With a lengthy career in the Texas state legislature, Pete Gallego sought to bring a bipartisan tenor and healthy work ethic to Congress upon his election in 2012. He kept his focus on the local level, helping farmers, veterans, and government workers in his district maintain employment and improve their quality of life. Representing a district that included a long section of the United States border with Mexico, Gallego supported both immigration reform and strong border protection. One of his colleagues in the Texas state house of representatives described the fiscally conservative, Mexican-American legislator from West Texas as “a bridge between factions.”1
Pete P. Gallego was born in Alpine, Brewster County, Texas, on December 2, 1961, to Pete A. Gallego, a World War II veteran and restaurateur, and Elena Peña Gallego, operator of a family credit union.2 Gallego and his two sisters grew up washing dishes at their family’s restaurant, a hot spot for politicos in West Texas. He graduated from Alpine High School in 1980, and then earned a B.A. from Sul Ross State University in Alpine in 1982. Gallego worked multiple jobs throughout high school and college, including a clothing store, a radio station, and an administrative position at Sul Ross. He earned his J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1985, and then worked in the office of the Texas state attorney general. In 1990, he married María Elena with whom he has one son, Nicolás.3
That same year, the couple returned to Alpine where Gallego entered private practice before winning election to the Texas state house of representatives in the fall. Gallego thrived during his 11 terms in the state legislature. As a freshman lawmaker, Democrats chose him to lead their caucus; he held that position with distinction through a decade of Republican control of the chamber. In 2001 Gallego became head of the legislature’s Mexican-American caucus. He focused on issues of ethics and criminal justice. Colleagues referred to him as a “member’s member” and praised his quiet, approachable style which appealed to both parties.4
In late 2011, Gallego announced his intention to enter the Democratic primary to challenge the incumbent, Republican Francisco “Quico” Canseco. The hotly contested 23rd congressional district, the largest geographically in Texas, ran along the U.S. border with Mexico, centered on the city of San Antonio, and was home to a significant Hispanic population. Though Gallego’s state legislature district fell entirely within the bounds of the congressional district, he worried that the other Democratic candidates who lived in population-rich San Antonio held a numbers advantage.5 In the March primary, Gallego faced John Bustamante, a former San Antonio lawyer, and Ciro D. Rodriguez, the district's former Congressman looking for a rematch. Though Rodriguez polled ahead of Gallego, he fell short of a majority, triggering a runoff election between the two in May 2012. Environmental groups threw their weight behind Gallego, pushing the state representative over the top handily with 54 percent of the vote.6
Though the district had been redrawn to be slightly friendlier to Republicans in 2012, Canseco’s deeply conservative views—including votes against funding Social Security and Medicare—alienated some voters and drew heavy opposition from outside political action groups in the Hispanic-majority district. The campaign became heated, with the candidates arguing over hot-button issues such as reproductive rights and LGTBQ rights. Canseco accused Gallego of being a “radical environmentalist” and hinted that the groups fundraising against him, like the environmental organizations that backed Gallego in the Democratic primary, wanted “to buy this district.” Gallego in turn referred to Canseco’s positions on entitlements as “out of touch” and “extremist.”7 The race attracted national attention for a televised debate between the two candidates held entirely in Spanish on a Univision affiliate, a first in Texas.8 Gallego succeeded in ousting Canseco, winning 50.3 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s 45.6 percent.9
Gallego entered the 113th Congress (2013–2015) alongside several other Texas freshmen. “There was a concentrated effort on our part to get to know each other and work with each other,” he said just prior to taking the oath. “I think there will be a sense of camaraderie among the new members.”10 He received assignments on the Armed Services and Agriculture Committees, both relevant panels for his rural district where nearly 10 percent of inhabitants were veterans or active duty service members. Gallego joined the dwindling Blue Dog caucus of moderate, fiscally conservative Democrats and co-sponsored their resolution (H.J. Res. 4) calling for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.11 Gallego also proposed a bill to hold Members of Congress financially responsible during the government shutdown in October 2013.12
Gallego focused on issues important to his rural Texas constituents and attempted to bridge the partisan divide. He strongly supported comprehensive immigration reform, citing his district which covered 800 miles of the border with Mexico and offering reasoning consistent with his Blue Dog credentials. “There are many reasons to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he said on the House Floor in July 2013, “but one of the best reasons is simple, straightforward economics.”13 Gallego sought to secure overtime pay and tax benefits for official border agents, many of whom lived and worked in his district. He also favored the creation of 26 additional facilities to provide easier access to health care for veterans in rural areas like his district.14
With Democrats firmly in the minority in the House, Gallego took a workmanlike approach to legislation. Though none of his sponsored bills passed, he did successfully advance several non-controversial amendments on bills which ultimately became law. In this work, Gallego remained focused on veterans’ care. He proposed amending the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (H.R. 803) to accelerate job training skills for veterans in state and local plans, which was agreed to by voice vote.15 He also put forward two amendments which were eventually rolled into the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 (H.R. 3547). The first, agreed to by voice vote, designated $5 million for veterans’ job training programs. The second appropriations amendment, in a vote of 317 to 92, provided more spending flexibility for emergency measures taken up by the Department of Transportation.16
Gallego ran unopposed in the 2014 Democratic primary and went on to face Republican and former CIA operative Will Hurd. By virtue of being the only competitive congressional race in the state, the campaign drew significant attention and fundraising on both sides. Hurd emphasized the lack of job growth in the district and tied Gallego’s most prominent funders to environmental groups. Reaching out to the district’s Hispanic majority and hoping to repeat his 2012 victory, Gallego tried unsuccessfully to coerce Hurd into a debate on the Spanish-language channel Univision, though in English this time.17 The political environment of the 2014 midterm election was not friendly to Democratic candidates, however, and Gallego lost, 50 to 48 percent.18
Gallego launched a bid to win back his old seat in 2016, hoping to gain momentum from the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Though turnout doubled, Gallego lost the rematch, receiving only 46 percent of the vote to Hurd’s 48 percent.19
1Gaiutra Bahadur, “Gallego, With His Polished Style, Guides Legislators to Common Ground,” 25 April 2001, Austin American Statesman: A1.
2Mike Perry, “A Man for His Time: Pete A. Gallego, 1925–2010,” 11 March 2010, Alpine Avalanche, at http://www.alpineavalanche.com/article_dcfc43ab-5e8e-5859-9726-7dfb0eed16b4.html (accessed 3 January 2017); “Elena Pena Gallego,” Voces Oral History Project, University of Texas at Austin, at http://www.lib.utexas.edu/voces/template-stories-indiv.html?work_urn=urn%3Autlol%3Awwlatin.187&work_title=Gallego%2C+Elena+Pena (accessed 13 December 2016).
3“Meet Pete,” Pete Gallego For Congress, at http://petegallego.com/meet-pete/ (accessed 23 September 2015).
4Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, D.C.: CQ-Roll Call, 2015): 965; Bahadur, “Gallego, With His Polished Style, Guides Legislators to Common Ground.”
5Almanac of American Politics, 2014 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013): 1636; Mike Perry, “Gallego Makes It Official: He’s Running for U.S. Congress,” 1 September 2011, Alpine Daily Planet, at http://alpinedailyplanet.typepad.com/alpine-daily-planet/2011/09/gallego-makes-it-official-hes-running-for-us-congress.html (accessed 3 January 2017).
6Politics in America, 2014: 965; U.S. House District 23, Texas Tribune, at https://www.texastribune.org/directory/districts/us-house/23/ (accessed 12 January 2017).
7Victoria Pelham, “Gallego, Canseco Bash Away in W. Texas Fight,” 3 August 2012, Dallas Morning News: A5; Politics in America, 2014: 965.
8Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Candidates Contend for Texas Voters in Spanish,” 23 September 2012, Los Angeles Times: A12.
9Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.
10Gary Martin, “Oath Near, Rep.-elect Castro in Spotlight,” 31 December 2012, San Antonio Express-News: A1.
11Politics in America, 2014: 965.
12The Shutdown Member of Congress Pay Act of 2013 received little traction in a starkly divided Congress. See Ben Sherman, “Texas Congressman Pete Gallego Pushes To End Congressional Pay & Protect Military During A Shutdown,” 30 September 2013, Burnt Orange Report, at http://www.burntorangereport.com/diary/14137/rep-pete-gallego-makes-effort-to-end-congressional-pay-protect-military-pay-during-a-shutdown (accessed 23 January 2017).
13Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (17 July 2013): H4581.
14Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 2nd sess. (16 July 2014): H6334.
15Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (15 March 2013): H1472.
16Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (4 June 2013): H3064; Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (30 July 2013): H5123.
17Brandi Grissom, “Liveblog: 2014 Primary Election,” 4 March 2014, Texas Tribune, at https://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/04/liveblog-primary-election-2014/ (accessed 23 January 2017); Elizabeth Llorente, “Congressional Race Pitting Pete Gallego, Will Hurd is the Only Competitive Midterm Race in Texas,” 7 October 2014, Fox News, at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/10/07/texas-congressional-race-pitting-pete-gallego-will-hurd-is-only-competitive-mid.html (accessed 23 January 2017).
18Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.
19Kristopher Rivera, “Hurd, Gallego Face Tight Congressional Race,” 23 July 2016, El Paso Times, at http://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/politics/2016/07/23/hurd-gallego-face-tight-congressional-race/87494294/ (accessed 23 September 2016); Abby Livingston and Elena Mejia Lutz, “U.S. Rep. Will Hurd Victorious in Rematch with Pete Gallego,” 8 November 2016, Texas Tribune, at https://www.texastribune.org/2016/11/08/texas-23rd-congressional-district-results/ (accessed 13 December 2016).