On Tuesday, as Texas voters were turning out in droves to nominate Ted Cruz (R) and Paul Sadler (D) to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), Democrats announced that San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro would deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this year. We have no doubt that some Democrats were livid at the prospect of another youthful, accomplished, erudite, conservative Latino Republican gaining national renown and all but assured of becoming a U.S. Senator next year, and we don't think the timing of this announcement was a coincidence. We can only speculate, however, about the thought process that led the DNC to this choice, so let's do that.
We do know that both parties consider Hispanics an extremely important voting bloc, and we know that President Obama's campaign team considers them as crucial to their chances of re-election in 2012 as they were to their big victory in 2008, when Obama won roughly twice as many Latino votes as Sen. John McCain. Much hey was made this week of the fact that Castro will be the first Latino to deliver the keynote address at either party's convention, and plenty of Democrats have already touted his utility as a liason between party bosses and the Hispanic community.
So, if outreach to Hispanic voters was at least a factor in the decision to have Castro deliver the keynote address, then why select someone whom the New York Times Magazine called "the post-Hispanic Hispanic politician"? Perhaps it would help to first try and answer the question, why this Hispanic politician?
Keynote speakers needn't necessarily be high-profile figures prior to the convention. (How many people outside of their respective home states had heard of Barack Obama or Ann Richards prior to their now-infamous keynote speeches?) Sometimes, they need not even be a member of the party whose convention their addressing. (Remember Sen. Zell Miller's (D-GA) rousing keynote address to the Republican National Convention in '04?) Still, if Dems were searching for an established political figure who also happened to be a Latino, then they would have had a pretty short list to choose from. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the only Hispanic Democrat in the Senate, has been dogged by corruption allegations since taking his seat in 2006 and has not accomplished anything since then to be proud of, except getting elected. Not exactly someone the party would want to showcase with a key speaking role at their national convention. Ditto Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Ca), who can regurgitate Democratic talking points well enough to make an at least marginally effective surrogate on cable news and Sunday morning talk shows but lacks the ability to rev up a crowd and hold their attention that makes for a good keynote speaker. (One wonders why the DNC passed up Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-TX), the current chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Perhaps they wanted someone other than a 67-year-old nepotist at the end of his political career.)
We know that today's Democratic party is not a meritocracy like the GOP, which might explain why Federico Peña, a seasoned Democratic officeholder who worked on both Barack Obama's 2008 campaign and his transition team, was passed over for the less experienced Castro, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had already been tapped to chair the convention this year. So, rather than tapping a seasoned political veteran who also happened to be a Latino, it appears the Democrats opted for a younger, more energetic "rising star" who might parlay the national attention he garners from delivering an important speech into a run for higher office (like another Democrat did not so long ago).
The comparisons to Barack Obama have already begun. "Is Julian Castro the Latino Obama?" was the "burning question" of The Week, according to this page on the magazine's web site. Eleanor Clift, the left-wing talking head whose prolificacy has outlasted her relevance, mused on The Daily Beast this week whether Castro was "the Next Obama." If by the next/Latino Obama, they mean a dynamic, relatively young Harvard-educated lawyer whose most notable achievements as a public official consist of getting elected and not losing his job, then the answer is yes. Time will tell whether Castro's skills/talent extend beyond commanding the attention and enthusiasm of clueless drones. Unlike Barack Obama in 2004 (or 2008, for that matter), Castro already has real leadership experience, having been elected mayor of Texas's second-most populous city in 2009. Like the pre-presidential Obama, however, he has spent his political career in positions whose import greatly exceeds the level of responsibility attached. Prior to his election as mayor, Castro served on the city council, where he did an excellent job making a name for himself and laying the groundwork for a mayoral bid. (His first run for mayor, in 2005, ended in defeat but raised his profile considerably.) Now he is in his second term as mayor of a city with a council-manager form of government, meaning the mayor is essentially a figurehead. Contrast that with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who will be delivering the keynote address at this year's Republican National Convention. Since taking office as governor, Christie has followed the pragmatic, right-of-center course he charted; he kept his promise to balance the state budget without raising taxes, and he was able to win the support of enough Democrats to reform state employee pensions and benefits. He has been so successful that, even in heavily Democratic New Jersey, Democrats have yet to put forth a candidate who could seriously challenge Christie in next year's election.
Of course, Christie is also a conservative rock star and engaging public speaker, but like past keynote speakers at the Republican National Convention--and unlike Obama and Castro--his résumé is just as impressive as his speaking prowess. If the GOP wanted to have a conservative Latino politician deliver the keynote address at this year's convention, then there's a long list of people (all more accomplished than Castro) to choose from: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval; Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño; former Commerce Secretary and Kellogg Corp. CEO Carlos Gutierrez; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.); former Sen., RNC Chairman and H.U.D. Secretary Mel Martinez and former Attorney Gen. Alberto Gonzales, to name a bunch. Instead, the powers that be opted for Christie, a bombastic superstar of the right whose ability to navigate the merciless waters of New Jersey politics (and government) vindicate his bravado.
Back to Castro: I'm not comfortable declaring that Democrats were so desperate to find a scandal-free Hispanic politician who could deliver a rousing address that they bestowed such an honor on a neophyte who hasn't accomplished anything on par with Christie's most noteworthy achievements, but that is in fact what they did; I just can't speak to their motivation. If, as is often the case, the simplest explanation is the correct one, then the selection of Castro as keynote speaker should be seen for what it is--a pander to Latinos.