To his supporters, Julián Castro is seasoned, focused and ready to lead San Antonio. To his detractors, he's still a young man in a hurry, too calculating, too driven by ambition.
Castro certainly doesn't make it easy to sort out where his political ambition ends and where his desire to improve the city begins — or whether there's even a difference between the two.
At candidate forums with his mayoral rivals, the 34-year-old attorney and former city councilman is polished and measured, often reeling off layered answers to moderators' questions about San Antonio's future.
His campaign is no less disciplined, and it has a narrative line it's promulgating: Four years after narrowly losing to Phil Hardberger in a runoff, Castro has emerged better prepared — a husband, new father and owner of a small law office who's ready to assume leadership of the country's seventh-largest city.
Castro's wife, Erica — they married in 2007 after dating for eight years — delivered their first child March 14. The new father has a hint of gray in his sideburns.
Over lunch Wednesday at Acenar, a frequent haunt of Castro and twin brother Joaquín, a state representative, he answered a question about the portrait his campaign has drawn with: “Just laying out the facts as they are in 2009.”
But some of his critics and political opponents, looking at the same set of facts, see a pulsing ambition that reaches beyond San Antonio.
When candidate Trish DeBerry-Mejia said in a debate Wednesday that she wouldn't use the mayor's office “as a steppingstone to get to a higher office,” there was little question at whom she was aiming.
It stems from the sense that Castro has spent years and a lot of energy thinking and planning a run for office.
Educated with his brother at Stanford University and Harvard Law School, Castro returned to San Antonio in 2000 and within a year won the District 7 seat at age 26. From there, his mayoral ambitions soon bubbled up.
Castro said there is no master plan to climb from the city's top elected post into either the governor's office or the U.S. Senate, that for years his prime objective has been the mayor's office.
“As far as people who believe I'm dead-set on running for governor, that's wrong,” he said. “Municipal policy is what interested me in the first place.”
As evidence, he pointed to 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the map of Congressional District 23, forcing a special election. Political circles buzzed with speculation about Castro jumping in. But he didn't, he said, because his aim was the mayor's office.
In pursuit of that goal, he's been nothing if not methodical — or calculating, depending on whom you ask.
Castro said he only began thinking about entering politics as an undergraduate at Stanford, where he and his brother both majored in communications and political science. Palo Alto, Calif., the nerve center of Silicon Valley, home to thousands of high-tech jobs, was an eye-opener.
“When I left San Antonio and could appreciate both what makes San Antonio special and its considerable deficiencies, or challenges, that's when I began thinking about public office,” he said.
When they graduated from Stanford and Harvard together, the Castro brothers waved a sign that said, “Viva San Antonio.” It's the kind of story that perfectly bisects opinions about them, with detractors seeing a photo opportunity years in advance and supporters a passion for their hometown.
But if political ambition didn't take hold until college, Julián grew up steeped in grass-roots organizing, hauled by his mother to numerous political meetings.
In 1971, Rosie Castro ran for council alongside three other young Hispanics from the West Side, challenging the dominant Good Government League, and she helped establish La Raza Unida, a Chicano political party.
After that phase in San Antonio's history — which saw the GGL's collapse, the creation of single-member districts and the increase in minority participation in politics — she stayed immersed in causes and campaigns.
A single mother, Castro often had the twins in tow. They usually were bored, she said, but they learned how the grass-roots could affect change.
She draws a line, however, between her experience as a young adult and her sons'. Growing up, she could count the number of Latino officeholders on one hand.
“That's not how they grew up,” Rosie Castro said. “I don't have to fight that battle any more, it changed over time.”
Never married, she and Jesse Guzman — a community activist in the 1970s and now a retired math teacher — separated when the twins were 8.
Former Mayor Henry Cisneros, who first met Rosie Castro in kindergarten and has followed her sons' rise, said their education also gave them a broader take on politics.
“Julián and Joaquín have the benefit of Ivy League educations and national networks,” Cisneros said. “Their political maturation and views are going to be very different from those of us from an earlier generation.”
A star student at Jefferson High School — he finished ninth in his class — Julián Castro already showed signs of the self-possession and focus that marks his public persona.
“They were very studious and pretty quiet,” said attorney Andrew Borrego, who befriended them at Jefferson and later opened a small law firm with the pair.
Former Councilman Chip Haass wasn't a Jeffersonian, but he bumped into the Castros at high school debates and history fairs.
Like others who know the brothers, Haass says Joaquín is more socially outgoing and politically aggressive, while Julián is more deliberative and wonky.
“Julián can be very stoic, very focused,” Haass said. “Some people mistake that for being politically calculating.”
He certainly marries his ambition to meticulous planning.
More than a year before winning a council seat, Castro organized his first fundraiser — in Cambridge, Mass., where he was in his last year at Harvard Law School. His classmates ponied up about $2,000.
He also worked the phones.
“In 1999, I started calling around to neighborhood leaders asking to meet with them when I was home on Christmas break,” Castro said.
Around that time, Ed Garza — approaching the end of his term limits as District 7 councilman and laying the groundwork for a 2001 mayoral campaign — talked with the twins over dinner in Boston about Castro's plan to replace him on council.
Joaquín pressed Garza to support his brother.
Garza said he didn't know the Castro brothers well, but more by reputation.
After graduating from Stanford in 1996 but before entering Harvard Law School, the twins had worked in the city's Office of Special Projects.
“I remember the movie-star attention they got at City Hall,” Garza said. “At that point, it seemed to me that one of them was destined to be mayor.”
But Julián Castro never has been a hand-pumping politician. He would relax, loosen his tie and sometimes show flashes of passion in small groups of policymakers, Garza said. But he rarely did so in public meetings.
“When he spoke on the dais, he was more rehearsed and articulate — as you would expect from a Harvard-trained lawyer,” Garza said. “He doesn't allow himself to let his guard down.”
Returning to San Antonio, the brothers took jobs at the prestigious Akin Gump Straus Hauer & Feld LLP law firm, and soon began in-person politicking.
Michael Elrod, one of the local partners who interviewed the twins, said he knew they someday would run for office: “It just came earlier in their careers than we expected.”
Indeed, Castro's spadework paid off about eight months after joining the firm. He faced five opponents in District 7, which stretches from near downtown to the Northwest Side, but easily won without a runoff.
To some, his mayoral ambition seemed apparent almost as soon as he stepped into City Hall. Before the end of his first term, Castro already was building a war chest to run for mayor in 2005.
By then, he'd commanded attention for championing caps on campaign contributions in the wake of 2002 bribery scandals at City Hall. And early on, Castro gained a grass-roots following as the most vocal City Council opponent of the proposed PGA Village, a golf/tourism project that many feared would harm the city's water supply because it would be built over the Edwards Aquifer.
His opposition to the development cost him the backing of many business leaders who fought for the development.
In hindsight, Castro said he should have been less “strident” and pushed for a compromise early on, though he noted District 7 sentiment ran strongly against the project.
The project ultimately died, but when an alternative deal came along for the property, with stronger environmental controls, Castro — part of a council majority — voted for it.
There were murmurs that his support was calibrated to take the edge off of business opposition ahead of the 2005 mayor's race. But Castro said it was a matter of principle.
“I did what I thought was right,” he said. “I'm not an absolutist on much of anything. If we can accomplish environmental protection and economic development, that's the ticket.”
Garza said Castro's decision paid few political dividends, that it may have alienated part of his base but did little to allay the resentment of some in the business community over his opposition.
The PGA Village fight also helped lead Castro to leave Akin Gump, which had written legislation creating a special tax district for the project. He'd had to recuse himself from at least one vote, and didn't want to do that again.
Joaquín said he was planning to run for the Legislature — he beat the incumbent in District 125 in 2002 — so he left the firm, too. Together, they opened a law office with Borrego, their former high school classmate.
“We were taking anything that came through the door, whether it was divorces or small misdemeanor criminal matters,” Borrego said.
But after leaving a job that paid $98,000 a year, plus a bonus, Castro got squeezed to the point that he missed two or three mortgage payments on his house, and the lender threatened foreclosure.
“I thought about leaving council just to focus on practicing law,” he said. But he dropped that notion after talking with his family.
Meanwhile, the Castros' partnership with their former classmate ended amicably in 2003, Borrego said.
Playing up his work experience on the stump, Castro has called himself a small business owner, though the claim is less than meets the eye. He incorporated the Law Offices of Julián Castro in June 2006, and it is indeed small — the firm includes himself and his brother, plus one assistant.
In private, Castro is a voracious consumer of political intelligence, as Patti Radle discovered before serving with him on the council.
After the late-2002 arrests of two council members on bribery-related charges and the scandal-driven downfall of District 5 Councilman David Garcia, Radle began thinking about running for Garcia's seat.
However, she'd reached out to only one person beyond her family to talk about the possibility when she sat down behind Castro and his mother at a public meeting. She was stunned when Julián Castro turned in his seat, said he'd heard she might mount a campaign and encouraged her to go for it.
“His own enthusiasm helped me,” said Radle, who won the seat in 2003.
On the council, she found him to be tough-minded and committed, and she backed him for mayor in 2005.
Castro's campaign was far from cash poor, but it suffered from a couple of self-inflicted wounds.
It undercut his work on campaign finance reform by filing a shoddy contributions report, for which the city's ethics commission later reprimanded him.
Then came “Twin-gate,” where it appeared that Joaquín tried to take his brother's place during the annual River Parade while Julián attended a neighborhood meeting.
As he did in 2005, Castro said the episode was a misunderstanding — that he decided at the last minute not to attend the annual Fiesta parade, but that Joaquín didn't get the message and climbed aboard.
The announcer, reading from a script as the barge glided by the crowd, simply read the names of council members who were supposed to be present, including Julián's.
To some voters, it looked like the brothers had tried to pull off a childish “switcheroo.”
That and the campaign finance report gave Castro's campaign a not-ready-for-primetime cast, and played into one of Hardberger's lines of attack — that Castro was too young and inexperienced. Still, he lost by only 3,820 votes out of about 130,000 cast.
His current campaign, in some respects, is geared toward undoing that impression. It's a professional effort, one headed by Christian Archer, Hardberger's former campaign manager. Castro loaned his campaign $200,000 last summer — which came from a fee he received for referring a case to trial lawyer Mikal Watts, a prominent Democratic fundraiser.
On the West Side, Radle — who co-chaired a homelessness commission with Castro and supports his mayoral bid — worries that professionalism carries a cost.
“If there are more face-to-face meetings, it's not happening here,” she said. “Maybe they're chasing voters in Districts 8, 9 and 10. There are some in the campaign who are not aware of how to campaign on the West Side, how to excite people here.”
Castro acknowledged not spending as much time tending to his West Side base, though he said grass-roots organizing remains a key component.
“We're very focused on a citywide effort — our campaign is more dispersed this time,” he said.
Cisneros, one of Castro's major role models, recommended that kind of approach.
“There is still a level of suspicion about a person who is young, about a person who is Latino,” he said. “So you have to go out of your way a mile to make sure people understand that you're really for the entire city and have the capability to represent the entire city.”