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Over the past few days, news has emerged that two of Texas’s better politicians—one Democrat and one Republican, before anyone gets offended—are on the verge of being poached away. The San Antonio Express-News reported on Saturday that Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, has been offered a job in Barack Obama’s cabinet, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; it isn’t the first time that the folks up in Washington have wooed this Castro, but it is the first time, per the Express-News, that he didn’t spurn their advances.
Also significant, although it hasn’t incited nearly such excitement and speculation from the national media, is the news that Robert Duncan, the longtime state senator from Lubbock, will leave the Lege to become chancellor of Texas Tech. So let me sneak in a comment about Duncan before chiming in on the speculation about what Castro’s move may mean.
Duncan has been a genuinely superlative senator. When we were working on last year’s Best List, we crunched the numbers, and found that he was the most honored legislator in the history of the project—it was his fifth time being named a “Best Legislator,” and he also had an honorable mention and a rookie of the year notice. Beyond that, Duncan is the kind of legislator who illustrates the reason that we spend so much time researching the Best List. He’s not particularly high profile, and he’s not at all a showman. If you had watched every minute of proceedings on the Senate floor last year, you probably wouldn’t even have noticed him. And yet if you started talking to legislators, staffers, lobbyists, and advocates, you would hear Duncan cited consistently, warmly, and across party lines as one of the most thoughtful, trustworthy, and effective people in the building. As a senator, he’s tackled serious but unglamorous issues, such as the solvency of state pension funds; he’s also provided critical, behind-the-scenes assists to colleagues of both parties. An example would be last year’s equal pay bill. His departure from the Senate will be a loss for that chamber, because he’s been a real credit to it—because of the laws he helped pass, and because of the example he set.
If Castro is confirmed as HUD Secretary, it will, similarly, be a loss to San Antonio. The city doesn’t have a strong-mayor system, but it has had, in Castro, a strong mayor. His media visibility has always been disproportionate (compared to that of, say, Houston mayor Annise Parker, who was also elected in 2009), but it has helped draw national attention to a historically overlooked major city. His fame has also, perhaps, distracted people from what may turn out to be his greatest advantage: a talent for careful, cautious, long-range planning that makes him no fun at all to interview, but has helped him notch some substantive achievements as mayor, such as San Antonio’s preschool initiative, and had, by all accounts, put him on a path to run for governor in 2018, with a reasonable chance of actually winning.
That capacity for deliberation and planning is, in itself, the main reason that Castro’s decision to go to Washington can’t be considered a risky political move. As a number of people quickly observed, the move puts Castro closer to being on Hillary Clinton’s hypothetical shortlist of running mates in 2016. Worth noting, in that context, is that if Clinton does run, she’s bound to be more popular in Texas than Obama has been. She did win the primary here in 2008, and her husband’s defeats here in 1992 and 1996 were narrower than people might remember. If her running mate was a Texan, sheer state patriotism might be enough to put Big Red in play. (This ploy also worked for JFK in 1960.)
It’s true that if Castro became vice-president, he wouldn’t be able to run for governor in 2018, and being governor of Texas is almost certainly a better job than being vice-president of the United States. (This point has probably also occurred to both Rick Perry and Ted Cruz.) Other than that, however, there’s not much risk here for Castro. Although the move would make him a paid-up member of an unpopular administration, he doesn’t have to campaign with Obama or advocate for the Affordable Care Act; as Secretary of HUD, actually, he might be exposed to fewer questions about contentious issues like Medicaid expansion or unauthorized immigration than he might be at the moment. And if he’s passed over as a potential running mate, or if he is picked and the ticket loses, he can still run in 2018. The political climate in Texas may still be unpropitious for Democrats running statewide, but I doubt Castro’s odds are going to get worse.
(AP Photo | Statesman.com, Deborah Cannon, Pool)