HOUSTON—A week after voters elected a dead man to the Texas Senate, politicians are jumping out of the gate to get his job.
No fewer than three candidates have already declared their candidacy for the Senate seat vacated by last month’s death of Mario Gallegos. His passing set the stage for what promises – maybe “threatens” is a better word – to become a rough and tumble campaign for one of the most coveted positions in Houston politics.
Carol Alvarado officially launched her campaign at an East End VFW hall, surrounded by longtime friends and supporters. Most importantly, she was accompanied by Gallegos’ widow and other family members who recounted that the late senator’s dying wish was endorsing Alvarado as his successor.
“I am here today, with the blessing and support of Theresa and the entire Gallegos family, to announce my candidacy to be the next Texas senator from District 6,” Alvarado announced to a cheering crowd.
Although she staged the most elaborate announcement event, two other candidates had already beaten her to the punch. Sylvia Garcia, the former Harris County commissioner, revealed she was in the race on Friday. And R. W. Bray, the Republican who lost last week’s election to the late senator, has also announced he’s in the running.
“This race is going to be crowded,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst. “It’s not just going to be limited to these three candidates. It might have as many as seven, eight or nine other candidates. And that would mean a certain runoff.”
The date of the special election remains to be set by Governor Rick Perry. Under the arcane rules governing this unusual circumstance, voters could go to the polls as early as December 15 or as late as February 5. Unless one candidate wins a majority of the votes – and that’s extremely unlikely – a runoff could happen as late as March 30.
So with the Texas Legislature convening in January, a large swath of largely Hispanic Houston neighborhoods may not have a state senator until as late as April.
“We want this to be fair, just like any other district.,” Garcia said. “We want an election and we want it now.”
Alvarado and Garcia are widely considered front-runners in the race for a seat that was specifically drawn to give an advantage to Hispanic candidates. Both of them have long histories in local politics, including elected offices representing the East End neighborhoods that are the political heart of the Senate district.
Alvarado, a state lawmaker, also served as a top aide to former Houston Mayor Lee Brown and as a city council member representing a heavily Hispanic district on the city’s East End. She also served as mayor pro tem until a payroll cheating scandal that sent some of her aides to jail forced her to resign from that post.
Garcia served as Houston city controller, then won election as a Harris County commissioner representing much of the area’s East End. Her seat seemed safe until 2010, when anti-Obama fervor helped turn out voters for her Republican challenger and stunned Democrats by knocking Garcia out of office.
Both Alvarado and Garcia are ambitious politicians whose future plans have been the subject of intense speculation. Even as word spread that Gallegos was dying, political insiders were already buzzing about who might run for his seat. The late senator himself discussed his successor on his death bed, according to his widow.
“I sat on a meeting with him and Carol,” said Theresa Gallegos, the senator’s widow. “It was so important to him that he wanted it written down on paper that he was endorsing Carol Alvarado.”
Sniping between the candidates has already begun. When a poll commissioned by a prominent attorney indicated Garcia might have an advantage, Alvarado fired off a news release criticizing Garcia and pointing out the pollsters conducted their survey while the family was still grieving.
“I thought it was very inappropriate and very disrespectful to the senator’s family,” Alvarado said.
Garcia said she had nothing to do with the poll. And she questioned why political insiders focus on the often bitter disputes between Hispanic candidates in Houston.
“I just think it’s interesting that whenever there’s a minority opportunity district—which is what this is, a Latino opportunity—people suggest that,” Garcia said. “We’re not going to be about that. We’re going to be about focusing on the issues.”
Alvarado echoed similar sentiments, but even some of the most experienced supporters who gathered for her announcement rally expect this to quickly become a tough campaign.
“It’s going to get somewhat nasty,” said Frumencio Reyes, a longtime activist in Houston’s Hispanic political scene. “But we’ll survive it.”