By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama elevated fast-rising Latino politician Julian Castro to the national stage on Friday, nominating the San Antonio mayor as the next secretary of housing and urban development.
The move automatically puts the 39-year-old Mexican-American in the mix of speculation about who might be the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2016.
Obama picked Castro to fill the position that will be left by current HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who Obama nominated as the next White House budget director.
The Castro appointment is tantalizing politically because it brings a youthful Latino with star power to Washington.
Castro and his twin brother, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, rose from humble roots. Their grandmother worked as a maid, cook and babysitter to have enough money to help raise a family.
"To be your nominee, President Obama, is simply a blessing to me," Castro said.
Castro has been mayor of the country's seventh largest city since 2009. He is credited with bringing new vitality to downtown San Antonio and improving areas that had been stricken with urban blight.
Democrats got their first good look at Castro when he was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention that renominated Obama for a second term in 2012.
"They saw this young guy, pretty good speaker, not bad looking, talk about how America is the only place where his story could even be possible. And I watched and I thought, that's not bad," Obama said wryly.
Then U.S. Senator Barack Obama had given a similar speech at the 2004 convention.
People close to Castro say he is flattered by talk that he could be on a list of potential 2016 Democratic vice presidential picks, but that he is eager to do the HUD job, which will put him into contact with city mayors that he has enjoyed working with these last years.
"He's got a lot going for him and so the buzz behind him as a potential vice presidential pick in 2016 is a real one," said Richard Perez, an associate of Castro who is CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.
Castro's selection takes place at a time when Hispanics seem tied as closely as ever with Democratic politics. Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012.
There is one school of thought that says the Castro nomination could help placate Latinos frustrated by Obama's inability to get an immigration overhaul through Congress.
Plus, Castro's rise in Texas could be limited as the state remains overwhelmingly Republican and it may be a while before the state elects Democrats to high office.
"He could go blue in the face waiting for Texas to turn blue," said Republican strategist Ana Navarro.
And there are risks to Castro's rise, given that the HUD secretary's position is not necessarily a springboard to higher office.
"HUD has generally not been a stepping stone for successful political ambitions," said Ray Sullivan, who advised the 2012 presidential campaign of Texas' Republican governor, Rick Perry.
(Reporting By Steve Holland. Editing by Andre Grenon)