BY MEREDITH MCKEE
A year and a half ago, Julian Castro ’00 was living in Shaw Hall, eating in the Hark and learning about the law. Today, he is three months into his tenure as the youngest city councilman in San Antonio history.
Castro, a San Antonio native, won his seat in a landslide victory (he earned more than 60 percent of the vote, decimating a field of six candidates) by canvassing his constituents, outspending his opponents and earning the San Antonio Express-News’ endorsement.
Now, Castro represents a diverse urban district with a mixture of low-income and upper-middle-class areas and ethnic groups.
But Castro’s victory did not come without its challeges. His youth (he’s 26) has provided fertile ground for critics.
During the election, for instance, Castro’s toughest opponent posted yard signs with designs that mirrored Castro’s. The only change, Castro said, was the addition of the word “experience” over the candidate’s picture.
“That tells you what his ploy was,” Castro said. “It interjected the question about age. What would someone at the law school who runs right out face? Well, you’re going to face an attack about your age.”
Though he takes issue with the attack, Castro does not say the issue of age is irrelevant.
“It’s legitimate to ask, ‘What life experiences have you had that make you qualified to hold office?'” he said. “For me, I think it’s that I grew up concerned about the community, listening and hearing folks discuss the issues, that I stayed close to the community and that I’m well-educated.”
Even neutral observers emphasized Castro’s age during the election. One reporter from San Antonio’s community paper described Castro as having “the looks of a choir boy” and compared him to the Karate Kid.
Castro is pragmatic about the age question.
“[Age] presents a credibility challenge,” he said. “But having the credentials that folks at HLS have, that all of us have, helps out a lot. They don’t question your intelligence.
“The cliché is that you’re young and dumb,” he continued. “At least you can get rid of the dumb part. That goes a long way in allaying a lot of the fears that people have.”
Despite the attention, San Antonio’s voting population has shown its willingness to weigh age as only one among many considerations. Ed Garza, San Antonio’s 32-year-old mayor, was the city councilman for District 7 before Castro.
Nor did Castro’s undergraduate degree from Stanford University and his Harvard Law degree alienate voters.
“Particularly in ethnic-minority communities, that isn’t a problem, since so few, for example, African-Americans or Hispanics get to those places,” he said. “People look at you more as a good representation of the aspirations of the community instead of part of the elite, out-of-touch.”
In spite of his success, Castro’s youth has remained a target during the early months of his tenure. Roddy Stinson, a columnist from the San Antonio Express-News and self-described “populist curmudgeon,” gave his readers an earful after Castro publically criticized the city water department’s system of financial accountability. Stinson accused Castro of “grandstanding” instead of congratulating the division for discovering its errors and investigating more obvious examples of financial waste.
Stinson described Castro and his “Kiddie Corps Council colleagues” as “self-important, sophomoric political dabblers at Juvenile Hall.”
In a subsequent interview, Stinson noted that while his column was intended to criticize Castro’s actions, he believed those actions were the product of Castro’s inexperience.
“He didn’t know what he was talking about,” Stinson said. “Experience is important. Maturity is important. I’ll tell you, at his age I knew I knew more than any 61-year-old. But now that I’m 61, I know different.
“When I left college, my professor told me, ‘On your first job, keep your mouth shut for the first three months,” Stinson continued. “There are people here [Castro] can learn from.”
Although Castro’s age makes him an easy target for Stinson’s barbs, Castro isn’t paying too much attention.
“I’m not unaffected by it,” he said. “But I’d rather be affected and called a grandstander than be quiet and not be called anything. If what he wants me to do is be quiet, I’m not going to do that.”
Instead, Castro has been focusing on serving the interests of his constituents — interests that, he said, remain fairly constant despite his district’s income and education disparities.
“People are concerned about a lot of the same things: sewers, streets, sidewalks, graffiti eradication,” he said.
Castro also said he’s “made it a point to try and address a lot of the concerns of the lower income parts of our district that have been neglected for most of the last few decades,” especially repaving disentigrating roads.
For his efforts, Castro earns only $20 a week, rendering his office a part-time gig. The rest of the week, Castro works as an associate at Akin, Gump, Struass, Hauer & Feld, LL.P.
“Basically, Akin Gump is letting me work .75 — a quarter of the hours off, a quarter of the pay off,” he said, laughing.
Castro first became interested in running for city council when he left San Antonio in 1993 and went to college at Stanford.
“I could see a differnt community that was much more up on economic development,” he said. “I think there were a lot of folks who were somewhat skeptical about my chances of winning, and others who wondered what my motivation was for running. I think some poeple wondered whether it was just to put another notch in my belt.”
But Castro was raised with politics in his blood. His mother, a long-time activist for Mexican-American rights, ran for city council in 1971 at the age of 23. Twin brother Joaquin, also an HLS grad, plans to run for Texas’ state congress in 2002, campaigning to represent a district that overlaps Julian’s.
Are the Castro brothers trying to take over the world?
“No,” Castro said, laughing. “Well, maybe just a little part of San Antonio.”
When speaking seriously about the future, Castro seems reluctant to voice his plans too clearly.
“My main concern is getting re-elected in 2003 and serving the needs of the district’s residents,” he said. “But if the time [to run for mayor] comes in 2005, I’ll consider it.”
Stinson is not as reticent.
“There is an assumption Julian is probably running for mayor and, eventually, president of the United States,” Stinson said dryly. “I wouldn’t be surprised about that.”
From his current vantage point, Castro has some advice for HLS students hoping to enter politics. He recommends “being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.”
“There are a lot of poeple considering going into politics, and the first thing they do after graduating law school is go to D.C.,” Castro said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing if they want to go into electoral politics. You have to get elected in a hometown.”