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2005 Mayoral Election The placid candidate 

Populist or policy wonk? Who is Julián Castro really?

Julián Castro

"Have you exhausted the impersonation issue?" a woman at the Bexar County Republican Party offices asked when the Current called for a comment on mayoral candidate and District 7 Councilman Julián Castro. The fuss over Julián's absence, and his twin brother Joaquin's presence, on a City Council Fiesta parade float has dipped to satiric lows, confirmed by news that The Daily Show will be featuring the twins in an upcoming mock correspondent segment (please please please let it be Ed Helms!).

But perhaps the media-fabricated furor over the twins' alleged interchangeability is a sign that, after a year of campaigning, the electorate is unsure who Julián Castro is. Is the 31-year-old son of longtime politico and Raza Unida activist Rosie Castro a West Side populist and environmentalist? Is he a policy-wonk attorney who's willing to compromise on any issue provided he can balance the costs and benefits? Certainly Castro's narrow emotional register doesn't betray where his true passion lies. He's almost Al Gore, circa 2000: There is no dragon that can't be slain with an appeal to the facts.

As the race for mayor of the nation's eighth-largest city enters its final week, the lingering questions that could negate Castro's consistent lead in the polls are the same obstacles he confronted when he declared his candidacy: Will voters in North Side districts 9 and 10 vote for a councilman who is seen as anti-development, particularly anti-North Side development, after the PGA battles? `See "PGA redux," December 22-28, 2004, et al.` And in the wake of current Mayor Ed Garza, the most disappointing bright young thing to come down the pike in a while, will Democrats choose Castro, who may be accosted by hall monitors when he visits local high schools, over the folksy yet distinguished Judge Phil Hardberger?

The second question seems less pressing than it did a year ago. After months of multiple debates, Castro has emerged as a cool cucumber who can bend any issue, no matter how steely, to his policy-driven will. "Age has become a proxy for people's disagreement with my beliefs," says Castro. "I think if you play each of the debates that we've had, folks can really see I understand the issues better than either Mr. Hardberger or Mr. `District 9 Councilman Carroll` Schubert."

Even Castro's most outspoken critics concede that the Stanford- and Harvard-educated attorney is smart enough for the job. What they are skeptical of are his poker skills. Behind the podium or his desk discussing public policy, Castro is confident and calm. But in crowds, gladhanding and making small talk, he can be awkward, grinning nervously and letting others control the conversation. Does he have enough experience to bluff a large, incentive-seeking corporation into a better deal for the city? Can he resist the immediate gratification of sports franchises and convention centers for long-term investment in the knowledge-based economy he is promising to build?

I've never seen ambition as a bad thing.
If I were running in 1971, I probably would have been called lazy."

- Julián Castro

Castro says his staunch opposition to the first two PGA deals, which opponents believed would pollute the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, demonstrates that he can play hardball with the toughest lobbyists. As he acknowledges, that role, as well as his insistence that the recently formed Development Services Reform Task Force be supplemented with a citizens' advisory board, earned him the enmity of much of the development community. In a June 2004 story on the task force's progress, the San Antonio Business Journal described Castro as "one of the generals of the anti-development army." Since then, however, one of the sources for that report, North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Chairman and public-relations kamikaze T.J. Connolly, has become a Castro supporter `see "Earwigged," April 7-13, 2005`.

Castro argues he is in fact a proponent of growth. "The PGA Village votes were the only time I ever voted against any economic development project, literally," he says. He favors tax abatements when they give the city a competitive advantage in bringing high-wage jobs to underdeveloped areas of town, Castro adds, and unlike Schubert and Hardberger, he is willing to entertain a contract with Major League Soccer if it can put a dam in the Alamodome's flood of red ink.

Developers who would like to see the Vested Rights ordinance changed are not likely to be mollified, however. Castro does not favor loosening the current law, under which sellers' property is bound by the land-use regulations in effect at the time of resale or development unless they filed a development plan with the city under the ordinances in effect when they bought the property. "If you haven't done anything with it, and you haven't filed any kind of plat or started a project and you're just selling it to somebody, I don't think anybody can expect to have any rights at that point," Castro argues, even though that can mean that an entity such as the North East Independent School District faces higher costs for a long-planned project, or a property's market value decreases. "I guess the question becomes to what extent do you protect the expectation interests of the developer versus the environment. And I tend to fall on `the side of` protecting San Antonio's environment."

Castro's firm stance during the acrimonious PGA negotiations earned him the respect of Democrats who believe Castro will fight as hard on other issues. But Castro agrees he is ultimately a pragmatist. He is committed to addressing the needs of the city's poorest Zip codes, which "happen to be African-American and Hispanic," he says, but "I want to make sure we lift up people without dividing people. And I would appeal to people's sense of community to do that."

Critics might contend Castro wasn't appealing to a sense of community when he and District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle moved to restore funding to West Side Arts Coalition members who received smaller awards during last year's biannual funding process. Peer panelists also cut funding to the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Symphony, and some of those funds were allocated to new - West Side-oriented - grantee Centro Alameda. But the Coalition argued that the process unfairly discriminated against them and that the City owed it to its Hispanic heritage to at least match the organizations' prior funding levels. "It seemed to be a legitimate concern that these were the ones that were bearing the losses," Castro recalls. "Whether it's motivated by something that they think it is, I don't know."

Perhaps sensing that the "age before beauty" campaign wasn't selling like hotcakes, Hardberger has made a point of insinuating that he is a better choice because, unlike Castro, who presumably doesn't intend to retire from politics if he leaves the mayor's office at 35, he has no further ambition than to be San Antonio's head figurehead. "It's interesting, the Good Government League used to say, We only concern ourselves with San Antonio," Castro observes. "You can't get somewhere if you do a poor job, and the only way to do a good job is to benefit San Antonio. So, in sense, I'd be more concerned with somebody who has no ambition."

In a rare display of what passes for temper with the even-keeled Castro, he suggests that Hardberger's criticism is an inversion of old stereotypes. "I also have listened to his comments and just thought about the characterization for so many years of parts of this community as lazy - so I've never seen ambition as a bad thing. If I were running in 1971, I probably would have been called lazy."

But that's as far off as the gloves come. At an April 25 mayoral debate sponsored in part by the West Side Arts Coalition, poet and author Naomi Shihab Nye submitted a question for Castro to the moderator. In Spanish, she inquired, "What color is your heart?" and tried to have the same question presented to his opponents in German. A second audience question was, "Would you endorse a book about great Hispanic women?" Sidestepping the softballs from the Latino activist base, Castro replied to the first that his heart was red with passion for the city; for the second question, he directed the audience to the shelves of the library hosting the debate. "I think that more than anything else you need a mayor who is conciliatory and who is not inflammatory," Castro concludes. "I want to be a conciliatory mayor and one who tries to bring consensus."

By Elaine Wolff

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