“No politics,” was Hillary Clinton’s reply when asked on a recent trip to Copenhagen about her career plans following this November’s US presidential elections. The Secretary of State was speaking at a press conference with Danish Foreign Minister Villy Søvndal, ostensibly on foreign policy, and yet, as this year’s presidential election draws nearer, few (even in Copenhagen) can resist looking ahead to 2016. Whether Barack Obama wins or loses the coming election, leadership of the Democratic Party will be up for grabs four years from now. And there seems to be little doubt that, given her unique star power, if Hillary Clinton wanted the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, she likely could have it. Her decision to step down as Secretary of State at the end of President Obama’s first term has only served to heighten speculation that, despite her unflinching statements to the contrary, and her age (she will turn 69 before election day in 2016), she may indeed be contemplating one last shot at the highest glass ceiling in the land.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume Clinton is serious when she says she’s had enough of politics, as many of her closest friends and aides seem to believe. In this case the Democratic field opens up substantially. Some names often suggested as likely frontrunners include Vice President Joe Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, or Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Yet the closer we approach the crescendo of this year’s presidential campaign season, the more attention is being devoted to another politician who until recently was an almost complete unknown outside of his native Texas. And yet his personal story and meteoric political ascent are already beginning to feel like déjà vu all over again.
The Democratic up and comer currently making waves in Washington circles is Julian Castro, the 37-year-old Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and keynote speaker at this September’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Castro is the youngest-ever mayor of one of America’s 50 largest cities, and the first Hispanic chosen to keynote a Democratic Convention. His biography is also as unlikely and inspiring as it is uncannily similar to that of the President’s. Both men are ethnic minorities raised by single mothers, who went on to receive law degrees from Harvard (Obama in 1991; Castro in 2000) before entering politics. Then both were picked out of political semi-obscurity to give keynote speeches at their party’s grandest quadrennial event – Obama in 2004, which more than anything else projected him into the national consciousness and paved the way for his presidential run in 2008, and now Castro in 2012. The hope of Democrats is that Castro will have the kind of galvanizing effect on America’s 50 million Hispanics that Barack Obama had on African Americans, and make them dependable and consistent votes now and in the future, especially in key swing states.
Is that realistic, given the geographic, cultural, and ethnic diversity of the US Hispanic community? Castro’s rise in prominence sparks natural comparisons to the most prominent Republican Hispanic on the national stage, Marco Rubio, the 41-year-old Cuban-American senator from Florida. After receiving serious consideration as a running mate this year for Mitt Romney, Rubio was tapped by Republicans to introduce the Massachusetts governor at the GOP National Convention in August. The Florida senator is without a doubt a higher profile politician than Castro, and yet remains a divisive figure in the US Hispanic community. He is a darling of the Tea Party, was a strong supporter of Arizona’s controversial anti-illegal immigration law – which critics say could subject Latinos to racial profiling by the police – and opposed the appointment of the country’s first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Castro in his short career has carefully walked the complex tightrope between cultural assimilation and celebration of his Mexican heritage, and has gone to great lengths to appear politically moderate and inclusive.
However, the man Democrats think could become America’s first Latino president does not yet have any obvious short-cut to the White House. He is indeed still very young and lacks the experience of other big-hitters in the party. He also faces the serious disadvantage of being from Texas, where no Democrat has been elected to state-level office since 1994. And if Castro does have national ambitions, he will be under a great deal of pressure to bolster his resume by running for either Texas governor or US senator in the upcoming 2014 or 2018 elections, neither of which would be easy. Both would see him taking on a more diverse electorate than he is accustomed to in the comparatively liberal and Mexican-American majority city of San Antonio. Yet both, if achieved, could catapult him into the center of US national politics.
America’s first Hispanic president will likely be someone a lot like Julian Castro. If the Texas mayor plays his part well and has a bit of luck there’s no saying he couldn’t emerge as one of his party’s most dynamic leaders over the next decade. Whether that means he will ever be bound for the Executive Office, much less as early as 2016, remains to be seen. One thing, however, is certain. If Hillary does choose to run in four years, she will inevitably be in need of a running mate who can bring a bit of excitement, as well as key votes, to the ticket.
Read more in this debate: Ansgar Graw.