I thought I’d dodged a bullet.
We played rock, paper, revolver to see who had to watch U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s appearance on Monday night’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Nothing against Castro – it’s that I generally find Stewart’s faux hipster “smarter than thou” thing and his mugging for the camera to be a stale schtick.
So I missed the original airing, which is covered ably here.
But I got peer-pressured into watching it and — wow.
The Daily Show seems like the right venue for Castro — light, breezy, not concerned with details, more about style than substance — but just, damn.
Stewart seemed more informed about housing issues than Castro.
Granted, this is an administration not known widely for its star picks in cabinet secretaries.
Think about it. The first Secretary of State for this White House is widely lauded by people who couldn’t name a single important accomplishment by that secretary. (She couldn't name one, either.) After the administration snubbed the Charlie Hebdo march against terror in Paris, the current Secretary of State had James Taylor play “You’ve Got a Friend” for the French people.
It’s been amateur hour in the cabinet as a rule, rather than the exception. One exception, Shaun Donovan, was lost by housing to OMB. He was an able and competent HUD secretary who knew his stuff.
But you watch Castro get accidentally embarrassed by a comedian, and you think — maybe behind that smile is a whole lot of nothing.
Castro looked genuinely surprised when asked about the FHA’s capital reserves. Watching him cringingly repeat “strong trajectory” three times as a fallback was painful.
Castro looked about as comfortable as a cat in a Halloween costume when he was asked about the secondary mortgage market. Working for HousingWire, I fully expected Castro to school Stewart. Instead, he looked like an NFL mascot asked what defense to run in the final seconds. Castro should have corrected Stweart that we are not talking about derivatives, but the secondary mortgage market. And that the mortgage market wouldn't work without a functioning secondary mortgage market.
It brought to mind highlights from the UK version of The Office, with David Brent floundering and smiling. Only Castro wasn’t in the hot seat – these were basic questions and he got caught pushing empty spin.
I had a source at HUD say to me before Christmas that he would be surprised if Castro knows where the HUD offices are. At the time, I thought the source was exaggerating.
Castro has been touted as the “Hispanic Obama” after he gave a well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention, and it’s not something I’d argue against.
In both cases – Castro now and Obama in 2008 – you have a blank slate with a charming personality and zero executive experience. Essentially because Castro now, like Obama then, has no real record, any agenda can be written for him. He’s whatever you want him to be, and he checks at least one demographic box for those who value that sort of thing, absent anything else.
Oh, I’m being unfair about Castro having no executive experience? He was mayor of the second largest city in my beloved Texas?
Well, yes and no.
In San Antonio, the office of the mayor holds exactly no power. He’s a ribbon-cutter and a gavel-banger who makes $20 per council meeting.
Executive power in the San Antonio resides with the city manager.
"The office of the city manager serves as the focal point for the executive leadership and direction of the city organization,” the city’s own website says.
That’s why the city manager gets paid $355,000, while Castro was paid $4,000 for photo ops.
Castro was funded before he became San Antonio mayor in 2009 by a questionable seven-figure referral fee that he got from a well-heeled trial lawyer and Democrat donor, arising from a “personal injury lawsuit in which Castro may or may not have played a major role.” And for which he hasn’t answered many questions.
He used that to bankroll his mayoral campaign, and in the intervening years earned his money, like Obama, on speaking fees and a memoir before being tapped for HUD.
Now he’s being touted as a possible VP candidate for whomever wins the Democrat 2016 nomination.
As an empty suit with a big smile, a blank slate, and demographic appeal, Castro may be the tool they’re looking for.
But for me and where I sit in the housing and mortgage finance space, I will continue to expect more from our leaders.
[Correction: Due to a bone-headed mistake on the part of the writer, Shaun Donovan was initially said to have gone to the Department of Commerce instead of the Office of Management and Budget. The op-ed has been updated and the writer given five lashes.]