report card, issued in June 2013, found that the city was meeting goals in police and firefighter response time, high-school graduation rates, and reducing the teenage birthrate. Unfortunately, the report also tracked a slight increase in reported cases of child abuse and maltreatment, a slight increase in the poverty rate, a slight decrease in per capita income, a decline in the acreage of parks, and declines in renovation and new housing-start permits.

Castro can be credited for setting a high bar and collecting and disseminating data on how well the city was meeting these goals and for putting out a report that didn’t sugarcoat the failures or backsliding in several key areas. But, in the end, a mayor is responsible for meeting goals, not just setting them.

Last month a local radio station rated Julian Castro the fourth-most-powerful person in the city — behind City Manager Sheryl Sculley and business leaders Graham Weston, “whose visionary leadership at Rackspace has helped transform San Antonio into a tech center,” and Charles Butt, the president of the H-E-B supermarket chain. This isn’t necessarily Castro’s fault; he didn’t invent the city’s power structure, which gives the city manager more power than the mayor over day-to-day decisions. But it does raise the question about how Castro managed to build a national reputation while enjoying such limited ability to actually influence policy in his city.

After participating in a debate on immigration with a GOP lieutenant gubernatorial candidate this April, Castro joked to a New York Times reporter, “I figure I have nothing else going on, so I might as well.”

What Castro indisputably brings to his work is buckets of charisma and a knack for self-promotion. Sometimes Castro is quite ingratiating, like the time he teased outspoken NBA analyst Charles Barkley after Barkley made jokes suggesting the women of San Antonio were fat: “We realize just how much we’re alike,” Castro said in a YouTube message for Barkley. “For example, San Antonio has just been named by Men’s Fitness magazine as one of the fittest cities in the country. You’ve just gotten a lot fitter, too. We just hosted a nationally televised parade honoring the brave men and women of our nation’s military, and you’ve always supported our military. We have four NBA Championship rings, and are on our way to a fifth, and you . . . Okay, so maybe we’re not exactly alike.”

Earlier this year, he dyed his hair blond to honor a bet about a local high-school basketball team making the playoffs:

Castro has even done a humorous video in which his iPhone’s Siri urges him to run for higher office: “You’re welcome, Mister Presidente.”

Castro leveraged his rise-from-humble-roots narrative and the occasional wacky joke into national press coverage that most senators and governors would envy — major nationalmagazine profiles, a TED talk, an appearance on Meet the Press, a six-figure memoir deal. It’s fair to wonder whether Castro would get the same attention if he were not a member of a demographic increasingly important for national politics.

Castro’s record suggests that, if he is in fact nominated and confirmed as secretary of HUD, he will be one of the most-covered and most-discussed members of President Obama’s Cabinet. His record also suggests that he will leave the department in about the same condition as when he entered it.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO. His first novel, a comic satire of the federal bureaucracy entitled The Weed Agency, will be published by Crown Forum in June.


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