Will Success Spoil Leonel Castillo?

Why is it that whenever a minority politician makes good, someone starts accusing him of selling out?

This is a Horatio Alger story of sorts about Leonel Castillo. I say “of sorts” because Horatio Alger wrote nineteenth-century rags-to-riches sagas and Leonel Castillo, at age 37, is making the unspectacular salary of $14,800 a year as Houston’s city controller and still buys some of his clothes at the Salvation Army. But he doesn’t care too much about money, and he can boast that he has the largest electoral constituency of any Mexican-American politician in Texas. Because he is a liberal Democrat who has campaigned much of his adult life for the civil and political rights of blacks as well as Chicanos, he enjoys an impressive reputation in certain national circles. The reputation brings him invitations like one last month to meet with McGeorge Bundy of the Ford Foundation, which is wondering what it should do about the fact that sometime in the next decade Hispanic Americans are expected to overtake blacks as the most populous minority group in this country.

In Texas, Mexican-Americans already outnumber blacks, the two groups representing 17 per cent and 11 percent respectively of the state’s approximately 12 million people. These figures alone encourage some of Castillo’s strategists to suggest that by the 1980s the first member of an ethnic minority group will be elected to statewide office, probably some secondary post like state treasurer or comptroller of public accounts- and, of course, they are betting on Castillo.

Still, in these times of an apparent slide to the political right and a return to consensus politics, ambitious minority leaders are facing a basic dilemma: to succeed they must move away from acting as advocates for their political base in order to appeal to a larger constituency. The moment they do, they are inevitably barraged by accusations that they have “sold out.” Yet it is significant that someone like Charles V. Hamilton, who collaborated with black activist Stokely Carmichael in writing the book Black Power in the Sixties, is now advocating what he calls “deracialization” of politics. Issues should be advanced, the theory goes, not simply because they are important to blacks, but because they matter to a much larger, much more amorphous group of which blacks are only a part. Leonel Castillo is in the forefront of this return by minority politicians to the political mainstream; he is a liberal making his reputation as a fiscal conservative. 

Of course, before he can win a statewide race, he must first be known statewide and be able to raise a lot of money. Two years ago Castillo came surprisingly close to being elected chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee, a position that would have helped him greatly with both requirements. He wants to run for party chairman again this September. A couple of key votes at the June State Democratic Convention in Houston demonstrated that Governor Dolph Briscoe’s handpicked party chairman, conservative Calvin Guest of Bryan, will be far more vulnerable than he was in 1974, when Castillo got about 42 per cent of the vote. Indeed, it’s clear that if the Jimmy Carter supporter and uncommitted and liberal delegates unite in September as they did in June, Castillo or any other candidate they support will win. (Castillo originally favored Sargent Shriver for president but signed into the June State Convention as a Carter delegate.) But whatever happens in September, you are likely to see and hear more of Leonel Castillo before the decade is out.

In high school they called him Lone, a nickname that persists today among family, friends, and acquaintances. It’s short for Leonel, a name still often mi pronounced

Lionel, but it was partly inspired by the funny, goggle-like glasses he had to wear because of his extreme myopia when he played for the Kirwin Buccaneers, the football team of the Catholic high school he attended in Galveston. Those glasses made him something of a masked man, so Lone was a natural, the Lone Ranger then being a popular television hero. The tag fit in another way, too: a studious, shy, gangling kid, he was a bit of a loner.

The youngest of four children of a union dock worker on the Galveston waterfront, he wore those round wire-frame glasses that were a badge of poverty, not fashion, in the Fifties, and he tended toward gentle and aesthetic pursuits. He played the piano for a while until his older brother Seferino convinced him that was sissy and steered him to an acceptably macho alternative, lifting weights with the guys at the YMCA. Still, he tended to keep his distance from the group. John Sanchez, a Galveston longshoreman who used to lift weights with the brothers Castillo, recalls that after weekend football games he and Seferino would go out to drink -“and Lone would go back to his books. I think that’s why he had trouble with his eyes, he read so much.” Castillo remembers being horrified by the Aztec Bar, then a Mexican-American hangout near his family’s east end home and a notorious bucket of blood. He still doesn’t do much drinking except for an occasional beer. When a persistent host recently asked if he could “put something in” the Coke Castillo had requested, he responded, “Ice.”

Castillo’s political awareness first blossomed at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. As a political opponent’s dossier noted later, in 1961 Castillo was a member of Students for Civil Liberties, described by the opponent as a group that “joined forces with Armed Forces personnel to force a downtown movie theater to eliminate segregated seating.” Activism like Castillo’s helped make San Antonio the first major city in Texas to open its hotels and public facilities to Negroes. His efforts were an early expression of his enduring efforts to form alliances between blacks and browns, a commitment that later helped land him a seat on the board of the black-dominated national Urban Coalition, balancing his more predictable place on the board of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Council of La Raza

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