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Rising star Julian Castro first Latino tapped for Democratic keynote slot

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro often gets mistaken for his identical twin. But on Tuesday it’ll be easy to tell them apart: Castro will be the one giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

Castro is the first Latino to snag the coveted slot, which launched a then-little-known state Sen. Barack Obama into the national spotlight eight years ago. 

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Democrats’ choice of Castro shows they are looking to solidify their support with Latino voters. While polls show President Obama holds a huge advantage over GOP nominee Mitt Romney among Hispanics, they also show that Latino voter excitement is down from where it was in 2008. Castro could help boost turnout with that influential bloc.

Like Obama, the telegenic and carefully scripted Castro could fast become a national star. At 37, he is the youngest big-city mayor in the country and has been mentioned by operatives in both parties as a future governor of Texas or even the first Hispanic president. He doesn’t deny interest in either job, saying only that if he gets reelected in 2017, he’ll “look around and see what’s possible.”

But Castro is not the only political force in a family that resembles a working-class, Tejano version of the Kennedys. His mother, Rosie Castro, is a longtime community activist who fought to end the city’s Anglos-only political dominance — and, as a single mother, dragged her young sons to countless political meetings, instilling in them the sense that “public service could be noble,” in Julian Castro’s words. His twin brother, Joaquin, who is one minute younger, is a heavy favorite to become a congressman next year.

The twins first handed out campaign fliers at age 3 and joined their mother inside the voting booth so they could see the literal nuts and bolts of democracy. Before they were old enough to vote, they’d interned for a number of local officials and were being groomed for bigger things in the west San Antonio barrio.

“We were very aware of Julian and Joaquin even in high school,” said Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), the retiring lawmaker whom Joaquin Castro is running to replace. “They’ve always been very intelligent, driven, committed young people. It’s gratifying to see where they are today.”

While Rosie Castro encouraged her sons to be politically involved, they were also fiercely competitive, each acting as a precise measuring stick for what the other could accomplish. When one gained an edge in any facet of life, the other worked harder to catch up. Now both are fast-rising stars of the party.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am today if not for him,” Julian told The Hill of his twin. “That relationship has been a godsend to me over the years.”

Joaquin echoed that sentiment.

“We grew up very competitive, and I think that competition helped us, drove each of us to do well in sports, school, life. I sometimes wonder what life would’ve been like if I hadn’t had my brother to push me,” he said.

The two are years beyond the high school fights on the tennis court that led them to smash “a couple rackets,” in Julian’s estimate, and grade-school karate matches that their mother described as “nerve-racking” because both refused to back down. But each had their strengths: Julian was a slightly better student, while Joaquin had a narrow edge in sports.

Julian first weighed running for office after observing Silicon Valley up close while at Stanford with his brother. His administration has emphasized education, green technology and the medical industry — “embracing the jobs of the 21st century,” in his words.

“My brother and I both agree that what we need to harness in the U.S. is the infrastructure of opportunity in the same way that past generations have built out roads, bridges and airports, and also an infrastructure of opportunity — strong public schools, great universities, Social Security for seniors,” the mayor said.

He and his twin ran for the student senate their junior year, winning with the exact same number of votes. After Stanford, they earned matching law degrees at Harvard then returned to San Antonio.

Even those who know them best have trouble discussing one without mentioning the other — close friends, family members and even Julian and Joaquin themselves responded to questions about “he” and “you” with the words “they are” or “we feel.”

“When they’re standing side by side, it’s confusing,” said Gonzalez. “I know them, know them well, but I was relieved when Julian got married — it’s easy to spot the wedding band.”

But their lives and careers are now diverging. Joaquin said their busy schedules and Julian’s young family — he has a 3-year-old daughter — mean they now “see each other less than we ever have, a few times a week,” and he admitted it’ll be “a bit strange” to be in a different part of the country than his brother next year.

Joaquin was Julian’s campaign treasurer when, at the age of 26, he became the youngest elected city councilman at that time in city history. Six months later Julian returned the favor, helping Joaquin win a spot in the Texas Legislature.

While both are wonky, serious and careful politicians, Joaquin has always been a bit more outgoing. Julian’s young family and Joaquin’s single status have sharpened that contrast.

Julian’s job as a nonpartisan mayor also has enabled him to work more across party lines, building close ties with the city’s business community, though his recent push for a small sales-tax rise to increase education spending has proven somewhat controversial. The more partisan State Legislature has sharpened Joaquin’s political edge a bit. That difference could better equip Julian for a statewide run in Texas, a reliably Republican state that is now majority-minority and Democratic-trending. 

While Julian carefully avoids prognosticating about his future, his mother was less reluctant. When asked if she thought if he could be the first Hispanic president, she didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely,” she said.