At a recent public event, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker joked that this year’s mayor’s race is divided into three tiers.
“There are two frontrunners. There are five second-tier candidates. And then there are a bunch of people you’ve never heard of and probably never will,” Parker said.
As early voting draws near, departing District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos sits firmly in the second tier.
The longtime civic activist with an inspiring story as the son of Mexican immigrants has won praise for his work on public parks, stray dogs and blocked train crossings. The low-key councilmember, however, has struggled to draw notice in an 18-candidate field dominated by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire.
Support for Gallegos in the latest University of Houston survey dropped from 2 to 1 percent. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they did not know enough about him to express an opinion on his favorability.
Gallegos is short on campaign cash and endorsements and a minor contender in the yard-sign wars. In a recent report, he revealed that his campaign spent a paltry $17,000 between July and September.
Yet, he said in a recent interview that he still thinks he has a shot, arguing his record on council will draw voters. With neither of the leaders claiming majority support in polls, Gallegos believes there is a “silent majority” searching for an alternative.
The location Gallegos chose for that interview was Segundo Coffee Lab, a Hispanic-owned cafe inside the industrial-chic Ironworks building near a busy train crossing in Second Ward.
The coffee shop is a neat metaphor for Gallegos’ tenure in office, which has coincided with an explosion of development on the east side, fraught discussions about the resulting impact on residents and battles with railroads over blocked train crossings.
Gallegos said that as an East End native and the youngest of seven children of parents who fled the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, he has fought to ensure that longtime residents win out.
For 15 years, Gallegos served as president of the Houston Country Club Place Civic Club, work that spurred him to help create the area’s first super neighborhood. That drew the attention of Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, who hired him as a neighborhood liaison.
Eronia “Taggy” Hall, the longtime president of the Galena Manor Civic Club, said Gallegos was a friendly face in county government who sometimes volunteered to drive residents to neighborhood luncheons.
“He’s very sincere. He’s dependable. He’s honest. It’s so many adjectives I can use to describe him,” she said. “If you have a problem or you go to him and talk to him about it, he’s going to solve it, honey, some way or somehow.”
Hall said she had seen that level of care on display at lunches with Gallegos and his physically and mentally disabled brother Michael, for whom Gallegos serves as a legal guardian.
When Garcia lost her re-election bid in 2010, Gallegos was out of a job. Short of vesting his pension by a few months, he took a job as a detention officer at the Harris County Jail. He still had that job when he narrowly won the District I council seat in 2013.
One of the issues that convinced Gallegos to run was a controversial proposal from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County to build a massive overpass on Harrisburg Boulevard for a light rail line. Gallegos helped lead neighborhood opposition, which favored a less-obtrusive underpass.
Leading the charge for the overpass was then-Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia, who also is running for mayor.
Ultimately, the overpass was built, but with concessions that included pedestrian and motorist access and murals nodding to the area’s history.
“Granted, we do have an overpass, but it’s not as intrusive as they were planning to do it,” he said. “It would have destroyed the East End. It would have split it in half.”
Over coffee and the rumble of a long train, Gallegos detailed his other work on behalf of the district.
When then-Mayor Annise Parker proposed converting the Gus Wortham Park Golf Course into a botanical garden, Gallegos pushed through an alternative proposal to renovate the beloved golf course and convert another into a garden. The compromise created two neighborhood amenities without costing taxpayers a dime, Gallegos said.
Gallegos responded to community calls for action on stray pets by paving the way for a nonprofit organization to offer spay and neuter services. He also emerged as an outspoken voice on the issue of blocked train crossings, trekking to Washington, D.C. to testify against a rail merger he said would make the problem worse.
Gallegos said his 10 years on council have given him a realistic understanding of the city budget that some candidates seem to lack. When other candidates promise to boost the size of the police department or improve garbage collection, he is bothered that they do not also talk about the revenue cap that limits the city budget or the lack of a municipal trash fee, which Gallegos has tried several times to introduce.
“I’m running because I’m letting people know: These are the issues, this is what we need to do to keep our city moving forward and strong,” he said. “When these candidates are claiming they’re gonna put more police officers on the street – how? How are they paying for it?”
Gallegos rarely raises his voice at council meetings. Mike Moreno, who grew up with Gallegos in Second Ward and now serves as a staffer in his council office, said his outward demeanor masks an inner intensity.
“He’s quiet when it comes to his own personal life, but when helping other people he becomes very passionate,” he said.
One notable moment came during the “popoff” session at the end of a council meeting in July, a few weeks before he formally filed to run for election, when allegations surfaced that state Department of Public Safety troopers had been ordered to push children crossing the border into the Rio Grande.
“Governor, this is not a political football. These are human beings. If these were blond-headed, blue-eyed children, would this be the policy? To push these children back into the river?” Gallegos said.
If elected, Gallegos would be the city’s first Latino mayor. He is vying for that distinction with Garcia, his former nemesis in the rail overpass battle.
“I’ve been the only Latino voice representing half this population for the last eight years. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished,” he said. “It would have been much easier, I guess, if I would have been the major Latino candidate. But there’s two of us, so yeah, I think it’s going to hurt.”
Latino turnout in city elections traditionally has been low, although the Latino share of the total has been steadily growing, said Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.
He added that it is wrong to assume that Latino votes will all go to a candidate with a Spanish surname, however.
“The issues are going to be extremely important,” Cortina said. “To assume that the Latino vote is just going to be divided between Gallegos and Garcia – I think it’s a statement that the data does not tend to support.”
With the aid of campaign surrogates, Whitmire and Jackson Lee have both been making plays for Latino voters. Gallegos’ former boss Sylvia Garcia cut an ad for Whitmire.
Gallegos claims four endorsements on his website, none from elected officials. Even the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus gave him scant consideration at its August endorsement meeting, despite the fact that he is openly gay.
He also is short on campaign cash. Gallegos reported only $145,000 in the bank at the end of September. Whitmire had almost 50 times as much.
There are reasons for the fundraising deficit, Gallegos says. A state law would have forced him to resign from City Council if he hopped into the race earlier. Potential donors tell him they fear retaliation from the frontrunners.
Whatever the reasons, the shortfall leaves Gallegos ill-equipped to break through before the Nov. 7 election, especially since he’s jostling for position with better-financed candidates like attorney Lee Kaplan and Garcia.
“He’s running hard, but he’s running grassroots. He doesn’t have the finances to be competitive at the television level,” said Nancy Sims, a University of Houston political analyst.
Another challenge for Gallegos is the fact that council members historically have struggled in Houston mayoral elections, Sims said.
“Councilmember Gallegos serves a series of neighborhoods, District I, and he’s well known in that area, but he’s not necessarily known citywide. I think that often plagues council members,” she said.
At an Oct. 5 candidate forum, Gallegos rattled off parks projects that he had worked on during his time in office. It is questionable, however, how many voters are paying attention to those forums, Cortina said.
The chances that Gallegos or candidates like Garcia and Kaplan make strides may hinge on one of the frontrunners being wounded by a last-minute scandal, Sims said.
Acknowledging the challenges, Gallegos said he asked one of his brothers for advice before jumping into the race. The brother asked what his plans were if he did not run for mayor. Gallegos said he more than likely was planning on retiring.
“Well then, what’s the problem?” his brother said. “Just go for it.”