A large bouquet of yellow roses graced the desk of Senator Mario Gallegos yesterday as his colleagues honored him on the Senate floor. Gallegos, a Democrat who represented Houston’s Senate District 6 from 1995 until his death in October 2012, was Texas’s first Hispanic state senator, and his widow, Theresa, wiped away tears as four Senators spoke about his love for his family and his work promoting civil rights, education, and seniors.
“We’re better senators because Mario came through these halls,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said “Mario was taken too soon. But let me just assure each and every one of you that he got all there was to get out of every day on earth.”
Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, recalled how Gallegos was an “engaged and zealous advocate” for his district. Gallegos was so devoted that in 2007, following a liver transplant, he disregarded his doctor’s orders and came back to work early, setting up a hospital bed in the sergeant-at-arm’s office so he could be near the chamber during the heated voter ID debate. “He shouldn’t have been there. We knew it. He knew it. But he was there,” Lucio said.
The special election to fill Gallegos’s seat will be held on January 26. SD 6 is strongly Democratic; in fact Gallegos won 71 percent of the vote posthumously in November.
As with most special elections, the field is crowded. Eight candidates are on the ballot, but the front-runners are State Rep. Carol Alvarado and Sylvia Garcia, a former Harris County Commissioner . Many predict that the race will come down to a runoff between Alvarado and Garcia, which is likely to be held between February 23 and March 5, Mark P. Jones , chair of Rice University’s political science department, wrote in an e-mail.
“Both Alvarado and Garcia are ignoring the other six candidates and focusing all of their attention on each other,” Jones said, noting that Garcia has been more aggressive in her campaigning, sending out mailers that suggest that Alvarado’s career as a consultant for entities including Houston Independent School District and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County could create a conflict of interest. Garcia, who has won endorsements from several unions, has also criticized Alvarado for missing candidate forums.
In the money game, Garcia has a leg up, with $474,000 on hand as of December 31 to Alvarado’s $304,000, according to recent filings with the Texas Ethics Commission. But Alvarado may have something more powerful on her side: she is a close friend of the Gallegos family, and before he died, he said that he hoped she would succeed him. And Alvarado, who was reelection to her third term in the House in November, has a more active campaign machine.
Governor Rick Perry called the special election on December 13. By law, he had 20 days to do so after the state certified the elections on December 6, so he could have postponed this proclamation until after Christmas, pushing the election into February.
But in similar situations involving safe Republican seats, Perry “expedited the special election process to insure the new Republican representatives were able to arrive in Austin as rapidly as possible,” Jones said.
“Perry has delayed the arrival of SD-6’s new senator both to obtain a partisan advantage and simply because he can,” Jones said.
When Rep. Glenda Dawson of Pearland died in September 2006 and was elected posthumously, Perry set the special election on December 19. And in 2010, when Rep. Edmund Kuempel of Seguin died of a heart attack two days after the election, Perry set the special election for December 14. “When the special election was certain to send a Republican to Austin, Perry scheduled the first rounds … more than a month earlier than SD-6’s January 26 date,” Jones said.
As things stand, SD-6 could be without a state senator until mid-March, Jones said. If that’s he case, the victor will arrive too late in the session to file any bills. “From a GOP perspective, a 19 to 11 advantage is preferable to 19 to 12, especially when the 31st senator from SD-6 is expected to occupy a position in the Democratic delegation’s centrist or liberal wings, and not in its conservative wing with Senators Hinojosa, Lucio Jr., Uresti, and Whitmire,” Jones said. “As a result, it is in the best interests of the entire GOP Senate delegation that SD-6 remain unrepresented for as long as possible.”
The vacant senate seat will hurt Democrats the most when controversial issues such as the fetal pain bill are raised. “As long as the SD-6 seat is vacant, the GOP only needs to gain the support of a single pro-life Democratic senator (Lucio Jr., Uresti, or Zaffirini),” Jones said.