By John W. Gonzalez
When his minute-older brother gives the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Joaquín Castro will be nearby, as he always is and has been for big moments in their 37 years as identical twins.
On Sept. 4, Castro is likely to share the spotlight if plans proceed to have him introduce his brother, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, for the prime-time speech that follows Michelle Obama's remarks.
"We've been very supportive of each other, best friends, since we were young. We were competitive growing up, but as you get older, you mature and mellow a bit," said Castro, the Democratic candidate for U.S. House District 20 and a five-term Texas House member representing Northwest San Antonio.
Born to a family of activists, Joaquín Castro delved into public service as a college student, while he and his brother studied at Stanford University and Harvard Law School. They took a year's break between undergraduate and law school, returning to San Antonio to mentor students and work on community projects. At age 23, the clean-cut Castro brothers were being compared to a young Henry Cisneros.
A decade ago, after his twin was elected to the City Council, Joaquín Castro successfully challenged a three-term Democratic lawmaker. He rose to vice chair of the Texas House Committee on Higher Education, where he's advocated improvements to veterans' college benefits and admission rules.
"The work that I've done in higher education is to me the issue that I've been most passionate about, trying to get more students to college and getting them to graduate," Castro said.
He hopes to work with a second Obama administration on job creation and access to health care, "particularly because we're in a state where you have the highest percentage of uninsured people," Castro said.
If elected, Castro would fill the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, who replaced his father, the late Henry B. Gonzalez, in the solidly Democratic district.
"I realize I have big shoes to fill," Castro said. "We've tried to take nothing for granted. That's why we're still running a full-fledged campaign," he said.
If he makes it to Congress, Castro could be one of the best-known freshmen and one of its youngest members.
"He's already out of the crowd," said Austin political consultant Bill Miller. "He could go far and he could go fast," Miller said.
"If his brother enjoys greater success than he already has, that will only help Joaquín. It's like the roads get paved ahead of you," Miller said.
The consultant said the identical-twin novelty factor is important nationally.
"It's a unique circumstance where you have two very talented political figures who are identical twins. Seriously," Miller said. "Because of that, it offers a fun opportunity which they can make good use of."
For now, Castro is coping with greater demands for his time on national stages, while insisting his top priority is his contested congressional race in Bexar County.
"I've told the Obama campaign that I'd be glad to be helpful where I can. I've gone out of town once for them, to Florida, and I suspect I may get to travel again before it's all over," particularly in swing states, Castro said.
Democratic operative Gilberto Ocañas of San Antonio, a veteran of many national campaigns and mentor to the Castros, said the brothers are a rare breed, "people who are smart but have this really grassroots substance to them."
The "incredibly-disciplined" and sometimes "nerdy" Castro brothers are destined to achieve more, predicted Ocañas, who worked with the late voter rights advocate Willie Velásquez.
"They're so respectful of the legacy of the leadership of the past, and the struggles. Whether or not Rosie wants to take credit, it's something that's embedded in them. It's in their DNA," Ocañas said.
The Castros are basking in the moment, he added.
"They're all sensing that this is Julián's time ... Rosie is not necessarily enamored to be in the spotlight -- it's about the kids, not about her," Ocañas said.
And when the spotlight moves away, Joaquín and his brother will be challenged not just by this year's political missions but by many long-running hometown issues, he said. "We still have low income, crime, high dropout rate, high teen pregnancy, and we need higher paying jobs," Ocañas said.
And from a national Democratic perspective, San Antonio remains "a low-income, low-turnout city," he said. "If San Antonio is going to increase in influence, it also has to show that it can turn out the vote."