HOUSTON—Amid the poll workers passing out pushcards at a college campus in southeast Houston stood what looked like a vaguely familiar face.
“Appreciate your vote for Mario Gallegos, Texas state senator,” said the candidate’s brother. “He’s still on the ballot. You know, he passed away.”
Michael Gallegos, who bears a strong resemblance to his late brother, has campaigned for his brother many times in many election cycles. But never like what he’s done for the past few days: Handing out campaign fliers and asking voters to cast their ballots for a dead man.
“I tell them he was already on the ballot when he passed away,” he explained. “You can still vote for him, keep his position open, hopefully for another Democrat.”
The death of State Sen. Mario Gallegos has put his family and his political allies in an awkward position. In a Senate district that’s overwhelmingly Democratic, the only living candidate on the ballot is now a Republican. So Democrats are actively encouraging voters to cast their ballots for a man who died last month.
If the Republican candidate—an air force veteran and former Houston City Council aide named R.W. Bray -- wins this election, he will have pulled off an unlikely political upset. But if Gallegos is re-elected, the governor will be forced to call a special election to fill the open seat. The winner would almost certainly be another Democrat.
State Rep. Carol Alvarado (D – Houston) and former Harris Co. Commissioner Sylvia Garcia are the most commonly mentioned names as Gallegos’ potential successor. But first, the Democrats must make sure Gallegos retains his seat, even after his death.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, but not in this situation,” his brother Michael said. “But I don’t mind because he’s my brother and we want to keep this position open for another Democrat.”
The re-election effort has become largely a family affair. Political activists report that Gallegos’ widow has recorded robocalls popping up on voters’ phones. His brother-in-law Johnny Villareal has been helping organize support from the unionized firefighters who helped vault Gallegos, a former firefighter, into office as the Houston area’s first Hispanic senator.
“A lot of people do question us when we’re at the polls,” Villareal said. “And they ask us about it. And a lot of people answer, ‘A last time, in memory of Mario, we’ll vote for him.’”
All of this puts the dead senator’s Republican opponent in an odd situation, touting his own strengths without insulting the memory of a trailblazing lawmaker.
“Now, the district has an opportunity to either vote for a memory or vote to make memories,” Bray said. “They have the opportunity to vote for an individual who is still standing.”