On Saturday, May 9, Robbie Greenblum and Jaime Castillo ran into each other at the victory celebration for newly elected Mayor Julián Castro.
Castillo arrived at the campaign headquarters in his capacity as a columnist for the Express-News and Greenblum, a local immigration attorney, was “just there for the party.”
Greenblum and Castillo have been friends for years, developing a bond as Castillo covered local politics and Greenblum served on the boards of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the San Antonio Free Trade Alliance, and the Anti-Defamation League, among others. They chatted and joked freely on election night, but a week later they would have a much more weighty discussion. This was a scheduled meeting at Greenblum’s office and it concerned the two men leaving their private-sector jobs and leaping into the unknown as part of Castro’s new team.
By the time Castillo headed to Greenblum’s office, Greenblum had already accepted Castro’s offer to serve as mayoral chief of staff, and Castillo needed to make a quick decision whether or not he wanted to be the new mayor’s communications director.
It wasn’t an easy call. Castillo would not only have to accept a pay cut, he would be walking away from what colleagues often describe as the best editorial gig at San Antonio’s daily
“I had the job that for all intents and purposes was the pinnacle of journalism, so I was not on the market, per se,” Castillo says. “So it did matter who was doing the asking, because I wouldn’t have done it for anybody else.
“The night I slept on it and I woke up, I basically distilled it down to: If I don’t do this, and two years from now the guy is rising up, and, God forbid some other things happen at the paper in the meantime — in terms of the economy and what’s going on with the industry in general — I would think, ‘God, what an opportunity I missed.’”
On a smaller scale, it’s reminiscent of the moment that John Kennedy asked Robert McNamara, the newly installed president of Ford Motor Company, to serve as Secretary of Defense. McNamara knew he’d be taking on bigger burdens for much smaller pay, but he reluctantly agreed on the basis that duty was calling and he had a chance to be part of something special.
Neither Greenblum nor Castillo had worked a day in government before Castro came knocking, and neither man harbored major ambitions to do so. But both of them say they accepted Castro’s offer because of their respect for the new mayor and their sense that he will be a transformative figure in San Antonio.
Once you get past the particular personalities at the heart of the Castro administration, what grabs your attention is how closely the new mayor’s team adheres to the template established by Castro’s one-time rival, former Mayor Phil
Hardberger picked a chief of staff, Larry Zinn, with considerable experience in private legal practice and none in government. Castro did the same with Greenblum. Hardberger selected communications directors — Jeanne Russell and Rebeca Chapa — who came directly from writing jobs at the Express-News. Castro did the same with Castillo. Hardberger created the position of liaison to City Council, and put seasoned mediator, and old friend, Jed Maebius, in that role. Castro kept Maebius in that position. Castro also retained Russell as an adviser specializing in education (a responsibility she held during Hardberger’s second term), and Ruby Perez as an assistant to the mayor.
He’s even retained Zinn, in an unpaid, informal capacity, to provide his expertise on energy issues (or anything else Castro would like to talk about).
“I actually think the structure of the `mayor’s` office `under Castro` is very similar to ours,” Zinn says. “And even the nature of the people in those positions is similar to our positions.”
Castro’s eagerness to trace Hardberger’s steps is understandable. Hardberger not only dominated San Antonio politics over the last four years, he built a rare level of trust in his competence and judgment. Castro will have plenty of opportunities to carve out his own policy niche, but he will have only one chance to establish a reassuring tone of continuity for business leaders and constituents dazzled by the Hardberger legacy.
Castro lauds Greenblum as “super-intelligent, thoughtful, and well-organized,” adding that he “brings a burst of energy and fresh eyes, as Larry did for Mayor Hardberger.”
Without question, Greenblum’s particular challenge is to maintain the standard set by Zinn, who emerged under Hardberger as a quick-study policy wonk and expert on project development. The former mayor publicly credited Zinn with helping to shape his ambitious Mission Verde plan.
“Mayor Hardberger was a great mayor,” Greenblum says. “He did great things in a lot of areas, including professionalizing the office of the mayor, and we’re the lucky beneficiaries of that. And Larry is a high-level thinking guy who could handle deep, complex policy isues. I think Mayor Hardberger created the position on the staff to be able to attract someone like Larry to be able to work in that situation.”
Sure enough, the easiest way to assess Castro’s team (which will soon be expanded to include a constituent-services aide and a senior policy analyst) is to draw a line in the chronological sand and separate everything pre-Hardberger from the approach taken over the last four years. Zinn recalls that when Hardberger’s predecessor Ed Garza left office, he had no chief of staff. Neither did he have a Council liaison, the position created by Hardberger in what City Hall observers regard as one of the former mayor’s shrewdest moves.
“The demands of time on the mayor are almost inconceivable,” Maebius says, by way of explaining why it’s essential for the mayor to have a Council mediator available. He recalls Hardberger saying, a few weeks after beginning his first term, “When I was elected, I didn’t realize I was getting two jobs: a day job and a night job.”
In the mid ’90s, Robbie Greenblum helped to build an organization called the San Antonio Latino/Jewish Dialogue. It was an effort with very personal implications for Greenblum, a descendant of Eastern European Jews who relocated to Mexico before settling in his hometown, Laredo.
Greenblum invited local activist Rosie Castro to participate in the Dialogue, and one day she brought along her twin sons, Julián and Joaquin, who were juniors at Stanford University.
Greenblum maintained his connection with Julián over the years and came to see him as a unique political figure, one whose “moral compass is unassailable.”
Castillo made a similar determination from his perspective as a newspaper columnist. “When you’re in journalism, you kind of know that there’s a public persona of politicians and then there’s stuff that you know that maybe the DA’s office hasn’t uncovered yet,” he says. “And with Julián, I think all of us knew there were no ethical problems with the guy.”
Maebius met Castro when the future mayor served a summer internship at Maebius’s law firm, Escamilla & Poneck. Given the choice between his former intern and one of his oldest friends, Maebius decided to back Hardberger in the 2005 mayoral race (although he says he did agree to support Castro in the unlikely event of a runoff that didn’t involve Hardberger).
A tall, white-haired man with a courtly air about him, Maebius speaks softly and chooses his words very carefully. He likes to say that “mediators don’t tell war stories,” and he consistently talks in diplomatic generalities about his experiences with Hardberger and Castro. He resists any attempt to compare the two mayors, and insists that they share similar methodical, analytical minds. Castro says Maebius “has an institutional knowledge” that helped smooth the transition between mayors.
Maebius will likely face a more independent Council under Castro than he did during his four years with Hardberger. The results of the three recent Council runoffs would seem to offer no obvious, rubber-stamp allies for Castro. Former City planner Ivy Taylor rode a maverick, development-wary campaign to victory in District 2; David Medina is a young, untested wild card; and Reed Williams has a strong conservative bent that will likely put him at odds with Castro’s most ambitious proposals. When you factor in John Clamp’s willingness to go against the grain, and Elisa Chan’s fiscal frugality, Castro will not have a built-in majority behind him.
During his years on the Council, Castro emphasized transparency and ethics reform at City Hall, and his first significant move as mayor has been to tweak the City’s ethics code. Given that preoccupation, it’s notable that he picked Greenblum and Castillo for his team. Both men are widely regarded as straight shooters, and even the inevitable questions about Castillo jumping from writing about Castro to working for him have been muted because of Castillo’s solid
Castillo says that he made his decision in 48 hours — joking that it took that long to convince his wife he should take the job — “because I didn’t want to put the paper in a tough position. I was going to have to tell them either way.”
When he and Greenblum met to discuss the communications position, Castillo expressed a desire to be in the room when policy decisions are made. Greenblum and Castro hadn’t discussed that issue, but Greenblum quickly put Castro on his speaker phone, and the three men agreed that it would serve the administration’s interests to include Castillo in the process.
Castro says that even before the subject came up, he always valued Castillo’s potential policy input. “He’s not only demonstrated an ability to help the office communicate well, but also an ability to understand policy from his years of experience covering local and state politics,” Castro says.
According to Castillo, the toughest adjustment in moving from a daily newspaper to the mayor’s office has been the lack of control over his own schedule. “I was accustomed to being a columnist and calling who I needed to call for a column and it was a finite thing I was dealing with,” he says. “And here, you’re just reliant on a lot of moving parts and several balls in the air at any one time.”
For Greenblum, the shift to the public sector — a move he never envisioned and never wanted — has meant accepting that he’ll spend fewer hours every day with his wife and four children.
“A lot of people want to touch the mayor’s office and people have important issues to discuss, and we want feedback from the people of San Antonio,” he says. “So when you want that, and you get it, we don’t have a huge staff, so it’s a lot of work for us. But it’s also the kind of work that’s very energizing.”