Julian Castro’s Tough Political Hand

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San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is reportedly coming to the nation’s capital to serve as President Obama’s next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Castro is expected to replace HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who will likely be named as the next White House budget director. Castro’s impending move triggered fresh speculation about his 2016 political ambitions, but it may present more questions than answers.

For years, Castro has widely been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, which is hungry for a national Hispanic leader. The 39-year-old has served as mayor of the country’s seventh-largest city since 2009. He has a possible vice presidential nominee in 2016.

But it won’t be easy for Castro to quickly advance his political career from his perch at HUD. The last person to go directly from HUD to a major party’s presidential ticket, as NBC’s First Read points out, was Jack Kemp, the Republicans’ vice presidential pick in 1996. But Kemp had far more experience with Castro, having served in Congress for 18 years and launched his own presidential bid in 1988 before taking the HUD post.

When we profiled Castro in 2012, we asked him whether he would accept a cabinet appointment to an agency such as HUD, where his role model and former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros served during the Clinton administration. Castro said he would turn that down.

“Yeah,” he said. “I can’t imagine what they would offer me.”

Castro’s political calculus appears to have changed. Democrats view deep-red Texas as a state they can turn blue, largely because of the state’s rapidly growing Latino population. But it could be a decade or more before such a dramatic political shift occurs, and Castro may not have wanted to cool his heels in San Antonio any longer.

“I believe that Texas is going to become competitive and then eventually Democratic, probably within the next six to eight years,” Castro said in an interview with Fusion last December. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

It’s possible that Castro could build his national profile and then run for a statewide post like another former HUD secretary, Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor who served in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Sen. Ted Cruz is up for reelection in 2018 and there will be a gubernatorial election that year as well.

That too could prove to be a tough task. Democrats have not won a statewide race in Texas since 1994.

Serving in Obama’s cabinet also means Castro will have to win confirmation in the Senate. And he could face difficult questions about his record and background during confirmation hearings. San Antonio’s government structure is such that Castro does not have as much power as other big-city mayors. Castro may be pressed about how much credit he deserves for the city’s growing economy.

And, as the Washington Examiner’s Byron York writes, questions will likely be raised about Castro’s ties to Mikal Watts, a prominent attorney and Democratic donor. Castro reportedly received a large fee for referring a drunk-driving lawsuit to Watts’ firm in 2006. Watts has faced allegations of improper conduct in an investigation related to the 2010 BP oil spill, where critics say his client list allegedly contained people who never used his firm for legal representation.

If he is confirmed and serves well at HUD, it may be more realistic for Castro to return to his home state and win higher office there than getting selected for presidential ticket in two years.

Castro has vast potential as a national political figure. But his rise might not come as quickly or easily as many believe.

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