Rep. Castro cites community, family for his appreciation of public service

All politics is local, former Speaker Tip O’Neill said. For Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), it is a lesson he has long known.

“[My parents] had us in a household that was very civically minded,” Castro said, “and so I feel like I grew a civic conscience during [my childhood].”

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Castro was raised in a small home on the west side of San Antonio, an area that has low home prices and is overwhelmingly populated by working class Hispanics. 

“It’s very Texan,” Castro said. “On the west side of San Antonio, as in San Antonio and in Texas, you don’t have a lot of chest thumpers. It’s a very down-to-earth group of people.”

The Castro family stayed local. So local, in fact, that his mother did not own a car until he was 14 years old. Most traveling was done on the city’s bus system, VIA, and traveling outside the city was a rare occurrence. According to Castro, he left the city “maybe a half-dozen times” when he was growing up.

“We went out of town a few times with my dad,” Castro said. “I went out of town maybe once or twice, a few times, for high school debate tournaments, for example. But aside from that we didn’t move around much,” Castro said.

That meant that many activities centered on political and civic events. Castro remembers his mother regularly taking him and his elder twin brother, Julián, to “campaign rallies, pickets, like, barbecue plate sales.” Joaquín says it gave him an appreciation for the role that public servants played in peoples’ lives.

“[I] really grew up believing that when a government works right, when it’s not heavy-handed — it can still create opportunities in people’s lives,” Castro said. “And I still fundamentally believe that.”

Still, those views came somewhat in retrospect:  neither of the brothers was truly politically aware at the time, simply because they were too young. 

“When you’re 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 years old, you’re not really drawn to [these events],” Castro said. “You want to be out playing football or baseball … you don’t understand yet the importance of it, what it all means, and you don’t have an understanding of the context, either.”

They did finally catch the political bug at Stanford in California (Joaquín says that Julián was the first of the two to know that they wanted to become public servants). It was there that the twins, both double-majoring in political science and communication, ran as candidates for the student senate.

Out of a field of 43 candidates, the two brothers tied with 811 votes. 

“It’s odd. To this day I still think the computer just thought there was one J. Castro.” Joaquín said with a laugh.

Of course the two brothers have often been mistaken for each other. Who is being mistaken for whom depends on the location more than anything else. If Joaquín is back in his district, he is often confused with his brother, current San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. Conversely, Julián is mistaken for the congressman if he is walking the halls of the Texas legislature in Austin or if he is in Washington, D.C. 

If they are appearing together, there are two methods to tell the twins apart. The first is to see who is wearing a congressional pin on his lapel. The second is to see who is accompanied by a wife and daughter. (Joaquín is in a relationship but is unmarried.) 

The two brothers were thrust into the national spotlight this past fall with their appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Joaquín introduced his brother, who gave the keynote address, the two forming a sort of counterpoint to rising Latino Republican stars like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Joaquín revealed that they have even been compared to another pair of Democratic brothers: John and Robert Kennedy.

Yet even as their electoral fortunes have paralleled, the twins have had less daily contact as of late. Part of that is due to the abnormality of attending all of their higher education together after living in the same room for 17 years. (They did not, however, room together at Stanford — “Four more years would’ve been too much,” Joaquín said).

Joaquín began his career as a public servant only a decade ago. In 2002 he ran for the 125th district’s seat in the Texas House of Representatives and won. He was only 28 years old at the time, but went on to serve in that position for a decade, running unopposed in 2004 and 2008. His 2010 reelection was his most convincing — he crushed Libertarian Jeffrey Blunt with more than 78 percent of the vote. 

His victory last November in Texas’s 20th congressional district was not quite as devastating, but he still steamrolled Republican David Rosa, racking up a margin of close to two-to-one. 

Perhaps that should be expected in a district that has never been represented by a Republican, but the drubbing was nevertheless impressive. His political stock is still climbing, evidenced by prestigious assignments to the House Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Foreign Affairs.