Expectations High For Young Latino Mayor

When Julian Castro was elected mayor of San Antonio, Texas in 2009, he became the youngest mayor ever to lead any of America's 50 largest cities. He's been called "the great Latino hope," but is grappling with many of the same budget crises that have hobbled other cities.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, Host:

Julian Castro was elected mayor of San Antonio in May of 2009. At 36, he's the youngest mayor of any top 50 American city. If you've lost track, San Antonio is number seven and continues to grow rapidly. Mayor Castro places emphasis on education, on revitalization of the city's urban core, economic diversification and on balancing the budget.

TALK OF THE NATION: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mayor Castro joins us now from member station KSTX in San Antonio. Nice to have you with us today.

JULIAN CASTRO: Good to be with you, Neal. I want you to know that it's about 67 degrees here today.

CONAN: And we hate you for that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...we in the Northeast, where it's not all that bitterly cold. But, boy, the slush is difficult to deal with. And, of course, the mayor is referring to the fact that I was supposed to be there today, but the plane I was going to travel on got stuck on the ground at National Airport last night.

Anyway, Texas is facing widespread budget cuts because of the economy. That's not unusual around the country. San Antonio, I assume, is facing budget problems of its own.

CASTRO: You know, over the last couple of years, we have had tighter budgets. About a year ago, we were looking at about a $67 million deficit. But, you know, fortunately, we were actually able to close that through some, I think, good spending cuts, but some good planning as well so that we didn't have to do any layoffs and no furloughs. We were actually able to give folks a 2 percent raise. And the city has achieved a AAA bond rating for its general obligation bonds with each of the major rating agencies. So San Antonio has done well compared to most big American cities.

CONAN: Is that in part because unlike big cities in the Northeast, for example, San Antonio is continuing to grow?

CASTRO: It is. It's - between 2008 and 2009, it was the fastest-growing city in Texas. It grew by about 24,000 people. And as you mentioned, it's the seventh largest city now. In a few weeks, when the Census Bureau comes out with its new numbers, it probably won't pass Philadelphia to become number six, but it's right on its heels.

CONAN: And it's obviously a very different city than Philadelphia, a much younger city. For one thing, there's whole bunches of cities and states that have terrible problems with the pension programs they have for retired workers. Because San Antonio has become so big so lately, is that as big a problem for you?

CASTRO: It hasn't presented - it really has not been as big of an issue in San Antonio. You know, we just entered into an agreement with our police officers a few months ago, and we're looking at a new agreement with our firefighters. And it is a source of concern. But so far, that pension fund has been managed well, and we haven't seen what some other cities and states are seeing in terms of just this crisis that they have to deal with.

CONAN: Can you learn lessons from the crisis that they're dealing with?

CASTRO: Absolutely. I think it's clear that, going forward, that the pensions that folks enjoyed, let's say, in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, that with more limited government resources in the future, especially the kind of the prevailing ideology that we've seen since 1980, that it's going to be more difficult to sustain those kinds of pension investments for public entities, including cities and at some point including San Antonio.

CONAN: At some point, I assume the city, as a hiring agent, has its pick because, well, times are hard and people are looking for work. That's not always going to exist, let's hope. But a good pension, well, that's some way to attract somebody who can work for the city for, well, 20, 30 years and provide great service.

CASTRO: It absolutely is, and we believe that we have one of the best fire departments and police departments in the nation. And one of the big draws to San Antonio is the pension that they get and the benefits. It's very good, even as public entities go. And it helps us attract bright, capable, great workers.

CONAN: Growth has problems of its own. For one thing, you have to, well, develop housing and develop new schools, and those can be expensive as well.

CASTRO: They can. You know, in fact, Texas traditionally had very lenient annexation laws. And so what you see in many of these Texas big cities is just a huge land area.

San Antonio itself is 469 square miles, and so, for what would usually be a suburb, let's say, if we were in Cleveland or in Philadelphia or somewhere else, it is right in the city, here in San Antonio. And that means that you have to serve those areas.

So just as our population has grown and the land area has grown, the budget has grown as well. Today we have a budget of about $2.3 billion, and it's only getting larger.

CONAN: Do you look at the experience of a city like - and we were talking about Philadelphia before - but for example, a city like Cleveland or Detroit, which is talking about consolidating its city core - because of the loss of population coming down to a smaller size, a smaller physical size. This is not your reality now. Will it be down the road? Is this something you need to think about?

CASTRO: Well, I think it's something that any mayor would think about, but for these sunbelt cities, you know, when you think about San Antonio, you think about Austin, Phoenix and other places, the story of the last 40 years really has been one of significant growth. And particularly in a place like San Antonio that's 61 percent Hispanic, which is the fastest-growing population, the median age of the city is 31.7 years. That may happen someday, but that day, I don't believe, is anywhere in the near future.

CONAN: By the way, we want to encourage some of our listeners in San Antonio to give us a call and speak with Mayor Julian Castro. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

I wanted to ask you how the immigration situation is affecting you in San Antonio. We've heard so much about Arizona, to some degree, also about New Mexico. What's the situation there in Texas?

CASTRO: Well, you know, Texas - what's interesting is that at least for the last few decades, Texas has actually stood out as a state that has taken a more sober approach on issues of illegal immigration.

Probably the best example of that was in the 1990s when then-governor Bush was sort of a foil in the Republican Party to Governor Pete Wilson of California...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CASTRO: ...as that state went through its Prop 187 process. Today, though, unfortunately, I think that Texas has joined more of the right wing of the Republican Party, and there are several bills that have been introduced this legislative session that mirror the Arizona-type law.

I'm hopeful that they will not pass. I think that that law is both just impractical and has not done Arizona any good. In fact it's, I think, hurt its economy. And we certainly don't want the kind of job losses in the convention industry, the construction industry and other parts of the economy that that kind of legislation would bring.

CONAN: I know that you're probably aware that the former president's brother and the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, has been among those talking about the importance of the Latino voter for the Republican Party, and among those who argue there are so many issues on which Republicans present really good options for Latinos who are hardworking, entrepreneurial, in many ways, they argue, good Republicans. This one issue, immigration, seems to be a huge barrier.

CASTRO: I think it is. And mostly because in the way that it's spoken about some folks overplay their hand. I will say that I think it's somewhat accurate that many of the things that the Republican Party talks about in terms of investment in small business and family values, those certainly appeal to, you know, to many Americans, but they do appeal to Hispanics.

But when folks get on TV or when they file bills, they clearly have an edge to them in the vitriol aimed at the Hispanic community, even though they'll say that it's just against folks who are here illegally. It just turns off that whole segment of the community.

And so, there's still a lot of work to do. At the same time, I do think that you've had a Democratic Party that, in many ways, has taken the Hispanic community for granted, just counted on it as a vote. And what you saw in the 2010 election cycle was some fairly high-profile Hispanics get elected on the Republican side, including one right there in Florida, Marco Rubio...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CASTRO: ...the new senator. So, both parties have work to do, but I believe that the Democratic Party has generally been more responsive. And the policies that they espouse generally benefit the Hispanic community more.

CONAN: Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Steven's(ph) on the line from San Antonio. Steven, are you there? Steven is listening to the radio, so we're gonna put him on hold. And then let's go to Mary(ph). Mary, with us from San Antonio.

MARY: Yes.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

MARY: Hi. I was talking to the person and saying that I do not speak Spanish, but everything is being put in Spanish. Everything is in English and Spanish. My children did not speak Spanish. But all the children that speak Spanish get English in school, where my children don't get that good of Spanish in school. So we will have to move when they get older, because they will not be bilingual. So that is where some of my frustration comes from. It's okay if it's a bilingual community as long as everyone gets the benefit of that.

CONAN: Mayor Castro?

CASTRO: Yeah. Well, I think that what's interesting is that you've kind of seen this shift in thinking over the last few decades in the United States, such that today, generally in the business community for instance, an employee is looked upon as more skilled if they speak two languages. And so, I think, to the extent that our schools can have, you know, languages offered, including Spanish and others - in fact, the fastest growing right now is actually Chinese in terms of second languages - that's a great thing.

And in San Antonio, we have 15 independent school districts. And so, you'll probably find sort of a variety of success in terms of having those offerings available. But I do think that there's a real value in having that. And so, I share the concern that Mary has. And it would be great to ensure that more young people are able to get that kind of bilingual education.

CONAN: I wonder, Mary, is this, you know, sort of a residue of the fact that there are programs set up to teach Spanish-speakers English, sort of English as a second language courses, whereas for those who have English as their first language, Spanish is among the foreign languages that are offered?

MARY: Yes, that is exactly. And so, even if you've had three or four years in high school, you are still not going to be considered bilingual. But, yet, the immersion English as a second language is given, you know, to those students, and they will become bilingual. So it is very...

CONAN: Especially if they start earlier, which is what all the educators tell us. Mary, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with the mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email we have from Steve(ph) in Ann Arbor. I'm a native of San Antonio. I wanted to ask the mayor about San Antonio's antiquated and inefficient public transportation system. Given that it's the seventh largest city in the U.S. why is San Antonio's public transportation system so poor? Are there plans in the future to revamp it, perhaps a train system such as in Chicago? You speak about how vast San Antonio is, spatially - what you fail to mention is how difficult it is for poor citizens to get around.

CASTRO: Well, he has a good point about, I think, San Antonio's transportation - public transportation system being limited. I don't know if I would say antiquated.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CASTRO: It is actually - it has - VIA Metropolitan Transit is one of the best-run bus transportation authorities in the nation. What we don't have in San Antonio is we don't have a light rail system. It's the biggest city not to have invested yet with light rail. In fact, 10 years ago, the voters of San Antonio at the ballot box turned down light rail. That's not a surprise. In places like Phoenix and Houston and in other cities, it's failed before.

But that is something that I would like to see come to pass in San Antonio in the next few years, because I do think that it would make it easier for folks to get to where they need to go, get home, get to work, get to their university. And it just has a whole bunch of economic and environmental benefits. So I appreciate the sentiment. And San Antonio does have work to do there.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ruben(ph). Ruben with us from San Antonio.

RUBEN: Hi, Neal. I just wanted to ask Mayor Castro's opinion on a rumor I heard that he's being conditioned to run as governor of Texas as the first - since we've never had a Hispanic governor. I also heard that he's sort of our Hispanic version of Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, I'm sure he can answer the second one. But the first, are you considering a run for governor, Mr. Mayor?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CASTRO: No, I'm not. In fact, we just began today with the announcement for re-election. So I have four two-year terms. And my first term is up at the end of May. And I have my election in May. So you won't see me on the ballot for anything other than the mayor of San Antonio. I have said to folks, you know, if I do a good job over the next few years, because I have up to eight years to serve, if the voters will have me, that if I do a good job, then I'll look around and see what's possible.

But for your listeners not in Texas, what they need to know about Texas is that Texas has 29 statewide offices and the Republican to Democrat count, in terms of the office holders, is 29 to zero, 29 Republicans and zero Democrats. So any Democrat that wants to run for anything statewide in the coming years, I think, the state has to move on down the road a little bit.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ruben.

RUBEN: Thank you.

CONAN: There's - there are offices called members of Congress that are representing districts that are not always so hostile to Democrats, though.

CASTRO: There are. In fact, it used to be, just until a few years ago, that there was a majority Democratic delegation from Texas. But after the redistricting of a few years ago, it has become, I believe, something like 20 to 12, Republican to Democrat.

CONAN: Well, Mayor Castro, thank you. And we wish you luck whichever office you plan to run for beyond your next run for mayor.

CASTRO: Thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, elected May 2009, the youngest mayor of a top 50 American city.

We'd also like to thank everybody at KSTX, Texas Public Radio.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, sadly in Washington.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: