News Column

Texas Democratic State Senator Mario Gallegos Dies

Oct. 16, 2012

Joe Holley

Mario Gallegos

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, 62, a Democratic lawmaker whose 22-year career in the Texas Legislature was marked by courage, controversy and dogged commitment to issues of importance to the Hispanic community, died Tuesday afternoon at Methodist Hospital in Houston from complications of liver disease.

Gallegos, the first Hispanic elected to the state Senate from Harris County, took a special interest in public education, minority hiring, criminal justice, redistricting and other issues he believed would have an effect on the lives of the predominantly working-class residents who made up the majority of his state Senate district.

"Sen. Gallegos had a long and dedicated record of service to the people of Houston, both as a firefighter and long-time member of the Texas legislature," said Houston Mayor Annise Parker in a statement.

In 2007, only weeks after undergoing a liver transplant, a sick and weakened Gallegos ignored a doctor's call to return to Houston and installed a hospital bed in the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms so he could cast his vote against a bill requiring voters to show photo identification. Gallegos argued the bill would discriminate against minority voters.

Although opponents managed to defeat the legislation in 2007, it passed in 2011. Gallegos, voting no, also opposed so-called sanctuary cities legislation favored by Gov. Rick Perry and his fellow Republicans. Gallegos insisted the bills were an affront to Hispanic Texans.

Also in 2011, Gallegos opposed a measure sponsored by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, requiring women seeking an abortion to undergo a sonogram. Gallegos told his fellow senators that although he was pro-life he didn't believe he should impose legislative restrictions on a woman about "how to govern her body."

"There were few issues that Mario and I agreed upon," Patrick said, "but throughout my six years in the state Senate he always treated me with kindness and courtesy and professionalism. And he was a friend."

Gallegos served on the Senate Education Committee, as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuation, and as co-chairman in 2011 of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting.

"In his nearly 22 years in the Texas Legislature (nearly 18 of those in the Senate), he was firm in his beliefs and resolute in his spirit," said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. "He never failed or hesitated to attack the emergencies he saw, even when risking his own life to do it. And his first instinct, in every case, was to protect those who were too often ignored, passed over or even held down by powers greater than themselves."

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, described Gallegos as "a man of matchless generosity who worked tirelessly for his district. What he did for the people of Houston ran even deeper than what could be seen at the Capitol. I've never known anyone who fought harder for the underdog -- for the most vulnerable in our state."

Mario Valentin Gallegos Jr. was born in Houston on Sept. 8, 1950, and grew up in Magnolia Park, an East End neighborhood near the Ship Channel. He graduated from Milby High School and received his undergraduate degree in social sciences from the University of Houston-Downtown in 2001.

Gallegos joined the Houston Fire Department at 18 and served for 22 years, rising to the rank of senior captain. Although his mother, Olga Gallegos, was a former Houston Independent School District trustee, it was his involvement in union affairs as a firefighter that whetted his interest in politics.

"As a union member working with (former Houston City Councilman) Ben Reyes, he fell in love with politics," said Marc Campos, a Houston political consultant who met Gallegos in 1979. "He made a number of trips to Austin to lobby for firefighter issues."

In 1990, Gallegos was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he served for two terms before being elected to the state Senate in 1994.

Never a Senate tactician or policy expert, Gallegos was a reliable liberal vote on most issues.

"I don't think his job was to move monumental pieces of legislation," Campos said. "He had the role to advocate for a number of Hispanic concerns."

No stranger to controversy throughout his political career, he was re-elected in 2004 after overcoming a write-in candidacy by a former mistress who challenged his residency in the district. He acknowledged a 17-year affair with a former stripper after she filed a lawsuit in which she alleged he had stolen from her and been abusive. Although he denied her charges, he publicly apologized for a "shameful mistake."

"They broke the mold with Mario," Van de Putte said. "He was a character who lived life to the fullest -- whether he was having fun or working for his constituents, he did everything to the max."

Texas Monthly magazine often included Gallegos among its "worst" legislators, noting in 2001 that he was "a retired firefighter who threw gasoline on every combustible issue." The magazine also accused him of filing bills designed to settle old scores and help friends.

In 2006, he announced he had begun treatment for alcoholism. He said he had started drinking when he became a firefighter and that his imbibing escalated when he got involved in politics. He completed a monthlong residential treatment program.

Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver a few months later, he received last rites and made plans for his body to be displayed near the Capitol Rotunda before being transported to his grave in a fire truck. With about a month to live, he received a phone call on Jan. 18, 2007, informing him that the unexpected death of a teenage boy meant he would get a liver transplant.

Sworn in as president pro tempore later that year, he told his colleagues that he intended to run for office until he died.

"Have I been perfect? No, but I put my vices out there," he said. "It's like I've been given a second chance at life."

Survivors include his mother; his wife, Theresa Gallegos; three children, Ali Templer, Melissa Gallegos and Mario Elias Gallegos; four sisters and three brothers; and five grandchildren.

Gallegos ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, but faced Republican opposition from R.W. Bray in the November election.

If Gallegos is reelected posthumously in his heavily Democratic district, the governor would call a special election for May 11, said First Assistant County Attorney Terry O'Rourke. If Bray is elected, he would simply take the seat.

Source: (c) 2012 the Houston Chronicle

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