HOUSTON -- Drive down some streets in east Houston and you'll see signs of a fight for one of the most coveted jobs in local politics.
Depending on whose house you drive past or which business you patronize, there’s a good chance you’ll see campaign signs bearing the names of Carol Alvarado or Sylvia Garcia. They're both well known in these neighborhoods, but now they're competing to replace an even more familiar name that has passed into history.
When Mario Gallegos died last October, an odd message went forth around Democratic circles in east and north Houston: Yes, Mario is dead, but you need to vote for him anyway. So it was no surprise in the heavily Democratic and historically Hispanic Senate District 6 that the late senator was overwhelmingly re-elected over his living Republican challenger.
That set the stage for the low-turnout event happening this weekend, when a paltry number of the district's voters are expected to cast ballots in a special election for the Texas Senate.
Eight candidates are running for the job, but the clear front-runners are Alvarado and Garcia, who've been trading jabs as they make the rounds of candidate forums and luncheons throughout the district that sprawls across a wide swath of east and north Harris County.
"There's no question that the evidence is that Sylvia Garcia is the better known person," said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist who's also KHOU's political analyst. "She was a county commissioner. Carol Alvarado has been a city councilmember and state rep in a small portion of the district. But, what's also very evident is her base of support is much more likely to show up."
Whoever wins may well become the most important Hispanic elected official in the Houston area for a generation. Yet the turnout has been strikingly small, lower than even pessimistic election observers expected. Early voting turnout leads Stein to forecast as few as eight percent of eligible voters will cast ballots in the special election.
“Why? It's mostly a population of renters, high mobility," he said. "And we're just after the Christmas season. It's extremely hard to get people's attention. Early voting lasted almost two weeks, two weekends, but it was two weekends when it rained. And even during the week it rained."
Even without those factors depressing turnout, voters in this state senate district have a history of staying away from the polls. In the last presidential election, Stein said, about 46 percent of this district's voters cast ballots compared to roughly 61 percent for Harris County as a whole.
"The runoff becomes a situation where I think the turnout plummets even more, probably to five or six percent," Stein says. "And again, the base of support probably favors an Alvarado."
Besides Alvarado and Garcia, the candidates in this non-partisan special election include R.W. Bray, a former aide to City Councilmember Helena Brown who also won the Republican nomination for this seat last year; Joaquin Martinez, a former staffer for former City Councilmember John Castillo; Dorothy Olmos, a former teacher who ran an unsuccessful Republican campaign for the State Board of Education; Rudy Reyes, a former League City city councilmember; and Maria Selva, a Green Party candidate who ran for Congress last year.
But by far, the candidate with the most colorful past is Susan Delgado, a former stripper who was also Gallegos' longtime mistress. She denies that her campaign is a vendetta against the family of Gallegos, with whom she had a stormy relationship, or Alvarado. Still, she’s doesn’t miss a chance to criticize Alvarado.
"I didn't like the fact that she's been using his dead body as a platform," she said, a reference to Alvarado's frequent invocation of her connection to the Gallegos family, which she touts in her campaign commercials.
“I think that is just a disgraceful comment for her to make," Alvarado responded. "You know, Mario and I were not just colleagues and personal friends, we were each other's family."
Whoever emerges as the top two vote-getters on Saturday will face each other again in a runoff, which may not happen until as late as March.