Pioneering Latino senator laid to rest

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on October 22, 2012 at 11:31 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 22 at 11:40 PM

HOUSTON—A pioneering political leader has been laid to rest after a final farewell in the heart of Houston.

Mario Gallegos, the former firefighter who became the first Latino from Harris County elected to the Texas Senate, was memorialized in a service held at the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in downtown Houston

Family, friends and firefighters joined some of the state’s most powerful politicians attending the service led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. The cathedral was crowded with political activists, many of whom looked to Gallegos as a trailblazing inspiration.

“As a young guy, that was real important,” said James Rodriguez, a Houston City Council member nurtured in his youth by a loose political network linked to Gallegos. “You know, as we were coming up, he watched out for us.  He had our back.  He would kind of show us the path.  And he’d help us along the way.  And so he did that for a lot of people.”

Today, it’s easy to forget there was a time when a Latino winning election to the Texas Senate was a rarity  -- and thus, an inspiration.

“We grew up in the same area,” said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, her eyes swollen with tears.  “Both passionate about the East End, Milby High School and politics.  But it was seeing the injustices that made him want to fight.  Mario never backed down from a fight.”

That notion was echoed by many of those attending the service.  Some of them recalled how Gallegos, still recovering from a liver transplant necessitated by years of alcohol abuse, insisted upon having a bed installed in an office adjacent to the Senate chamber so that he could cast his vote against a proposed voter ID bill.

‘He’s done a great job for our communities,” said Frumencio Reyes, an attorney who played a leading role in developing Hispanic political power in Houston.  “And certainly we’re going to miss him a lot.”  

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the leader of the Senate chamber, and Houston Mayor Annise Parker were among the political leaders in attendance.  Among the pallbearers was John Whitmire, the dean of the Texas Senate and Gallegos’ closest political ally, who aggressively and publicly defended his friend during some of the troubled senator’s darkest hours.

“We were partners,” Alvarado remembered. “Mario had a knack of going in and kind of shaking the cage and rocking the boat and yelling and screaming, and then he’d call me to go in there and smooth it out.  And I did it.  And that’s what I’m going to miss.” 

Some of his longtime friends in East End politics recounted his family’s history of public service work, saying that’s what drove him into politics.

“He learned from his father,” said Sylvia Garcia, a former Harris County commissioner and Houston city controller.  “He learned it from his mother.  He comes from a family of service and that’s what he was about.”

And while most of the friends who spoke about Gallegos smiled when they told stories about him, some of them – like State District Judge Ruben Guerrero – choked back tears.

“I loved Mario,” Guerrero said.  “Mario was a good guy.”

After the bagpipes played, his fellow firefighters paid Gallegos one final honor outside the cathedral:  They carried the senator to his final resting place aboard a fire engine.

 

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