Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
A strong yet unsuccessful showing in 2016 against incumbent Carlos Uresti was enough to convince Pete Flores to take another shot at Uresti's State Senate seat, this time in a special election to complete the former senator's term.
With early voting beginning Monday for the Sept. 18 runoff, Flores faces Democrat and former Congressman Pete Gallego in Democratic-leaning District 19, which covers all or parts of 17 counties from Bexar to the Mexican border and the Big Bend country. But Flores was the top vote-getter in July's first round of voting and is banking on his grassroots campaign to send him to Austin.
“Special elections are a different animal," Flores said. "All assumptions get thrown out the window.”
Uresti resigned his seat after being convicted on 11 felony fraud and money-laundering charges in February. The runoff election winner will fill the remaining two years of Uresti's term.
Gallego hopes to take advantage of the name recognition from having served one term in Congress and 22 years in the statehouse to defeat Flores, who has never held elected office. But questions about whether he resides in District 19 – and a GOP lawsuit challenging his place on the ballot – have dogged his candidacy.
After media reports suggested that Gallego resided with his wife in the home she owns in Austin rather than in Alpine as he claimed, the Republican Party of Texas filed a lawsuit Aug. 10 seeking to remove Gallego from the runoff election ballot. An Austin judge denied a request for a temporary injunction that would have kept Gallego's name off the ballot.
State law requires candidates to have lived in the district they seek to represent six months before an election. Gallego grew up in Alpine and represented the area in the Texas House.
“It’s an effort to muddy the waters, and it amounts to nothing,” Gallego told the Rivard Report, referring to the lawsuit. “What matters is the voters, and every time you undo the voters’ will, I think the voters resent that.”
Speaking on Texas Public Radio's The Source show on Thursday, Gallego said he lives in the district, in his West Texas hometown. "I live in Alpine, I vote in Alpine, my license plate says Alpine, my car is registered in Alpine," Gallego said. "Alpine is home for me."
Flores' campaign said Gallego should present proof of his residency within the district.
“All I can say, 100 percent for sure, [is] that Pete Flores lives in Pleasanton,” Flores said. “I’ve signed an affidavit swearing to that.”
Against Gallego, Flores is positioning himself as someone who has not been "a career politician."
A retired game warden from Pleasanton, Flores told the Rivard Report that he and his politics are in line with many voters living in District 19.
When Flores challenged Uresti in 2016, he got 40 percent of the vote. “That’s a pretty good chunk of votes in Southwest Texas,” Flores said.
Uresti’s waning popularity and mounting legal problems convinced Flores that another State Senate bid was feasible, perhaps even winnable.
“We’ve never stopped campaigning since 2016,” Flores said. “We’ve been going to businesses, county fairs, talking to folks in different parts of the district.”
A graduate of Texas A&M University, he was the first Hispanic director of law enforcement for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and presided over the National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs (NACLEC). Having retired in 2012, Flores is a consultant and instructor for NACLEC’s Leadership Academy.
Flores takes traditionally conservative stances on issues such as gun ownership, property rights, marriage, public school financing, public safety, and continuing support for the state’s oil and gas industries. But property taxes and rising property valuations are two of Flores’ biggest campaign issues.
“I’m a middle-class guy on a fixed income, but my [property] values have gone up $74,000 in the last four years,” Flores said. “People are feeling the pinch. It’s not about doing our part, it’s ‘basta, no más’ [‘enough, no more’].”
Gallego’s campaign emphasizes his experience and traditionally Democratic stances on education, economic development, veterans' affairs, health care, and energy.
Gallego graduated from Sul Ross University in Alpine and earned a degree from the University of Texas School of Law. He began his legal career as an assistant in the State attorney general's office, and then became a felony prosecutor.
Just short of age 30, Gallego was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1990. Following two decades as a state lawmaker, Gallego ousted District 23 U.S. Rep. Quico Canseco, a Republican, in 2012.
In one of the country’s most closely watched Congressional races, Republican Will Hurd upset Gallego in 2014, and beat him in a rematch two years later.
Ahead of the runoff, Gallego spoke with the Rivard Report at his Southside campaign office before block-walking with more than 20 volunteers and supporters, including Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar and County Democratic Chair Monica Alcantara.
“Opportunity means jobs, the economy, education,” he said. “It means making sure everyone has the opportunity to live out what I call the American dream.
"I also want to make sure we live up to promises made to the people to whom we owe a great deal of obligation – our seniors who built our country and made it what it is, and veterans who’ve done the same.”
Gallego is confident that Democrats will get out and vote on Sept. 18. He described District 19 as a "60/40 district," with Democratic voters making up the majority.
“In an emergency special election, it may be a little tighter, but if at the end of the day we do what we need to do, we'll win,” he said.
Flores’ campaign has a wealth of notable endorsements, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and U.S. Reps. Will Hurd and Lamar Smith.
Speaking on TPR’s The Source on Sept. 6, Gallego said the Bexar County Democratic legislative delegation, except for first-round opponent Roland Gutierrez, has endorsed him.
“The only endorsement that I really, really look for is the one from the voters,” Gallego told the Rivard Report.
Early voting will take place 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Sept. 14 at these Bexar County sites. On Sept. 18, polls will be open in individual precincts from 7 a.m.-7 p.m.