It’s rare these days for Democrats to pick up a seat in a red state like Texas from a tea party-backed incumbent, but Pete Gallego unseated GOP Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco in a race in which both parties and outside groups poured in millions of dollars. Gallego, a veteran state representative, depicted his rival as an “extremist” who would destroy the social safety net.
Gallego was born and raised in Alpine, Texas, where he still resides. His grandfather worked as a ranch hand and his grandmother ran a family restaurant in the town of 6,000; Gallego’s first job was as a dishwasher at the restaurant. His father was the first Hispanic elected to the school board, and when the bank in Alpine wouldn’t lend money to Latinos, Gallego’s parents started a credit union on their dining room table. Gallego graduated from Sul Ross State University in two years while balancing three jobs. “I saw how hard my parents worked and I didn’t want to be a freeloader,” he said in an interview.
After graduating from law school, Gallego took a job as an assistant in the Attorney General’s Office, where he met his future wife, Maria Elena Ramon. He ran for state representative in 1990, the year that Democrat Ann Richards waged her successful campaign for Texas governor, and he became the first Latino to represent the district.
In 1991, Gallego was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus as the first freshman and ethnic minority member to hold the position, and he was chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus from 1991 to 2001. The Eagle Pass Independent School District honored him in 2000 by dedicating the Pete Gallego Elementary School in his name.
Canseco had ridden the tea party wave to victory in 2010 by casting five-term Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez as a career politician and a big-government liberal in an election that was hospitable to neither. In 2012, Rodriguez tried for a comeback in the Democratic primary, but Gallego edged him out by making inroads into Rodriguez’s strongholds of San Antonio and Eagle Pass.
In the general-election campaign, Gallego accused Canseco of not being accessible to voters while in office and promised to remain tied to the district. He got help from the League of Conservation Voters, which first got involved in the primary as retribution for Rodriguez’s 2009 vote against a cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming.
Canseco, however, outraised his opponent by $1 million and called Gallego a “radical” who would make life difficult for businesses. The race turned extremely nasty when Canseco’s campaign distributed a mailer using an image of Jesus Christ and a picture of two men kissing to highlight what it said was Gallego’s liberal record on abortion and gay rights. Even some Republicans condemned the ad, and Gallego, a Catholic who opposes legalizing same-sex marriage and has voted in favor of parental-consent laws for minors seeking abortions, demanded an apology. Though he had trailed in polls, Gallego’s rural appeal, coupled with strong turnout on San Antonio’s south side, helped him score a victory.