On Tuesday, state Reps. Aaron Peña of Edinburg and Allan Ritter of Nederland pledged their political allegiance to the Republican Party of Texas, just weeks after winning re-election to the House as Democrats. Both say they did it because of increasing discomfort with the politics of the Democratic Party and the realization that they were more in tune with the GOP. Among their fiercest critics in the hours that followed was state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who has watched a number of members jump from one party to the other during his 10 terms in the House. He thinks that the Democrats, even with only 49 seats in the 150-member House, can still play a pivotal role on some issues.
Gallego sat for an interview Tuesday night on a noisy street. An edited transcript and full audio follow.
TT: The question now for the Democrats is, how do you proceed in the Texas House?
Gallego: Very carefully. It's the truth. We've got members with incredible talent. We've got a good bench. There's a good talent pool. Frankly, there's the advantage of experience. We know where the gears are and how to use them, and we know how to drive the car. Procedurally, there will be some challenges. When you are looking for two-thirds, you can do it all on your own now if you're a Republican.
Audio: Pete Gallego
But frankly, I think there is such a divergence, a diversity of viewpoint now on the Republican side, that I don't know if 100 votes on anything — from the Rainy Day Fund to any constitutional amendment — is a foregone conclusion. I think that Democrats are a huge part of the process. I mean, frankly, if you look at the speaker's race, it's still a pretty significant bloc of votes when you're trying to get to 76. The 49 of us get you more than half of the way there. Obviously we'll have to play our cards differently, and we'll have to be pretty good at the game.
TT: You've been in the House through a lot of party switches. Tell me what you think about this.
Gallego: Well, on the one hand, you look at the numbers and you look at the politics of it all and you look at Allan's situation. And for me, Allan's situation is very different from Aaron's. Allan has a conservative district that is not so far removed from mine. If you look at the Democratic vote in his district, you kind of see why he did it. Now, I would not have done it the way he did — I mean, he just got re-elected as a Democrat. I am one of those who thinks you do the Phil Gramm thing and you start over. You give the district the chance to put their imprimatur [on you], to give you their blessing.
Aaron — I'm in a quandary. Aaron's district is not Republican in the least. Many of the programs that are the first to be on the chopping block, just because of the philosophical difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, are programs that are hugely, hugely important — in fact, they're essential — in Aaron's district.
If we do anything to 22-to-1 [the state-set ratio of elementary school students to teachers], if we do anything to pre-K, if we do anything to CHIP or nursing homes, Aaron's constituents are going to be disproportionately impacted, from my point of view. So Aaron is, for me, a huge disappointment. Especially since I remember him on the front row — if I look at pictures of Ardmore, he's up standing next to Jim Dunnam and Garnet Coleman. The first time I met Aaron, he was running for the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. He wanted to be the first Latino to chair the party. So I have a hard time reconciling the Aaron Peña I've known for years, and whose district I've been to many, many times, with the Aaron Peña who became a Republican today.
TT: As you mention, Peña has run for Democratic Party chairman before. Allan Ritter was a candidate for speaker just two years ago. These guys were both looking for party leadership positions.
Gallego: One of the things in my experience about changing parties: There are very few exceptions to the general rule. And the general rule has been, people are going to invite you into the church, but they are not going to make you a deacon. So the idea that you can be part of the leadership by changing? I don't think that's how it usually works. There are exceptions.
In my own view, there have to be some core values. You have to believe in stuff to be here. And the idea that you can look at me in the eyes and tell me, "Everything I told you yesterday is untrue. I don't believe everything I told you yesterday anymore," and mean it — I have a hard time with that.
TT: When Democrats had a supermajority, they were split.
Gallego: I think that's true today. Mark Twain said, "If I'm part of the majority, it's time to reform." I think they're look at themselves in the mirror and they're realizing this huge diversity of opinion, even among themselves. You have the traditional Republicans who are fiscally conservative but socially not so much so. You have the conservatives who are very socially conservative, to the point where this idea of limited government doesn't mean so much, because they're very interested in regulating the bedroom or the bathroom or any other room in the house. And then you have this new phenomenon of the Tea Party, which has come of age lately. And we'll see whether it's a fad or a long-term philosophy. But right now, you see the inner conflict. I think it will come to a head in redistricting. At some point, you have to throw some of your own guys under the bus.
TT: Suppose you were a moderate who could find a place in either party. Is this a good time to switch? Are these the two most valuable guys in the party when it comes to redistricting?
Gallego: Seniority matters. The guy who got there first is a little more significant than the guy who got there last, who took the late train.
I look at it as a matter of principle. You want to empower people who think like you do. When you have three parties in the House, it's pretty hard to figure out who you're going to be empowering.
I'm disappointed today. I've had my chances to change parties. I can tell you there were numerous efforts made to get me to become a Republican. And my voting record in those days was not so hard-core to the left. After Speaker Craddick came in, it moved significantly to the left, because there wasn't a middle anymore; there was just a right or a left. We'll see if the Tea Party has that impact of moving everybody to the right and killing off the middle for the Republicans. Because if they kill off the middle, that's also going to be a huge deal in redistricting, to see the kinds of candidates that we start electing from here on out — who can win a primary and who can't.
TT: What are the incentives to someone in politics to change parties?
Gallego: I will tell you that from my early days in Alpine, I was always taught that survival is man's highest instinct. And they switched because they want to stay in the game. They want to climb in the game. And they think the best way to climb is by riding somebody else's animal — riding an elephant instead of a donkey.