SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Close your eyes for a moment and imagine it's the summer of 2016. Fresh off her victory in the primaries, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is searching for a running mate.
If the 68-year-old Clinton of three years from now were to play the role of Dr. Frankenstein in crafting the politically ideal VP pick, relative youth likely would be a key trait in order to balance the ticket.
And, perhaps facing a general election campaign against the first Hispanic presidential or vice-presidential nominee (think Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Susana Martinez), she might also look to a Latino to shore up a critical piece of the Democratic coalition in tossup states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.
What’s more, the former secretary of state probably would want to accentuate the historic nature of her bid to become the first female president by not pairing herself with someone whose ego runs counter to playing second fiddle (sorry, Cory Booker, you’re out.).
It’s a hypothetical scenario, but not one that requires a stretch to think Clinton’s gaze might land here, upon the nation’s seventh largest city, where Mayor Julian Castro would be a few months shy of his 42nd birthday and have seven years in office under his belt.
By most accounts, Castro would be eager to answer the call to national office just four years after introducing himself to the country by keynoting the 2012 Democratic National Convention. But in an exclusive interview this week with RealClearPolitics, the compelling Latino mayor, who has for years been pegged as a rising star, said he did not feel the weight of heavy expectations.
"The good part about being relatively young is that I don’t believe you feel as many of those burdens yet," said Castro, who turns 39 next month. "I’ve been able to go on in public service so far just concentrating on what I want to get done."
He has also very much concentrated on leaving his mark on the national scene. In his marquee speaking role last summer in Charlotte, N.C., Castro conveyed an inspiring life story that had echoes of the one Barack Obama laid out at the national gathering of Democrats eight years earlier.
With many Democratic operatives and officials all but settled on Clinton as the party’s nominee-in-waiting, some of the 2016 chatter has turned to her choice of a running mate. Castro occupies a top spot on those lists. Though highly speculative at this stage, they nonetheless reflect the collective mind-set of the powers that be within the party.
“A lot of people have mentioned the Clinton-Castro ticket, which I think would be very attractive,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. “I think he’s got greater aspirations, but I think he’s also someone who’s smart enough to know that he needs to focus on doing the job at hand.”
Castro himself comes across as humble and, at times, self-effacing about his own political future. But he is well aware of the hype that surrounds him -- a phenomenon that he and his political staff are not averse to fueling via extensive out-of-state travel and interviews with national media organizations.
In between bites of enchiladas de mole during an hour-long lunch Monday at Acenar, a popular downtown San Antonio restaurant, the low-key Harvard Law graduate made an observation that recalled the views a certain Illinois state senator laid out to America back in 2004.
“There is something that big-city mayors bring that others don’t, and that’s that things are getting done in cities,” Castro said. “If D.C. were run like a city government, folks would get a lot more done, because there’s no score-keeping, in terms of partisanship.”
A year after making his grand entrance as the anointed “next Democrat to watch,” Castro will soon affirm the already-ingrained perception that he has bigger things in mind when he speaks next month at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry in Indianola.
In some ways, the stakes in Iowa are just as high for the ambitious San Antonio Democrat as they were during the 2012 convention. Upon his arrival in the nation’s first voting state, after all, he will be swarmed by national political reporters intent on parsing his every word and movement for signs of what’s next for him.
Perhaps even more consequentially, Castro will be introducing himself to many of the same state activists who helped propel Obama toward the White House with his January 2008 victory in the caucuses -- less than two years after the first-term Illinois senator made his Iowa debut at Harkin’s annual fundraiser.
“I’m working on the speech right now and thinking through it,” Castro said. “It’ll be a combination of some of the things I touched on last time and also how I think America can be more competitive in the 21st century global economy.”
It will not, in other words, serve as a launching pad for his bid to win a fourth mayoral term in 2015.
“And I’ll try not to make it too boring,” Castro added with the kind of lighthearted laugh that punctuates many of his sentences.
“Boring” is not a word one would use to characterize Castro’s rapid political rise.
Four years after being elected in 2001 to the San Antonio City Council, he sought -- at the age of 30 -- to become the youngest elected mayor in the city’s history. After entering the race as the perceived front-runner and receiving a plurality of the vote in the primary, Castro ultimately lost a close run-off election.
He calls the experience “very educational,” as it convinced him that he had to reach out more to the business community.
But most of all, it taught him the value of patience.
“It’s true what they say -- that you learn a lot more when you lose than when you win, because when you lose, you’re forced to think about why you lost,” he said. “Sometimes when you want it to be your time, it’s not. The dynamics of that year were not favorable.”
Though there were a few sharp elbows thrown in that race, and in the 2009 campaign that launched him into to the mayor’s office with 56 percent of the vote, avowed enemies of Castro are difficult to find in this deep-red state.
In part, that reflects Texas’ non-partisan municipal elections. Still, Castro’s Republican opponents have begun to push back more vigorously against his agenda since he became inexorably entwined last summer with the national Democratic Party.
A self-characterized centrist, the biggest knock on Castro is that he hasn’t achieved anything significant enough in his relatively humble position to justify the hype he regularly receives.
It’s a criticism Castro intended to combat Monday when he greeted about 200 nervous 4-year-olds and their equally anxious parents, as the kids embarked on their first day of pre-school. The launch of Castro’s Pre-K 4 San Antonio program, which voters agreed to fund last November via a 1/8-cent sales tax hike -- marked the culmination of Castro’s signature achievement thus far in office.
“My entire reason for being in politics has been to try to create for people the kind of opportunity that I had,” Castro said. “And the issue of educational achievement for the United States, but particularly for cities like San Antonio, is the most significant long-term challenge. And pre-K4SA was meant to address the point in the educational journey that we know can make the biggest trajectory change on.”
Wearing a solid-blue tie and dark suit that accentuated his relatively slight frame, Castro greeted incoming students on Monday morning at one of the two city-funded educational facilities that are currently operating full-day pre-kindergarten programs.
He received plenty of encouragement and words of appreciation from parents, and he appeared comfortable enough when interacting with them. Still, Castro does not ooze the natural confidence that’s typically in the DNA of most high-level politicians.
It was clear that gripping-and-grinning is not his forte as a politician, a handicap that he readily acknowledges.
“I don’t live up to the Bill Clinton standard, that’s for sure,” he said later in the day, as he worked his way through a sweetened iced tea.
Castro has an identical twin brother, Joaquin, who is a first-term Texas congressman. Though Julian was the first one to seek public office, the first to start a family, and appears to be first in line to ascend to national office, Joaquin -- younger by one minute -- has always been the more outgoing twin, according to longtime friends, family, and the mayor himself.
Rosie Castro, who was a leader of the radical political movement La Raza Unida in the early 1970s, said that Julian has “never been the back-slapping kind of guy,” in spite of being “good with people.”
“He’s very kind of a calm individual -- doesn’t get excited easily,” she said of her eldest son. “Even as children, when they made friends, Joaquin was usually the one that first made the friend. He’s just a little bit less reserved than Julian.”
There is another significant limitation to Julian’s retail politicking skills that was on full display Monday as he greeted constituents in this sprawling city, where 63 percent of residents are Hispanic.
Outside the elementary school, the mayor fielded questions from several local journalists without incident, but when a local Univision reporter began asking him questions in Spanish, things got dicey: Castro handled the first question in Spanish but then asked, a bit sheepishly, to switch over to English in answering the second inquiry.
The reason: Neither Castro brother is fluent in the native tongue of their grandmother, who spoke to them only in that language when were growing up. Asked for a self-assessment of his Spanish, Castro replied that it was “so-so” and “improving too slowly.”
“What I need to do one day is just to go to Mexico or Latin America for two months, but who has the time?” he said. “If I start speaking it with regularity, I’m sure I’d pick it up quickly, but I don’t get to do it.”
For the time being, Castro splits his days between the parochial work of running a city in which he has a relatively weak level of executive authority and laying plans for a bright future.
After his appearance outside of the pre-school, he retreated to City Hall where he chaired a brief organizational meeting of local officials regarding a truancy commission that was approved by the Texas Legislature. He let others at the table do most of the talking.
Castro travels with increasing regularity and will be in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday (at the invitation of President Obama) to take part in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington.
A former communications major at Stanford who once wanted to become a journalist, Castro keeps up with national and international events by reading The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post online.
He also scrolls through his Twitter feed throughout the day and sits in on occasional mayoral briefings hosted by senior White House officials in semi-regular, invitation-only conference calls.
In private conversations, Castro demonstrates a firm grasp of the intricacies of the national political chess game, as well as a realist’s perspective on how far a Texas Democrat currently can go at the statewide level.
The lesson of patience that he learned in his 2005 loss may have played a role in his decision to sit out next year’s Texas governor’s race. (His own internal polling showed the extent to which winning would have been an uphill climb.)
Asked if he was relieved that state Sen. Wendy Davis appears set to run for the office Rick Perry has held since 2000, freeing him from any sense of obligation to play the role of a sacrificial lamb, Castro offered praise for the recently minted heroine of Texas progressives before offering a candid assessment of the timeframe for his own ambitions.
“More than anything, I’m relieved that there will be a strong candidate, if she runs; my biggest concern was that there would be no strong candidate,” he said. “But sure, my timeline has been beyond 2014, so it’s certainly helpful.”
Though Joaquin Castro suggested in a New York Times interview three years ago that his brother’s path to Washington most likely ran through Austin, it now appears the route could be a direct one from San Antonio.
So far, at least, Julian Castro is saying all of the right things to be considered for the VP slot. Asked whether he thinks Clinton should run for president again, he did not hesitate in offering what amounted to a pre-endorsement of the former first lady.
“I believe she should and that if she does, she’ll win,” he said. “She’s had an amazing career, understands policy backwards and forwards, and in 2008, I was extremely impressed by her grasp of policy. I believe that she would offer very strong and steady leadership for the United States.”
As the lunchtime interview was coming to a close, Castro sought to dispel any notion that he might actually challenge the Democratic frontrunner-in-waiting, or consider running for president in the event that Clinton decides to stay out of the race.
“I can officially say I’m not running for president in 2016,” Castro said, flashing a bemused grin and throwing his hands up to convey his sincerity.
OK. But what if the allure of a Clinton/Castro ticket becomes too obvious to ignore?
“Then I’ll encourage my brother to step right up,” Castro said with a laugh.
Pressed to consider the possibility in earnest, the tone of Castro’s subsequent response could scarcely have been further from his blanket denial of interest in running for the top spot on the ticket.
“It just seems so far off and outside the realm of what I deal with every day,” Castro said of becoming the 2016 VP nominee. “It’s very flattering, but I can’t imagine that right now.”
Right now, perhaps. But three years is a long time in politics.