Leonel Castillo, 1939-2013

Texpatriate has learned that Leonel Castillo, the larger-than-life political figure in Houston’s Hispanic community, has passed away at the age of 74. Castillo, who served as Houston’s City Controller from 1972 to 1977 and as the Director of the INS under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1979, died after lingering health problems.

Castillo was a maverick amongst the Mexican-American political community in Houston, and arguably served as a mentor and inspiration for Ben Reyes and other prominent Hispanic politicians. He first entered the political fray a mere four years after moving to Houston, back when the City Charter mandated a five year residency requirement to run for the City Council. Still wanting to throw his hat into the ring, he challenged the City Controller, Roy Oakes, a fourteen-term incumbent.

Oakes, a fiscal conservative and ally of the Republican Mayor (Louie Welch), was defeated by Castillo in 1971 in a landmark victory for Hispanics in Houston. Re-elected twice more, Castillo was rumored as a future Statewide officeholder, so taking a post such as Comptroller or Railroad Commissioner seemed destined in his future. After working hard to deliver the Hispanic vote to Jimmy Carter (the 1976 election was the last time Texas voted Democratic in a presidential year), Castillo was appointed by the President as the Chairman of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Unfortunately, this is where Castillo’s winning streak came to an end. In 1979, he resigned the post to return to Houston and make a run for Mayor against incumbent Republican Jim McConn. In doing so, he split the progressive vote with City Councilmember Louis Macey. McConn was ultimately re-elected and Castillo finished in an embarrassing third place.

In 1981, Castillo attempted to return to his old office by making a fourth run for City Controller. Qualifying for the runoff election in the open field, he was defeated by City Councilmember Lance Lalor.

Eight years later, Castillo made one last one for public office, seeking an At-large seat on the Houston City Council. Despite a strong plurality finish, he was eventually defeated in the runoff by Sheila Jackson Lee, a Municipal Judge who went on to become a Congressperson.

Castillo’s reputation, however, has only increased in recent years as Houstonians have begun to view him as both a trailblazer for minorities and an ardent opponent of the reactionary Welch. A high-profile community center named in Castillo’s honor was recently erected just north of Downtown. Sadly, its grand dedication and opening was scheduled for this Saturday.

As an incessant advocate for his community, Castillo was one of the first to achieve the right to hold office amongst the Mexican-American community in Houston. As Texas Monthly wrote of him many years ago, he was a real-life “Horatio Alger story.”


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