Robert Rivard

For  a big city mayor whose past year included a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, countless live national television appearances, and a long campaign season working for the re-election of Pres. Obama, a convention center ballroom filled with hundreds of hometown business and civic leaders was no big challenge. The luncheon was billed as the mayor’s annual state of the city speech, but I’d call it Mayor Julián Castro‘s Thank You Speech.

By any measure, it’s been a career year for Castro and his twin brother, Joaquín, who now serves in the U.S. Congress and was front and center with mother Rosie Castro today. So the speech focused on all the good things that have happened this past year inside the city limits, with equal time paid to those around and under Castro who made it possible for him to shine in the national spotlight while achieving so much at home.

Mayor Julián Castro
Mayor Julián Castro

Castro asked the City Council — were all 10 members there? — to stand up and be recognized, and he singled out Sheryl Sculley, “our city manager who is the best in the nation,” for her work and a promised contract extension. Extension is one thing. A significant raise is another, but more on that soon in a coming Rivard Report article on the city’s top public officials and the issue of pay equity.

He also singled our Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a relationship that has developed over time and now includes a quiet Monday breakfast most weeks. Wolff, who served as San Antonio’s mayor from 1991-95, often takes the lead on city-county projects ranging from the Mission Reach restoration of the San Antonio River to VIA’s streetcar project. His willingness to be in the thick of things, including economic development initiatives, makes it easier for Castro to be Castro, San Antonio’s local officeholder with national credentials and ambitions.

Castro also thanked the city’s two utility leaders, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby, freshly signed to a new three-year contract to continue leading the country’s largest municipal utility, and Robert Puente, CEO of SAWS, who has just presided over a politically challenging fight to win a big rate increase while preparing to handle what looks to be another season of record drought and water restrictions.

Call it a sign of political maturity that a seasoned politician now closer to his 40th birthday than his days at Stanford and Harvard felt little or no need to claim credit for himself. Politically invincible — if there is such a thing — as his team organizes a third term re-election bid, Castro could well afford to share the wealth of political capital he has accrued. A year ago, he was selling Pre-K For SA to a roomful of skeptics and more than a few business leaders and supporters alike who were hedging their bets against passage — at least when Castro was out of earshot. Now, the mayor is five for five with school boards opting in to the early childhood development program that passed comfortably on the November ballot. And, even more incredible, the president he helped re-elect is now telling the country to follow the Castro blueprint.

Mayor Castro, Erica Castro, and Carina Victoria Castro and former Mayor Lila Cockrell
Mayor Castro, Erica Castro, Carina Victoria Castro and former Mayor Lila Cockrell applaud the early voting results at the Pre-K 4 SA election night party, Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Voters said…San Antonio will take a back seat to no one when  it comes to educating our children,” Castro declared in his state of the city speech. It drew one of the day’s strongest applause lines.

A year ago, Castro quipped, he gave his staff heartburn when he told the audience, ” ‘I am going to stake my entire mayoral legacy on Pre K for SA.’ Whew! I’m glad that’s over.”

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to post comments grading Castro as mayor after he declared for a third term. A number of people who spend time in and around City Hall said they preferred to share their thoughts privately via email rather than post a public comment. Most saw significant growth in Castro’s leadership skills, and virtually everyone believes Castro has elevated the city’s national profile better than anyone since Henry Cisneros was mayor from 1981-89. Many worry, however, that his national celebrity will increasingly draw him away from city business. Some said he already had burdened Sculley and her staff with too much in the realm of public education and unrealistic deadlines. Four Pre-K For SA centers are scheduled to be opened by Aug. 1, even as an interim director is still being recruited.

In sum, Castro enjoys the highest levels of support to stay on as mayor. People want him to be visible as an active, hands-on leader, but they also enjoy the city’s rapidly improving national profile that Castro has helped  forge. As long as he tends to city business, it seems, he and spouse Erica can say yes to those heady White House invitations without losing popularity back home.

Here at home, Castro is extolling the progress on 11 “vision” goals set forth nearly three years ago by a grass-roots gathering of 5,000 people in the SA2020 process. Central to that campaign is Castro’s “Decade of Downtown,” shorthand for the growing movement (that includes the Rivard Report) to transform the urban core into a place to live and work that attracts talented young professionals from around the country while inspiring our own best and brightest to stay here, or to return from elsewhere.

San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro greets a citizen at the TriPoint YMCA before addressing the crowd.
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro greets a citizen at the TriPoint YMCA before addressing a crowd last spring at an SA2020 event. Photo by Robert Rivard

Castro praised Graham Weston and his philanthropic 80/20 Foundation for funding a groundbreaking study by geographer James Russell that showed San Antonio ranks sixth among the nation’s Top 100 cities for Brain Gain, reversing a widely held belief that the city still suffers from a net Brain Drain. The mayor also cited new figures he said show a 7.7% increase in college enrollment among high school graduates, and more than 20,000 of those graduates — most of them first time college-goers in their families — who plugged into Cafe College to gain a better understanding of what it takes to finance a college education and navigate the challenges from application through moving away from home.

He praised Councilwoman Ivy Taylor and the city’s Eastside Promise Neighborhood. In what sounded like a message to the suburban districts, he pointed out that economic and social development in the city’s historically African-American neighborhoods benefits everyone in San Antonio, a message worth delivering at the same time he reminded Northside residents that hundreds of millions of dollars from last May’s historic $596 million bond election are being spent in their sections of the city.

Taking a page from Café College, Castro announced the establishment of a Café Commerce at the Central Library that will serve as a small business incubator and resource center. He praised the role of small business in San Antonio’s economy. With research showing that most new jobs are created by companies five years old or younger, Cafe Commerce might enjoy greater conservative support than has been visible on behalf of Cafe College.

David Holmberg
David Holmberg

It was no surprise that Castro was introduced by David Holmberg, the CEO of HVHC Optics, which recently relocated its corporate headquarters downtown to East Houston Street in the building that once housed AT&T. Holmberg might be a new name to many in the city, but he brought 600 jobs to San Antonio, 450 of them downtown. He teased the audience with a “surprise announcement” coming in the next few weeks. He also proved to be an adept speaker at the podium, pointing out that everyone from Oscar presenter Halle Berry to Pres. Obama’s Secret Service team sport his company’s stylish eyewear. Holmberg suggested Castro get busy recruiting Obama as a customer. That seems like a reasonable request for a guy who brought a new company to the downtown skyline.

“It’s been an extraordinary year for San Antonio since I was last here (in the ballroom),” Castro said. Closing, he added, “It’s happening right now in San Antonio. America is watching our city. ‘It’ means progress. ‘It’ means prosperity. ‘It’ means us.”

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

State of the Center City: More Housing, Fewer Vacant Buildings February 2013

How’s He Doing? Grade Mayor Castro as He Aims for Third Term January 2013

“The Decade of Downtown” From a Northside Perspective January 2013

Dear Mr. Mayor: Call San Antonio the ‘City of Opportunity’ January 2013

Pre-K is OK 4 SA: City’s Kids Big Winners on a Night They Slept Through Vote Count November 2012

Urban Renaissance: Taking Stock of 2012 November 2012

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.