New mayor Julián Castro on San Antonio’s future.
Evan Smith: You were elected mayor of San Antonio on May 9 with more than 56 percent of the vote, even though you ran against eight other people. Could you ever have imagined that you would avoid a runoff, let alone that the magnitude of your victory would be so impressive?
Julián Castro: No, it was a surprise. I was just hoping that I would get to 50 percent plus one. So when the early vote came back and it was more than 56 percent, I was elated.
ES: As a city councilman in 2005, you made it into the mayor’s race runoff, although you were ultimately drubbed by Phil Hardberger. How did losing—and being out of office for four years—affect your confidence going into this?
JC: I was confident going in, but as the saying goes, “Once bitten, twice shy.” Because of my defeat in 2005, I don’t know if I approached it with the same bravado that I did as a thirty-year-old, kind of swashbuckling candidate.
ES: Did that loss teach you something other than to be more humble about your ambitions?
JC: It’s true that defeat is a better teacher than victory; you have to think about what you could have done better. I took time after the last race to do that, and I set about creating a broader coalition of support. The difference was strong support from San Antonio’s business community and better support citywide, from every council district.
ES: What persuaded the business community that you were the right guy in ’09 but not in ’05?
JC: I took the time to develop relationships with people in the business community. I think they better understood my approach, my outlook for San Antonio’s future, and they became comfortable with it. We just didn’t have enough of those conversations before the 2005 race.
ES: Was age more of an issue then? At 30, you would have been the youngest mayor in the city’s history. At 34, you’re not even the second-youngest.
JC: I feel old.
ES: The theory I’ve always heard about 2005 is that voters weren’t as happy as they expected to be with the previous mayor, Ed Garza, who was only 32 when he took office. So you were penalized for your youth—they didn’t want to take another chance on a young guy. Hardberger was more than twice your age.
JC: I think that’s accurate. This time Mayor Hardberger, as an elder statesman, had set a good foundation that allowed the city to think more positively about a younger candidate.
ES: What did you learn from him?
JC: The most important thing I learned is to have a goal-oriented approach. Most mayors take a shotgun approach, blasting away at a whole bunch of different objectives. He identified specific goals he wanted to accomplish, and he spent his political capital and energy on them. Also, he took a citywide approach to governing and worked very well with all ten council districts.
ES: So what are your specific goals?
JC: I have a couple of projects. Establish a green job corps. Create a museum district along the Broadway corridor.
ES: Is the sagging economy the biggest challenge facing the city?
JC: The biggest challenge is creating an educated workforce to compete with the nation and the world. We lag behind competing cities in our number of college graduates.
ES: What can you do about that as mayor?
JC: Well, there’s something very specific that I’d like to try. Like many school districts that are losing students, the San Antonio Independent School District is closing schools. I want the city to take over some of those campuses in the urban core and work with nonprofits to focus on early childhood education—from day one until age three, before kids get into pre-K or Head Start. And along with that, I’d like to see a whole series of measures to increase the percentage of children who are immunized on time, the percentage of parents who have received guidance on how to get involved with their child’s education, the percentage of kids who are kindergarten-ready at the appropriate age. I want San Antonio, in fifteen years, to rank at or near the top of America’s best cities for early childhood development.
ES: What you’re proposing would cost a lot of money.
JC: I’m hopeful that, in the coming years, we will have more revenue to do such things. But there’s also the private sector, which has shown a real willingness over the last five years to invest in different efforts that are important to the city.
ES: What do you do about luring companies to San Antonio and keeping them there? There are a number of major corporations headquartered in the city, but the loss of AT&T to Dallas last year had to hurt. What kind of package can you put together to attract and retain their kind?
JC: A couple of things. First, we’re going to keep refining our economic development model. We have dozens of development entities right now, and we are going to look at how we can streamline that process and create a Web presence—an informational portal of entry for San Antonio along the lines of what Houston and Phoenix have. Second, we need to get back to what Mayor [Henry] Cisneros did so well in the eighties, which was to raise the profile of the city. If you watch the Today show or CNN when they do the weather, you’d think San Antonio didn’t exist.
ES: Do you hire people to help market the city? Do you get more aggressive in publicizing things going on? Because obviously you want to spend your time on substance, and marketing isn’t really substance. Or at least it doesn’t have the same impact.
JC: I like to think it does. If you’re a graduate of Yale or the University of Michigan or the University of Chicago and you think about where the jobs are, oftentimes there’s opportunity in San Antonio that you wouldn’t know about. We can’t even fathom how much of a talent investment we’re missing out on. So we’re going to get on the road, get with companies, write letters to media outlets, and do all the practical things we need to. Over time, we’ll get into the national conversation about up-and-coming cities.
ES: What about tax breaks, which are always controversial? Are you open to cutting deals with companies in exchange for locating in San Antonio and bringing jobs to the city?
JC: You have to use tax incentives in a responsible way, with substantial recapture provisions in them.
JC: For instance, if you have a ten-year tax break and the company leaves after six years, you can contractually recover some of the revenue that you would have gotten during those six years. I think we also need to look at not only how we can use incentives to attract investment to the city but how to grow investment from within—how we can help small or big businesses grow. The situation with AT&T caused a lot of soul-searching in the economic development community about what else we can do to pay attention to what we already have here. I’m going to focus on how we can enhance our incentives for those folks.
ES: Why do you think AT&T left?
JC: I think Dallas suited the leadership of the company a little better. A question was raised at that time with respect to our airport, whether it could handle a company that was ranked tenth on the Fortune 500 list. Well, San Antonio also has Valero, which was sixteenth in 2008 but jumped to tenth in 2009. We’ve also seen the success of USAA and H-E-B. I’m confident that the airport works well for huge companies.
ES: You were out of office when the AT&T move was announced. Do you think the city did enough to prevent it?
JC: I think Mayor Hardberger and [Bexar County] Judge [Nelson] Wolff were attentive, but we can improve on that. I think there is a more aggressive approach now because of what happened. That ball will not drop again.
ES: You’ve said that the environment will be a big focus for you as mayor. What do you plan to do?
JC: We’re going to train workers to take on green-collar jobs. The federal government is investing a tremendous amount of money in the green economy—as they retrofit their buildings and companies build new green buildings, we want to take advantage of it. We recently passed a green development code that lends credibility to our effort to move into the green economy. We’re looking into partnering with Austin in marketing the region as a place for solar manufacturing investment. We’re going to pass a green events ordinance, as a couple of other cities have done, so that recycling is an integral part of large events like Fiesta. We’re going to make sure that CPS, our municipal energy company, makes use of solar and wind energy.
ES: Does being 34 influence your view of how the city should be run? Will you necessarily approach the job of mayor differently than the last guy, who left office at 74?
JC: My outlook is geared to the future. I’m thinking not only about the next two years but the next thirty, and I’m going to bring a lot of energy and ideas. I’m comfortable with new technologies and the issues that present themselves to America and the world in the twenty-first century. Not that Mayor Hardberger wasn’t, but there’s a generational difference. For instance, in the campaign, we made use of social networking—
ES: So the Facebook candidate becomes the Facebook mayor?
JC: Sure, and more. We’ll make government accessible and understandable through the use of technology, through town halls online. I believe [the principle behind] Facebook should be applied on a neighborhood basis. For example, you and I are both on Facebook, but our friends on Facebook generally do not live in physical proximity to us. The city needs to experiment with a model in which you have a five- or ten-block area that is set up with a Facebook-type account. You create a sort of village.
ES: Another thing particular to you as the incoming mayor is your ethnicity.
JC: Well, I happen to be Hispanic. I’m proud of who I am. My view is informed by it, but it’s not limited by it. I’m determined to lead with an eye toward the entire city.
ES: Okay, but you’re a Latino in a city whose population is more than 60 percent Hispanic today and bound to be even more Hispanic in years to come. How does that affect your sense of the job?
JC: San Antonio looks like what Texas and America are going to look like decades from now. At the same time, I think there is an extra responsibility on me to make sure that we are a very cosmopolitan city, that we reflect the entire diversity of this city. The great cities of the world are not defined by one or two ethnicities, religions, or backgrounds. It must be that way for San Antonio as well.
ES: But the population is almost entirely Hispanic or Anglo. The city is, in fact, defined by two ethnicities.
JC: The Asian American population is growing; right now it’s probably 2 percent, but in ten years it will be double that. The way we can make sure that this kind of multiculturalism is on display is in our art and culture, in the events we highlight, in the opportunities we give folks to experience other cultures, and in the way that we market the city to the world. It’s important that folks who are thinking of working and living in San Antonio understand that there’s a place for them here. We don’t just tolerate diversity or appreciate diversity. Everyone is welcome.
ES: The Hispanic community is certainly going to grow over time as well, and poverty is surely going to be as much of an issue if not more of one. Right now more than 18 percent of the city’s population and more than 14 percent of families are below the poverty line. More than a quarter of residents under age 18 and more than 15 percent over age 65 are below the poverty line. What do you do about this? I assume it has to be a priority for you.
JC: It is. I’ve often described San Antonio as a city of irony: We are very economically powerful and successful, and at the same time we have one of the highest poverty rates for a big city and one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates, and our literacy rate isn’t too high. I’m focused on helping the Junior League with its major effort on literacy, and I’ll continue the work that Mayor Hardberger started on trying to deal with the dropout problem—to give students a sense that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if they stay in school. Funding is a challenge, but we are going to do what we can within our tight budget to support those programs and all of our social services, and we are going to work with foundations and the private sector.
ES: What about the role that the federal government can play in times like these? Mayors around the country are having to ask themselves whether they want a handout from Washington. Stimulus money can have an impact, but it’s not without controversy.
JC: I would welcome federal assistance, but it has to be done with an eye toward the future and good budgeting. We’re looking at getting $8 million for new police officers, but at some point, after the federal money disappears, the city has to be able to pay that amount itself. As long as we’re confident that we can find that money in the future, we’ll take it. I would rather see it come into my city than go to another city. I don’t want California to get all the money that our taxpayers are paying to the federal government.
ES: You mentioned the importance of staying in school. In that respect, you’re the best role model. You come from a single-parent home, and your mother, who was a Chicano political activist, didn’t have much money, but you and your twin brother, Joaquin, went on to Stanford and Harvard and into successful careers in law and politics. You realized her dreams for you and your dreams for yourself.
JC: Definitely. I was disappointed four years ago, because the election was on her birthday. This time, on the eve of Mother’s Day, I was overjoyed that my mom, who stood up for folks when there weren’t that many people doing it, and who sacrificed so much for Joaquin and me, got to see me become mayor of her city. That’s the most special part of it.