Gallego Guides Legislators to Common Ground

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

Pete Gallego’s great-grandfather worked on a crew laying the railroad tracks that later would divide Alpine, his West Texas hometown, into two halves. Anglos would live to the north; Mexicans, to the south.

There, in an adobe hut in the barrio in 1917, his grandfather opened Pete Gallego’s Chili Parlor. In the years after World War II, the restaurant became a hangout for politicos from the north side of the tracks and later — as his father’s decadelong campaign to desegregate the town’s schools climaxed — the place they boycotted.

Pete P. Gallego, inheritor of this past, has a much easier time crossing boundaries. In fact, some say the Democratic state representative’s genius — and the reason for his emergence, after a decade in the House, as a top legislative lieutenant — is his ability to stand on the tracks with a hand stretched out to each side.

“He’s a bridge between factions,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who came to the Capitol as a freshman with Gallego in 1991. “He’s a West Texas member who happens to also be Mexican American and fairly conservative on some issues. There are pieces he has in common with most members. I mean, Pete does wear cowboy boots and listen to country music.”

Despite being chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, a role that could slip easily into that of an attack dog, Gallego commands the respect, admiration and good will of lawmakers from both parties.

As Rep. Rob Junell, the San Angelo Democrat and appropriations kingpin, put it: “He works well with Republicans, Democrats, African Americans, Hispanics and rural white boys like me.”

That empathy might explain why Speaker Pete Laney has chosen Gallego — at 39, a soft-spoken lawyer known for working hard, keeping his word and striking a low profile — for some of the chamber’s thorniest tasks.

On April 17, Gallego shepherded an ambitious campaign finance bill through six hours of debate and changes in the House. A fellow Democrat stripped a key provision — one that would have required contributors to list their employer and occupation to uncloak any special interests — from the bill, arguing it was too burdensome a chore for citizen legislators.

“That was one of the hardest days I’ve had in a long time,” Gallego said.

It wasn’t his first big assignment. His colleagues describe him as a “go-to guy” on a broad range of issues, notably ethics and criminal justice. Last session, when pro-business and environmental advocates deadlocked, Gallego came up with an out-of-the-box compromise on so-called grandfathered plants exempt from pollution controls. He spearheaded the probe over the summer into mismanagement of the state’s Permanent School Fund. And this year, as in the past, he will be one of a select group of lawmakers to iron out the differences between the House and Senate budgets.

Still, there were some amendments to the campaign finance bill that Gallego did not anticipate, and the debate left him too wired to sleep that night.

“So many people are worried about getting in trouble,” he said of the provision stricken by a majority of his colleagues. “Once there’s a sense of fear or panic, it’s hard to get people back on the issue.”

Criticism of Gallego comes reluctantly, if at all. Fellow lawmakers call him a “member’s member,” who helps them get bills important to their districts through the process as intact as possible.

“The most important thing members have is their dignity,” Gallego said. “If you allow a member to save face, you’ll find common ground. I work very hard trying to find common ground, so members can go home and hold their heads high.”

One mentor noted a double-edged virtue, however, that might have played a role in the surprises on the House floor last week.

“He’s probably a little too trusting,” Junell said. “He takes people at their word.”

But victories accompanied the setback. The bill passed by the House requires out-of-state political action committees to register with the state ethics commission; advocacy groups to disclose the bankrollers of ads that target a particular candidate in the final stretch of a campaign; and candidates to report contributions regularly in the nine days before an election.

Nor is Gallego’s memory long or resentful.

“He’s learned the rules of the playground,” said lobbyist Hugo Berlanga, a representative for two decades and a Bush Democrat who preceded Gallego as a leader of the House Mexican-American Caucus. “He doesn’t bully his way around. He doesn’t hold grudges. Whoever supports him, whoever opposes him, there’s always another day.”

In fact, if the buzz around the Capitol bears out, the future probably holds more than the promise of another day for Gallego.

“I would not be surprised if someday Pete Gallego is governor of Texas,” said Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin.

His success — as the son of the first Mexican American school board member and a pillar of the Tejano community in Alpine — represents not only the pinnacle for one family. Gallego heads the pack of a second generation of Latino lawmakers sprung from the box of stereotyped roles, just as Texas is poised to become a majority-minority state.

He’s grateful to his forebears — “radical guys” such as Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, “who had long hair and wore bandannas and were going to burn down the Capitol.”

“They broke down the doors and made it possible for people like me to serve,” Gallego said. “I didn’t get where I am on my own. A lot of people helped me along the way.”

Moreno arrived in Austin in 1967 when there were about seven Mexican American lawmakers in the House. Today, there are 28 and one of them — Gallego — is the first ethnic minority to lead the chamber’s Democrats. Moreno thinks his people have arrived politically in the person of Pete Gallego, but he adds a fatherlike caveat.

“I think he should get mad more often,” Moreno said. “Speak softly and carry a big stick. But you’ve got to use that big stick once in a while.”

Gallego, meanwhile, downplays talk of his greatness, present or future.

“I washed dishes for the first 18 years of my life,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be in the Legislature. For now, I’m content where I am. I’m lucky to be here. Whether I rise higher is not really an issue for me.”

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