For a Democratic Party struggling to present a young, fresh face, Julian Castro seems the answer to political prayers. But his rapid rise from San Antonio to the national spotlight — and a rocky performance in recent Congressional testimony — spurred a whisper campaign among those who worried whether too much is being asked of the 40-year-old wunderkind.
Castro’s performance at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in February, eight months after taking over HUD, raised eyebrows as he struggled to recall facts and details about programs his agency oversees.
At times during that hearing, Castro appeared visibly shaken as Republicans peppered him with questions about the Federal Housing Administration’s Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund and the percentage of mortgages insured by the FHA. He admitted at one point to being “a little bit confused” by questions from Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.).
But appearing before the committee again on Thursday, Castro proved he’s a fast learner, parrying new Republican attacks and even throwing some of his sparring partners off their game.
“He seemed much more prepared this time than he did last time, which needed to happen,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), a member of the committee.
Congressional hearings pose a challenge for any cabinet-level officer, particularly when the opposite party controls Congress. They require department heads to strike a difficult balance between calm respect and assertive push-back on behalf of White House decisions they often had little say in making.
On Thursday, Castro pushed back, sometimes hard.
“Congressman, if you would just invest as much in my program as you did in this room, with this carpet with gold insignia and this kind of wonderful Taj Mahal,” Castro said in an exchange with Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.) over information technology at HUD, “I think we could make the kind of improvement that we need to.”
“You’ve shocked me with that rudeness,” responded Schweikert, who was still miffed at a floor vote later in the afternoon.
“I thought I was actually doing a series of questions to help,” the Arizona Republican said after the hearing. “I had the feeling, either culturally or intellectually, we just passed each other by in that conversation.”
Democrats, on the other hand, were thrilled with Castro’s newfound combativeness. Ranking member Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and other Democrats burst into enthusiastic applause at the hearing’s conclusion.
“It certainly appears that Secretary Castro has learned a number of lessons from his first appearance back in February, when it was clear he was unprepared for Republican hostility,” one Democratic aide remarked.
Castro’s ascent has been meteoric, rising from mayor of San Antonio, a largely ceremonial position in a metropolis where a city manager holds most power, to the keynote speaker, along with his identical twin brother Joaquin, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, to President Obama’s Cabinet.
His rise has spurred gossip that the young Texas Democrat’s charisma and potential appeal to Latino voters would make a nice vice presidential pairing for Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
For Democrats who worried that elevating such a young politician with little experience in Washington would saddle him with too much pressure, Thursday’s performance will serve as a balm.
“I think that he did a good job, “ said Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) in an interview. “I’m not sure any secretary can convince any of my colleagues that they should have positions other than what they currently have.”
Castro laughed when asked whether he was more prepared for confrontation during this hearing than in February.
“When in Rome, I guess,” he said.