WASHINGTON — Speaking last week at a dropout prevention conference in a hotel ballroom a few miles from his new congressional office, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, cracked one of his familiar self-deprecating jokes: “In case you’re wondering, you’re not talking to the mayor of San Antonio.”
He may need some new material.
Castro, 38, is accustomed to being mistaken for his one-minute-older identical twin, Julián Castro, whose reputation as a rising political star was sealed last summer when President Obama made him the first Latino to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. (His brother introduced him.)
But in the two months since Joaquin Castro, an attorney and former state legislator, was sworn into Congress, he has been the one getting the lion’s share of the attention.
He received high-profile committee assignments — both Armed Services and Foreign Affairs — and was elected president of the House Democrats’ freshman class. Though his own Congressional race was noncompetitive, he made fast friends and earned kudos from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for raising cash for future colleagues who needed it more.
And he has been an unofficial ambassador on immigration for the Obama administration, including appearing on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos the morning after the White House’s comprehensive immigration plan leaked out to laud the president’s effort and highlight the “commonalities” between it and what a bipartisan group of senators had proposed.
“I’m trying to very quickly be as helpful as I can,” Castro said last week in an interview at his House office, “not only as a voice out there speaking about it in the news, but also internally in the body.”
He has not only become a common face on the Sunday morning talk show circuit. Business Insider named Castro one of its “12 most fascinating new members” of Congress. And a study by the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics project ranked him the second-most talked about House freshman in terms of media coverage; for context, he edged out Texan Steve Stockman, the Friendswood Republican who brought Obama-bashing rocker Ted Nugent to the president’s State of the Union.
While there has been much public chatter about Julián Castro’s gubernatorial ambitions, speculation is already mounting that Joaquin Castro could challenge Ted Cruz, the state’s Tea Party-backed junior U.S. senator, in 2018.
“Certainly my brother being in the spotlight the way he was at the Democratic National Convention helped a lot in terms of exposing us to the nation,” Castro said. “That said, I think that you’ve got to do well when you have the opportunity, or those opportunities will go away.”
For Castro, that means embracing the limelight and making the attention strategic, whether it is claiming one of the camera-friendly aisle seats hours ahead of Obama’s State of the Union, or using political wordplay to drive home one of his key messages: that education breeds prosperity for the underprivileged. In interviews and public appearances on a recent day in Washington, Castro used a term he coined — America’s “infrastructure of opportunity” — no fewer than six times.
But it also means being a serious student of domestic and international policy. That is something Castro, who attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School with his brother after being raised by a political activist mother in San Antonio’s working-class West Side, is no stranger to.
He has surrounded himself with experience; his chief of staff is a past aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; his press secretary formerly served Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In a 12-hour period last week, he jumped from a meeting on Islamic terrorists in Eurasia to a briefing on challenges to the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act. He gave his first one-minute speech on the House floor on the effects of sequestration — approaching the dais just minutes after House Speaker John Boehner had accused the president of playing politics over seeking a solution. Then Castro dashed across town to a forum on high school graduation and college readiness.
The cuffs of his white dress shirt were rolled up by 9:30 a.m.
Castro said it was too early to speculate on his political trajectory. “A lot of folks feel like my brother and me or other politicians chart out their careers from day one until the end. I’ve never been like that,” he said. “I just believe that if I work hard and do well, who knows what the future holds.”
But he did not resist taking a thinly-veiled jab at Cruz, who has made his own national headlines in his early days in the Senate for his prosecutorial-style questioning of Obama’s defense secretary nominee, Chuck Hagel.
“I didn’t come here to be a wallflower, but I didn’t come here to get into a shouting match with everybody I meet either,” Castro said. “Doing your job requires different modes, and you can’t just be stuck in one mode where you’re always the shrill outsider screaming at everybody.”
The Castro brothers’ political allies credit them with boosting the national profile of Texas Democrats; state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said they have “in a very short period of time almost singlehandedly breathed life back into the Texas Democratic Party.”
“When you look at who the rising Latino stars are on each side of the aisle, the Castros pose a big electoral threat, and I don’t think the GOP has the answer for them,” said Ed Espinoza, an Austin-based Democratic consultant.
The state’s Republican operatives say they are unmoved. Jordan Berry, a political consultant who was on Cruz’s campaign, said the “Parent Trap effect” is what is driving all the attention to the Castros, and that he is “confident in our bench over theirs” in the race to connect with the state’s rapidly expanding Latino population.
Rob Johnson, a Republican operative who ran a Super PAC in support of Cruz’s primary opponent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, said party leaders “don’t sit around in strategy meetings worrying too much about the Castros.”
“We recognize that they’re talented politicians and political operatives, but this is also Texas, the reddest of the red states,” he said. “What we need to focus on is not what the other side is doing and saying, but what we as a party are doing and saying to grow our numbers among Latinos.”
Regardless of Castro’s political future, Anchia said he was happy to see him getting his due on the national stage. He said Castro spent more time in the last few years working to get his brother elected mayor than cultivating his own aspirations.
“He sacrificed himself for his brother’s success,” Anchia said. “For someone who is equally bright, talented and ambitious, that was an admirable trait.”
Castro said he was glad to play a supporting role, and that he does not feel that he has lost out on anything.
“Somebody jokingly asked me a few years ago, ‘Who’s going to be the Jack Kennedy and who’s the Robert Kennedy?’” Castro laughed. “I said, ‘I’m glad to play the Robert Kennedy.’”