Obama Upends Politics in Yet Another State by Taking Julian Castro

The president fills his Washington team with elected officials, altering the course of local politics.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
July 9, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

With San Ant­o­nio May­or Ju­li­an Castro’s con­firm­a­tion to head the Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment, an­oth­er one of Pres­id­ent Obama’s Cab­in­et choices has upen­ded yet an­oth­er state’s polit­ic­al fu­ture.

By pick­ing cur­rent elec­ted of­fi­cials for his team, Obama has helped make Kirsten Gil­librand a na­tion­al fig­ure, handed Re­pub­lic­ans the keys to gov­ern­ment in Ari­zona, and in­dir­ectly put a felon in charge of Char­lotte, N.C.

Tap­ping elec­ted politi­cians for the Cab­in­et is noth­ing new, but Obama has done it at a not­able pace, pluck­ing three sen­at­ors, two gov­ernors, a House mem­ber, and two may­ors from their posts since 2009. By adding Castro—one of Texas and His­pan­ic Demo­crats’ lead­ing lights—to that list, Obama has once again in­ser­ted him­self in­to a state’s polit­ic­al evol­u­tion, with un­know­able con­sequences.

So far, the biggest res­ults have come from Obama’s se­lec­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton to head his State De­part­ment in 2009. Not only did that move set up the con­tours of the nas­cent 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, it cre­ated a new Demo­crat­ic star. Be­fore then-Gov. Dav­id Pa­ter­son of New York ap­poin­ted Kirsten Gil­librand to suc­ceed Clin­ton in the Sen­ate, Gil­librand was a Blue Dog Demo­crat in the House with an “A” rat­ing from the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation, a hard-line po­s­i­tion on im­mig­ra­tion, and a purple up­state dis­trict that she could well have lost the next year, in the 2010 Re­pub­lic­an wave elec­tion.

Now, Gil­librand is pop­u­lar with the party base, a re­li­able pro­gress­ive, and one of the top names on the list of non-Clin­ton Demo­crat­ic wo­men whom people dis­cuss as po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial ma­ter­i­al.

The Clin­ton de­cision may have been the glit­zi­est one, but it’s far from the only Obama Cab­in­et ap­point­ment that had cas­cad­ing, and some­times con­tro­ver­sial, polit­ic­al con­sequences. By ask­ing then-Gov. Janet Na­pol­it­ano of Ari­zona to take over the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment in 2009, Obama handed the gov­ernor­ship to Re­pub­lic­an Jan Brew­er, then the state’s No. 2. That gave the GOP uni­fied con­trol of Ari­zona’s gov­ern­ment; the party already had both cham­bers of the state Le­gis­lature, but most everything still had to get through Na­pol­it­ano. One Demo­crat­ic state sen­at­or cri­ti­cized Na­pol­it­ano for abandon­ing the state by tak­ing the Cab­in­et post.

The next year, Brew­er signed the harshest im­mig­ra­tion law in the coun­try, Sen­ate Bill 1070, which Obama called “ir­re­spons­ible” and said “un­der­mine[d] ba­sic no­tions of fair­ness.” That’s just the best-known of many pieces of con­ser­vat­ive le­gis­la­tion the state GOP pushed with Brew­er in the gov­ernor’s of­fice. Na­pol­it­ano’s suc­cessor also slowed the ad­vance of oth­er am­bi­tious state Re­pub­lic­ans, who may have been eye­ing the planned open gov­ernor’s race in 2010.

By con­trast, former Sen. John Kerry’s move to the State De­part­ment in 2013 opened doors for sev­er­al Demo­crats in Mas­sachu­setts’ stat­ic polit­ic­al hier­archy to move up.

Then there’s Col­or­ado, from which Obama poached former Sen. Ken Salaz­ar to be his first In­teri­or sec­ret­ary. The Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor in turn ap­poin­ted little-known Den­ver Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­tend­ent Mi­chael Ben­net to the Sen­ate, kick­ing off a Demo­crat­ic civil war in the 2010 primar­ies, a hard-fought gen­er­al elec­tion that Obama’s polit­ic­al ad­visers saw as a mod­el for what they had to do in 2012. Now, as chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, Ben­net has be­come one of the Sen­ate’s more power­ful Demo­crats.

The big polit­ic­al ques­tion about Obama’s latest Cab­in­et picks is how join­ing up will af­fect Castro’s pro­spects and those of an­oth­er bright former Demo­crat­ic may­or, Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­thony Foxx. Castro has long been seen as one of Texas Demo­crats’ most prom­ising rising stars, with a po­ten­tial run for statewide of­fice some­where in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture. But even though the state’s demo­graph­ic trends look prom­ising, Texas is in­hos­pit­able ter­rit­ory for Demo­crats right now. There is risk at­tached to an am­bi­tious politi­cian re­mov­ing him­self from polit­ics, but Castro’s near-term op­tions in his state looked lim­ited. Now that he’s joined the Cab­in­et, some say he could be a vice pres­id­en­tial pick for Demo­crats in 2016.

“I think there’s noth­ing but up­side here for May­or Castro,” said Matt Angle, a Texas Demo­crat­ic strategist.

Foxx, the former may­or of Char­lotte, N.C., is an­oth­er ma­jor Demo­crat­ic pro­spect in his state. Foxx’s Cab­in­et ap­point­ment has already had one big ef­fect: It opened the door of the may­or’s of­fice to Patrick Can­non, who resigned in March after only four months in of­fice, fol­low­ing his ar­rest for tak­ing bribes. (Can­non has since pleaded guilty.) But Demo­crat­ic strategist Thomas Mills said Foxx’s Wash­ing­ton role could give him an ad­di­tion­al boost to­ward an even­tu­al statewide run, should Foxx want it.

“There’s this per­cep­tion that Char­lotte is a little out of tune with the rest of the state,” said Mills, who noted that may­ors there have don’t have much gov­ern­ing power (like in San Ant­o­nio), and polit­ic­al fig­ures from there haven’t al­ways had the best statewide track re­cords. “I think be­ing a part-time may­or of a big South­ern city doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily pre­pare you for polit­ics writ large. Be­ing plucked from the may­or’s of­fice and go­ing on the na­tion­al stage gives him a cer­tain amount of cred­ib­il­ity to make the leap to­ward high­er of­fice.”

North Car­o­lina Demo­crats are already dream­ing about Foxx po­ten­tially run­ning for the Sen­ate against Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Burr in 2016. Foxx “would be a per­fect foil,” Mills said.

If that is the even­tu­al goal, Mel Mar­tinez may be an in­struct­ive ex­ample. George W. Bush ap­poin­ted re­l­at­ively few cur­rent elec­ted of­fice­hold­ers to his Cab­in­et, but one of them was Mar­tinez, who was the may­or of Or­ange County, Fla., be­fore Bush se­lec­ted him to run HUD. Three years later, Mar­tinez resigned from his Cab­in­et post to run in Flor­ida’s open Sen­ate elec­tion in 2004, where his com­bin­a­tion of Cent­ral Flor­ida elec­ted ex­per­i­ence and Wash­ing­ton con­nec­tions helped him win a crowded GOP primary and then a close gen­er­al elec­tion in the fall.

As Obama’s pres­id­ency winds to­ward its end, the ef­fects of many of his de­cisions are in the rear­view mir­ror. But Castro’s and Foxx’s polit­ic­al fates still lie ahead, along with many oth­er con­sequences of the pres­id­ent’s Cab­in­et picks.

Obama Cab­in­et Sec­ret­ar­ies Se­lec­ted From Elec­ted Of­fice

Ju­li­an Castro: may­or of San Ant­o­nio, Texas, then sec­ret­ary of Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment

Hil­lary Clin­ton: sen­at­or from New York, then sec­ret­ary of State

An­thony Foxx: may­or of Char­lotte, N.C., then sec­ret­ary of Trans­port­a­tion

John Kerry: sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts, then sec­ret­ary of State

Janet Na­pol­it­ano: gov­ernor of Ari­zona, then sec­ret­ary of Home­land Se­cur­ity

Ken Salaz­ar: sen­at­or from Col­or­ado, then sec­ret­ary of the In­teri­or

Kath­leen Se­beli­us: gov­ernor of Kan­sas, then sec­ret­ary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices

Hilda Sol­is: rep­res­ent­at­ive from Cali­for­nia, then sec­ret­ary of Labor

COR­REC­TION: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this list mis­stated Castro’s Cab­in­et post.

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