The recent death of a veteran state legislator from Houston has set the stage for an unexpected election that includes two members of a burgeoning demographic in Texas, the progressive Latina female.
State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat and former Harris County commissioner, are vying to replace state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. Gallegos, the first Hispanic senator to represent Harris County, died Oct. 16 of complications associated with a 2007 liver transplant. Also in the race is R.W. Bray, a Republican who was defeated by Gallegos during the general election.
Gov. Rick Perry scheduled the special election for Jan. 26, forcing candidates to enter a frenetic campaign where a winner will not be decided until well after the 83rd legislative session convenes on Jan. 8. A potential runoff could delay the winner’s arrival by several weeks.
The district is a Democratic stronghold: Gallegos was elected posthumously in November with 71 percent of the vote. Most highly contested races in Texas focus on a candidate’s conservative credentials, but the frontrunners in this battle are Garcia, a union favorite, against Alvarado, a former Planned Parenthood board member.
They share similar viewpoints on gun control, immigration and women’s issues.
But Alvarado said her experience in the House should sway voters.
“I can talk about specifics because I have had two sessions,” she said.
Garcia, the former president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, also served as the comptroller for the city of Houston. She said that if legislative experience were essential to serving in the Senate, it would be required.
“If you’re trying to suggest that I don’t have experience because I am not a House member, well neither did Sens. Dan Patrick, Joan Huffman and a couple of others,” she said. “Neither did Barbara Jordan, but does that mean they weren’t qualified to be in the state Senate? Of course not.”
Alvarado, a two-term Texas House member and former member of the Houston city council, has the support of Gallegos’ family and of state House Black Caucus lawmakers, including Representatives Harold Dutton, Borris L. Miles and Senfronia Thompson. Senators Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, have also backed Alvarado.
Garcia’s support comes from key Hispanic Democrats in the Houston delegation, including Rep. Jessica Farrar, the House Democratic Caucus leader, and Reps. Ana Hernandez Luna and Armando Walle.
Alvarado also talks about small-business growth and educating a workforce capable of staffing the Houston shipping channel. Asked if she was the more moderate candidate, she demurred and instead emphasized her working-class roots.
“I represent a working class. I grew up in the east end barrio of Houston. I started out as an activist on clean air issues, and I am still an advocate,” she said. “But as we grow and mature as a community, we have to be at the table on those discussions. I don’t want to get into labels.”
Garcia has earned the endorsements of several unions in Houston, which she said reflects her grassroots support and name identification.
“I represented over 75 percent of that area as county commissioner,” she said. “The other 25 percent I represented as the city comptroller. I have been about standing for the rights of working families of this district. If that makes me a progressive, yes I am the more progressive of the group.”