Rep. Gallego enjoys rare status as a new Texas Democrat in the House

Texas may be among the reddest of the red states, but there is one congressional district that is home to a dog of a different color.

Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Texas) is the only freshman Blue Dog Democrat, a grouping that was a major force in the Democratic Party as recently as five years ago. The Tea Party wave in 2010 wiped out most of the group’s members as Republicans claimed their conservative-leaning districts, and today the group is a shadow of its former self with only 15 members. 

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Gallego inhabits another perilous neighborhood, too: a battleground district, arguably the only one in the Lone Star State — and it leans Republican. But that is fine with Gallego; in fact, he would not have it any other way. 

“I like having a battleground district,” Gallego told The Hill, “because I think that’s real-life America.” 

And the district likes him. Texas’s 23rd Congressional District spans from San Antonio in the East to El Paso in the West, and also shares 800 miles of its border with Mexico. The district also contains the entirety of his old one from the Texas House, which accounts for 15 of 29 counties in his current territory. The increase in real estate, however, means that his seat is by no means safe.

“In the district I represent, I have to talk to everybody,” Gallego said. “I have to [work with] everybody. I don’t have the luxury of just hanging out in my primary and, once I win the primary, I’m fine. I have to talk to Democrats and Republicans.”

It is not surprising, then, that Gallego was able to run ahead of President Obama by double digits in some counties and unseat Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco (R). He also triumphed over the district’s previous representative, the more liberal Ciro Rodriguez, in a runoff in the Democratic primary. 

“[Rodriguez] had neither the reputation of being a centrist, nor the roots that would allow him to move around out there,” Gallego said. “During his service in the legislature, and even in Congress, he was really one of the more [liberal members].”

Before coming to Washington, Gallego represented the western portion of the state in the legislature for 22 years, winning his first election in 1990 in a campaign that he credits his parents for encouraging. 

Clayton Williams, another native of the area, was running for the Republican nomination for the governorship. Gallego’s parents figured that the Anglo establishment would vote in the Republican primary; Latinos, on the other hand, would not vote in the GOP primary, which meant that the Democratic primary would look very different.

“My parents said, ‘if you want to run for the legislature, this is your year,’ ” Gallego said.

Their analysis was spot-on. Gallego won in three counties while the establishment candidate, Dudley Harrison, won in another three. Maverick County played tiebreaker, and the race went overwhelmingly in the young attorney’s direction.

“I woke up one morning and I was a member of the legislature. I was 28 and the first Latino from West Texas [to be elected to the Senate].”

It was not long before he caught the eye of then-Speaker Gibson “Gib” Lewis, and found himself carrying a school-finance bill in a special legislative session while still a freshman. From there, Gallego gradually became a major figure in the Texas Democratic Party. 

In 2003, he defied threats of arrest (he has the original arrest order hanging in a frame on the wall in his office) and led 50 other Democrats, nicknamed the “Killer Ds,” over the Red River and into Oklahoma to prevent the legislature from achieving a quorum and passing a redistricting plan that would have favored Republicans. If the Democrats had succeeded in taking the Texas House in 2008 — they missed doing so by only two seats — Gallego would likely have become Speaker.  

Those long-term ties to West Texas extend beyond his time in the legislature, however. Gallego was raised in the district, and his family has a long history in the area. 

By the time he was born in 1961, his family had owned and operated a restaurant, known as “The Green Café” thanks to its colorful paint job, in his hometown of Alpine, Texas, for more than four decades. 

Gallego, however, was not interested in taking over the family business because he did not want to be tied down.

“My family never took vacations, we never traveled together, we never did anything. My spring breaks were going home to help my dad at the restaurant,” Gallego said. 

His feelings crystallized one night after he fell into the restaurant’s grease trap — a system that prevents grease and solid waste from the dishwashing process from entering the sewer system — while he was in the process of cleaning it. 

“My parents didn’t let me in the house. They washed me off outside in the backyard with a water hose. From that day forward I knew I was going to go to law school. I was going to do something else ... I wasn’t going to work like that,” Gallego said.

Despite his legal aspirations, he did run his parents’ restaurant for a time when his father fell ill; but the business closed down in 1997 when his father retired. 

“They got to a son who didn’t really want to own a restaurant,” Gallego said.

This story was updated on April 24 at 2:55 p.m. An earlier version misidentified the 1990 Texas GOP gubernatorial nominee.