Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
By his own description, Pete Flores ran for the Texas Senate because he felt obligated. The retired Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden served 27 years as a state peace officer before becoming active in Atascosa County politics.
“When I retired, I was approached by [Republican] leadership in these counties and they asked me to run against Carlos Uresti,” he said.
Running as a political novice against an incumbent with nearly 20 years of legislative experience seemed like a fool's errand, and he lost by double digits in 2016. But when Uresti was convicted on 11 felony charges in February and resigned in June, Flores was ready to try again.
Flores, 58, said he entered the special election contest because he grew up in Laredo during what he called the “patrón democracy” days, when “bosses” ran the political scene and traded favors for personal gain.
“I’ve always had an aversion [to] that, and we have vestiges of that still existing today here, so you gotta step up,” Flores said. “So here I am today stepping up, to serve, not to be served."
His six-point victory over Pete Gallego, a former Congressman and state legislator, made the Pleasanton resident the state's first Republican Hispanic state senator and flipped a district that had been reliably Democratic for more than 100 years. With more than two years remaining in Uresti's term, Flores will have a chance to leave his mark on a district that stretches from Bexar County west to the Big Bend.
After seeing the “patrón” system operate under Democrats in Laredo, Flores said he made the decision to vote Republican whenever he could. He also wanted to make sure the Senate District 19 seat wouldn't continue to exist under a faulty system, so he decided to upend the status quo.
“The only people who own the Senate District 19 seat are the voters, the citizens,” Flores said. “It belongs to the citizens. It doesn’t belong to an establishment or political group.
“There are great public officials out there, Democrat and Republican, who keep the highest standards. But as far as business as usual, that’s not happening.”
He said he supports term limits, as legislators need better checks and balances to avoid falling into corruption. He sees himself leaving the Texas Senate within the next 12 years.
“Three terms is more than adequate,” Flores said. “Everything has a shelf life. When you have, in any system, new eyes, new ideas, it’s always healthy for the system. I think that was the intent of the founding fathers. I don’t think they intended for anyone to be in Congress for 40 years.”
During Flores' election night watch party Tuesday, Lt. Gov Dan Patrick was on hand to offer his congratulations. His campaign had contributed $175,000 toward Flores' efforts, and he praised Flores' decision to run on conservative values, like endorsing small government.
“When you win a 66 percent Hispanic Democrat district — and I think we were outspent — it says a lot,” Patrick said. “The Democrat party is so far to the extreme left they have left their voters. Pete ran on a strong conservative message: strong border, low property taxes.”
Flores’ victory put a Republican into the Senate District 19 seat for the first time in 139 years. He scoffed at the idea of rallying a Latino voter base to push him across the finish line, gesturing around him at the exuberant crowd supporting him at his South San Antonio election night party.
“This is about the people who live here,” Flores said. “It’s not about Hispanic, Anglo. It’s about Texas. We’re conservative. We believe in God, we believe in our families, and we believe in our country. Those are core values we all have.”
Flores said he has been active in the Republican party, serving as a delegate at the Texas Republican Convention for his home county, Atascosa. He will be the first state senator living outside Bexar County to represent District 19, but said he will make sure everyone in his district is properly represented. As a nod to the largest population center in the district, Flores held his election-night watch party at Don Pedro Mexican Restaurant in south San Antonio rather than in nearby Pleasanton.
Flores’ first priority in office will be addressing Texas’ property taxes, he said.
“The system is broken,” he said. “We need some meaningful tax reform so you and I can keep our houses and we won’t be taxed out of our property. We want to pay our fair share, but it’s not right to have a system that’s not fair and equitable. We need to fix that, and we’re going to.”
Along with property tax reform, Flores said he would focus primarily on making sure there was a balanced budget to fund the state’s public schools, infrastructure, and public safety. He wants to make standardized testing more cost-efficient and give parents more control over their children’s school choices. He also said his law enforcement background helped him understand the need for border security in a way most legislators do not.
“I think I’m probably going to be one of the few – if not the only member – that has actually patrolled the Rio Grande and the Mexican border in a law enforcement capacity,” he said. “I have that ground experience on the ‘why’ we’re doing this.”
Senate District 19 has about 400 miles of shared border with Mexico, and Flores said he became familiar with border issues during his time as a game warden from a boots-on-the-ground perspective as well as from an administrative one. He built strong relationships with border sheriffs and police departments and is committed to assisting them as needed.
“Our relationship with Mexico is extremely important to Texas,” Flores said. “It’s historical, it’s our bloodline, it’s familial, and it’s very important to our commerce. At the same time, we want to make sure just as the Republic of Mexico retains their sovereignty [that] we retain ours. No republic can sustain themselves with open borders. It just doesn’t work.”