He’s the new federal housing secretary who jokes about suffering sticker shock in Washington’s pricey rental market. Practically overnight, he became one of the most prominent and promising Hispanic public officials in the country. His name already is being bandied about as a possible vice presidential running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
And just yesterday, he celebrated his 40th birthday.
Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas and President Obama’s new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is one of the freshest faces in the nation’s capital -- a politician with seemingly limitless opportunities. But a big question that remains to be answered is whether he can successfully use HUD as a springboard to higher office.
After just seven weeks in office, Castro for now appears fixated on running a major bureaucracy with 8,500 employees and a $47 billion annual budget. He assumed the post at a time when “there is evidence of renewed weakness in the U.S. housing market” that has policy makers and private economists nervous, according to Reuters.
As the Obama administration’s newest housing cheer leader and advocate, Castro declared in a speech on Tuesday, “We come together at a time when our economy is growing, a time when American businesses have created 10 million new jobs over the last four and a half years . . . and a time when the housing market has gotten strong, with home sales, starts and values all rising in recent years.
“These are days of tremendous progress across the board, and now our charge is to accelerate this progress for every American,” he said during closing remarks at a two-day housing summit sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “That’s where HUD comes in.”
Castro also outlined a series of challenges suggesting this newcomer to Washington has his work cut out for him:
He warned, for instance, that after the U.S. finally dug itself out of an historic economic crisis and housing market collapse triggered by a reckless real estate industry and secondary markets that provided billions of dollars in mortgages to unqualified buyers, “the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.”
“Today, it’s too hard” to get a mortgage loan, he told the audience. “The truth is that the dream of homeownership is out of reach for too many Americans. This has to change.”
“A government-dominated market is unsustainable,” he added. “Instead, we need to attract private capital back to the market, establish certainty for lenders and protect taxpayers for the future.”
Castro – the former mayor of the seventh largest city in the U.S. -- gained national attention in 2012 when he became the first Latino chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. It was a time when immigration reform was a dominant issue in the presidential campaign and the Democratic Party was eager to preserve the allegiance of a substantial Hispanic voting bloc.
Castro and his identical twin brother Joaquin are Democratic success stories. The two brothers grew up in San Antonio, attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and then returned to their native city to launch their political careers. Joaquin Castro is now a member of Congress from Texas.
The affable, well-spoken Julian Castro amassed an impressive record in urban renewal and economic recovery as mayor of San Antonio. Some analysts have said that by succeeding Shaun Donovan as HUD secretary, Castro will be in position to help forge housing, employment and economic policy that is critical to lower and middle income Americans who comprise a critical part of the Democratic base.
“I will judge my tenure by one standard: how well did we spark opportunity for Americans?” he said yesterday. “With the stakes so high we cannot afford to fail.”
With his broad appeal to Hispanic voters and his considerable experience dealing with urban problems in Texas, Castro is likely to emerge as a player as the 2016 presidential campaign approaches.
The Washington Post published a front-page story in August highlighting Castro’s vice presidential prospects and reporting that Hillary and Bill Clinton have been aggressively “cultivating” Castro; they also invited him to their home in Washington for a private dinner.
Henry Cisneros, a former HUD secretary himself in the Clinton administration, told The Post that in March he sat next to Hillary Clinton at a private luncheon in New Mexico where Cisneros said they discussed Castro and his political future.
“It’s a natural friendship waiting to bloom,” Cisneros, also a former San Antonio mayor and a longtime family friend and political mentor of Castro, told the Post.
Steve Elmendorf, a Washington lobbyist and former House Democratic adviser, said yesterday of Castro that “the guy is very appealing” and seems a natural to be included in a list of potential vice presidential candidates next year.
“I think for any presidential candidate, the choice will come down to, do you pick somebody like that who brings some great energy and diversity, or do you pick somebody who brings along a state? Castro’s problem is that he doesn’t bring Texas.”
Castro should beware: For decades, the job of HUD secretary has proved to be a political graveyard or improbable launching pad for higher office.
Even Cisneros who served as secretary of HUD from 1993 to 1997 fell victim to the curse. In March 1995, an Independent Counsel was appointed to investigate allegations that Cisneros lied to the FBI during background investigations prior to being appointed secretary.
Later, after leaving office, Cisnero pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of having lied to the FBI about money he had paid to a mistress before joining the Clinton administration. He subsequently paid a $10,000 fine.
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