San Antonio mayor Julian Castro turned the conversation about public service from politics to leadership in his address to a crowd at the Sanford School of Public Policy Tuesday.
Castro, first elected in 2009 for a two-year term, has since been re-elected twice. Prior to his election, he served on the San Antonio City Council for four years. Castro said he did not expect to go into public service, but found a passion for it nonetheless. He urged the audience—many of whom were undergraduate and graduate students in public policy—to consider taking a similar path.
“We don’t have enough young people who choose public service these days,” he said.
In addition to being, at age 39, the youngest mayor among those of the 50 most populous American cities, Castro is also widely known for delivering the keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.—the first Latino to do so. He said the event Tuesday was his first time at Duke ever and first time in North Carolina since the convention.
“I’m a little bit less nervous this time,” he said to the audience in Fleishman Commons.
Castro was introduced by Erin Sweeney, an associate in research at the Hart Leadership Program and Trinity '13. The Hart Leadership Program presented Castro as part of the Connect2Politics series, which brought four young political leaders to campus this Spring. Castro was the last of the four speakers to present.
Sweeney summarized some of Castro’s personal history and upbringing, such as his run for a city council seat that his mother had lost 30 years prior. She also mentioned some of Castro's priorities, such as revitalizing the city and finding creative solutions to educational inequality.
His affinity for public service was not always a natural prerogative for him, though. Castro said his mother would drag him and his twin brother, Joaquin Castro, to political events and rallies, which he said he found boring. It was not until he and Joaquin attended Stanford University after high school, and saw the entrepreneurial success, high incomes and better education in California that he became interested in public service.
Compared to San Antonio, which at the time was lacking in those areas but had defining qualities of diversity and community, the Bay Area inspired Castro to find a way to combine the best of both cities.
“For the first time, I could see my own community from the outside with a different eye,” he said.
Refraining from delving too much into politics during his speech, Castro told four anecdotes that exemplified the way he sees the world, starting from his entry into sixth grade and up to nine years ago when he originally ran for mayor and lost. The latter, he said, was the first time he had ever put everything into something that turned out to be a failure. In his other anecdotes, he highlighted the need to surround yourself with supportive people, choosing not to succumb to peer pressure but rely on those who want to see you succeed.
“Learn to be yourself and not try and conform to what other people expect you to be,” he said. “Let people care about you on the basis of something that’s authentic.”
These lessons are a part of what he tries to apply to his work and leadership of San Antonio. In order to realize his goal of making the city “the liveliest city in the world,” he said the government needs to cultivate a strong “reservoir of brainpower,” especially among young people—create a vibrant and diverse place that has “something for everybody” and get the fundamentals of government right to act efficiently and authentically.
Questions from the audience after his speech pressed Castro more on topical issues, such as education and gentrification, as well as elaborating on even more of his foundational morals.
Durham resident Sue Gilbertson, program and evaluation director for the Durham Partnership for Children, asked Castro about his work in passing a universal pre-kindergarten program funded by sales taxes in 2012. She has been interested in applying a similar program in Durham and asked Castro the method to his success in implementing the plan.
Castro responded that passing the measure required the support of the business community, which he said demonstrated to people that a neutral party could see and approve of the measure’s results. He also had put the cost of the program per year to an average family—$7.81—into a concrete number that was easier for people to understand and support.
“I’ve studied some other cities, and seeing someone who has already done it was really helpful,” Gilbertson said.