Democrat, Alpine, 37. Out in the wild, and in the wild and woolly House of Representatives, life is a struggle for turf. Find a piece of ground to call your own—a committee chairmanship, perhaps, or a field of expertise—and you are well on your way to power and influence. Pete Gallego has been a solid legislator throughout the nineties: a chairman (but not of a major committee), a major player in writing the budget (but not the major player), and a strong voice in criminal justice legislation (but not the strongest voice). But Gallego was not content with a second-tier status. This year, he operated by the law of nature: You can do what you’re big enough to do.
He has become the most versatile member of the House, a jack-of-all-trades and master of all. He passes important legislation: His groundbreaking campaign-finance-reform bill made it through the House, only to die in the Senate. He kills what deserves to be killed: His unfriendly amendment began a feeding frenzy on a dubious proposal to let cities install cameras at intersections to catch traffic offenders. He sways votes with common-sense oratory: When the governor’s proposal to suspend the oil severance tax ran into trouble, Gallego won Democratic votes by pointing out that while oil-rich school districts would benefit, so would the poor districts that share in their bounty. Although he is the chair of the Democratic Caucus (a group that calls to mind Will Rogers’ comment that he belonged to no organized political party; he was a Democrat), he passed the governor’s bill to restore historic courthouses, in the face of carping by some Democrats that money was going to buildings instead of people. And when he isn’t on the microphone himself, he’s always active, whispering advice to a colleague who needs help in debate or working the floor to round up votes.
In the high-tension, madhouse atmosphere of the last ten days of the session, when everything was on the line, Gallego erased any skepticism about his place in the Legislature’s top rank. First he positioned himself to play free safety and all but tackled fellow Democrat Sylvester Turner, who was on his way to the microphone to try to kill the governor’s tax-cut bill; by talking him out of it, Gallego spared lawmakers from a special session. Then he negotiated a delicate compromise to get old industrial plants to cut their emissions in a manner that can best be described as voluntarily under duress—even though the only thing he knew about air pollution when he walked in the room was that it’s awful at Big Bend National Park. He has finally claimed his turf: everything.