On Sept. 4, 26 million television viewers tuned in to watch the first Hispanic deliver the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The speaker, the mayor of San Antonio, was introduced by his twin brother, a State Representative running for Congress. As the two embraced, then saluted the crowd, the only discernible difference between them was the color of their neck ties.
The mayor wore blue, the State Representative purple, two Latinos commanding a stage neither imagined in the humble home of their youth. The mayor, older by one minute, soaked in the applause and reflected on the journey that led him from a historic school to a historic moment.
“Twenty years ago, Joaquin and I left home for college and then for law school,” Julian Castro said. “In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world. But at the end of our days I couldn't help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn't one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity.”
The national media declared Julian a political sensation, the face and future of his party. Wrote the New York Times: “The speculation lately about Mr. Castro’s future has reached fever pitch; there is talk of his running for governor, earning a place in Mr. Obama’s cabinet and even becoming the first Hispanic president.”
Julian (Class of ‘92) isn’t the first Jefferson graduate mentioned as presidential timber (more on that later). But he is the first to generate strong speculation on prime-time TV. How did he and Joaquin arrive on the national stage?
The Castro twins climbed on the shoulders of giants, some of them from Thomas Jefferson High.
In 1953, Henry B. Gonzalez (Class of ‘35) became the first Mexican American elected to the San Antonio City Council. His advocacy helped integrate a city that denied Mexican Americans and African Americans equal access to public facilities. As the San Antonio Express-News once reported: “City Councilman Gonzalez sponsored the ordinance that ended racial segregation in San Antonio’s recreational areas, including city swimming pools.”
A champion for the disenfranchised, Gonzalez took his fight to the State Senate. In 1957, he and Senator Abraham “Chick” Kazen held a 36-hour filibuster in an attempt to kill 10 racial segregation bills. Kazen started the filibuster and yielded to Gonzalez, who spoke 22 hours and two minutes without stopping. The filibuster, the longest in the history of the Texas Legislature, made national headlines. Its effect? Eight of the 10 bills Gonzalez and Kazen opposed died.
Gonzalez mounted an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1958. He also lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 1961. But later that year, Gonzalez became the first Hispanic from Texas elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served constituents in the 20th Congressional District for 37 years.
Fourteen years later, Joaquin Castro was elected to the same seat. “There is so much history in Henry B’s service,” says Joaquin (Class of ‘92). “Following an early Jefferson graduate is special.”
Gonzalez cut a wide national profile. He chaired the Banking Committee, led a restructuring of the federal deposit system and correctly predicted the collapse of the savings and loan industry. A lesser-known legacy: He urged an investigation into the assassination of federal judge John H. Wood, a Jefferson graduate slain in 1979.
More than two dozen Jefferson alumni have followed him into elective office but no one has served longer. Franklin Scott Spears (Class of ‘48) came the closest – 34 years. Spears served as a Representative in the Texas House from 1958-61, a state Senator from 1961-67 and a District judge from 1968-78. A descendant of James Wilson, who signed the Declaration of Independence and served on the U.S. Supreme Court, Spears is best remembered as a Texas Supreme Court Justice. He served on the high court from 1978-1990.
In addition to Gonzalez and Spears, at least three more Jefferson alumni have served in the Texas Legislature: Representative Leo Alvarado (1992-2000), Representative Joaquin Castro (2002-present in the House) and Leticia Van de Putte, who served in the House (1991-99) and the Senate (1999-present). In 2008, Van de Putte (Class of ‘73) co-chaired the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
“As a Jefferson alum,” Joaquin says, “I’m proud that a few generations of Jeff grads have been at the forefront in public service for our state and nation. The neighborhoods around Jefferson have been a hotbed of civic-mindedness. When I go back to the school, there is usually someone who says they are interested in running for office someday.”
The alumni legacy includes service in government and the courts. Rose Spector (Class of ‘50) became the first woman in Texas elected to the State Supreme Court in 1992. Fred Biery (Class of ‘66) served as a District Court and Appellate Judge before President Clinton appointed him to the federal bench in 1994.
Other jurists from Jefferson include: Appellate judges Blair Reeves, Preston Dial and John F. Onion; District Court judges Peter Michael Curry, John Yates and Tony Fero; and Justices of the Peace Phil Harris and Robert G. Lee.
Alumni have made history in municipal government. At 26-years-old in 2001, Julian Castro became the youngest person elected to the San Antonio City Council. At 34, he became the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city.
“Jefferson students today have a long list of folks to study and think about if they have an interest in office,” Julian says. “And that’s a good thing. I hope it inspires a new generation.”
He serves on the council today with another Jefferson graduate, Diego Bernal (Class of ‘95), who represents District 1. Besides Castro, Bernal and Gonzalez, other alumni who have served as City Council members include: Jack Kaufman (1961-65); Al Rhode (1975-77); John Steen (1977-81); Joe Alderete (1977-85); Roger Flores Sr. (1995-99), Ed Garza (1997-01); Bobby Perez (1999-03), Elena Guajardo (2005-07) and Louis Rowe (2008-09).
Garza also served as mayor (2001-05) before becoming a trustee – and school board president – of the San Antonio Independent School District.
Henry B. may have been the first Jefferson graduate to run for governor – but he wasn’t the last. In 1990, John Silber (Class of ‘43) used his position as President of Boston University to run for governor of Massachusetts. After winning the Democratic primary, he appeared headed for victory and there was talk of a presidential candidacy in 1992. But Silber lost a close race and never ran for office again.
In the wake of the Democratic National Convention, speculation grows that Julian Castro will one day run for governor, and if successful, perhaps seek the White House. Term limits allow Julian to serve as mayor until 2016, which he insists is all he wants to do. Then what?
He’s not saying, but others are saying it for him: Julian Castro could go where nobody from Jefferson – or San Antonio – has gone before.