Julian Castro, the major of San Antonio, Texas, said Barack Obama deserves Latino support because the president took action to "lift the shadow of deportation" from a generation of young immigrants "called dreamers."
"Ours is a nation like no other, a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation," Castro, the first Latino to give a keynote convention address, said Tuesday before Democratic delegates at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. "No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward." Castro offered an intimate account of his family's immigrant story to make the broader case that government should play a role in providing economic opportunity. It's a message designed to resonate with minorities, particularly a growing Latino population whose votes will be a force in coming elections.
"My family's story isn't special. What's special is the America that makes our story possible," he said.
The tale of Castro's grandmother, an orphan who immigrated from Mexico, and hardships she faced also contrasted sharply with the backgrounds and messages of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and running-mate Paul Ryan.
"I think he's a good guy," Castro said of Romney, a former private equity executive. "He just has no idea how good he's had it." He also took on the Romney-Ryan budget proposal, saying that their policies to reduce domestic spending and lower the federal deficit would hurt middle-class families.
"The Romney-Ryan budget doesn't just cut public education, cut Medicare, cut transportation and cut job training," Castro said. "It doesn't just pummel the middle class. It dismantles it." Similar to Obama, who took a spot on the national stage after his 2004 Democratic convention address, Castro was plucked from relative obscurity by campaign aides looking to insert a fresh face into the three-day convention that will be dominated by addresses from former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama and her husband.
"He did a phenomenal job in articulating the values we hold dear as Democrats," Dana Redd, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, said after Castro's speech. "He talked about opportunity. One thing the Democrats have always been about is opportunity." Ricardo Oquendo, 53, a New York attorney, said he was touched by Castro's speech because he also was the first generation of his family to attend college, and his two children are now college graduates.
"That trajectory was quite moving to me," Oquendo said in an interview. "We could have a Latino president some day, and he could be it." Castro has been called the new face of Democratic politics, the "Latino messiah" and the "next Obama." Last night, he finally got his chance to move beyond the advance billings and define himself.
"He's straight out of central casting," said Greg Stanton, the mayor of Phoenix, who's worked with Castro. "He represents a new generation of not only city leadership but Latino leadership. That's the future." His landslide victory last year in a majority Latino city, his elite pedigree and his immigrant background raised expectations for his performance. Castro, 37, a Stanford University and Harvard Law School graduate, was re-elected last year to a second term with 82 percent of the vote in a city of 1.36 million people -- 63.2 percent of whom are Latino, according to the census.
Unlike Obama, who began his career in Chicago, Castro's political future will require rising up the political ranks in a Republican stronghold. Texas last voted for a Republican governor 22 years ago and a Republican presidential candidate in 1976. A growing Latino population is changing the political profile of the state, though slowly.
"He is the new Obama," said former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. "The problem is that he may have to wait a while." The keynote spot provides the ideal venue for catching the attention of party activists and donors, though few have managed to take full advantage of the opportunity. Though the spot turned Obama into a star, then-Governor Bill Clinton found himself on the receiving end of criticism after his 1988 speech was declared long-winded and dull.
In his speech, Castro told the story of how he and his identical twin brother, Joaquin, were raised by his grandmother and single mother. Joaquin, a Texas state legislator who's poised to win election to Congress in November, introduced his brother last night. Their journey toward the highest reaches of American politics, Castro argued, was helped by the sort of government investments in infrastructure and education that the Obama administration supports.
"Barack Obama gets it," he said. "He understands that when we invest in people, we're investing in our shared prosperity." As mayor, Castro has presided over a period of economic growth and new job initiatives. He's proposed a local tax to fund pre-K programs and the biggest bond measure ever passed in the history of the city to support infrastructure development of roads and flood prevention.
Yet it's his background that most thrills Democrats, who see Castro as a powerful draw in the fight to attract Latino voters.
"The main takeaway is, in order for Obama to win, Latinos have to vote," said Paul Lopez, 34, a Denver city councilman who attended a Hispanic convention caucus session this week with Obama's campaign and party officials ahead of the convention in Charlotte.
The urgency surrounding the Hispanic vote is heightened in part because Obama is losing ground among working-class white men, those without college degrees. Hispanics may account for 8.9 percent of the U.S. electorate in November, up from 7.4 percent in 2008, according to a report last month by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research institute. The group also projected turnout among eligible Hispanic voters at 52.7 percent, up from 49.9 percent four years ago.
Latinos could comprise 14 percent to 18 percent of the electorate in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida and Nevada, said Juan Sepulveda, senior adviser for Hispanic affairs for the Democratic National Committee.
Obama is pointing to his expansion of health-care coverage and his order this summer ending deportations of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children -- two policy stances that Romney opposes -- to attract support. The re-election campaign also is calling attention to Romney's support for policies that will encourage "self-deportation" by illegal immigrants.
Hispanics favor Obama over Romney, 61 percent to 29 percent, according to Gallup poll data compiled Aug. 6-26, with 66 percent saying they would definitely vote.