With early voting less than a week away, the Republican Party of Texas plans to continue efforts to have Democrat Pete Gallego removed from the ballot, which, if successful, would leave only the GOP’s Pete Flores in the runoff to fill a vacant seat in the Texas Senate.
Republicans argue that Gallego lives in Austin and not in Senate District 19, which stretches from San Antonio to the Big Bend region and the New Mexico border, in violation of a state law requiring candidates to live in the legislative district they hope to represent.
Gallego has denied the accusation, and a lawyer for the state Democratic Party believes the GOP’s legal case is weak and intended to heap negative publicity on Gallego, not to produce a victory in court.
The effort to dump Gallego hit an early bump when state District Judge Tim Sulak of Austin rejected the GOP’s request for a temporary restraining order last month.
Lawyers for the GOP still plan on pressing for another hearing in Travis County, this time in search of an injunction declaring Gallego’s candidacy void — and they believe they have until five days after the Sept. 18 runoff, when votes are certified and a winner is officially declared, to prevail in court.
“We’re doing our due diligence, talking to witnesses and putting together our case before we go over there and ask for an injunction,” lawyer Trey Trainor said. “We don’t have a huge rush to get it done, so we want to be thorough.”
Gallego has said he lives in his mother’s home in Alpine, the small West Texas city where he was born and raised.
His campaign — which did not respond to several requests to discuss Gallego’s residency — has characterized the legal challenge as a desperate and unjustified attempt to steal a Senate seat in a reliably Democratic district.
“Pete Gallego has lived in Alpine since 1989 when he returned home to become a local felony prosecutor,” Gallego campaign manager Christian Archer said shortly after the Republican lawsuit was filed in August. “Pete is registered to vote in Alpine, where he has always voted and where he pays his utilities.”
The legal fight arose after Flores finished first in an eight-way special election for the Texas Senate seat vacated when Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, resigned in June, shortly before he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in defrauding investors in a Texas oil services company.
Flores’ stronger-than-expected finish — he received 34.4 percent of the votes, while Gallego got 28.9 percent — buoyed Republican hopes for an upset victory in the runoff, though Democrats noted that the three GOP candidates received only 40 percent of the total vote, about in line with the district’s partisan split in previous elections.
The runoff’s winner will finish the final two years of Uresti’s term and serve in the 86th Legislature, which convenes in January.
Flores, the former law enforcement director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, lives in Pleasanton, south of San Antonio, and lost to Uresti in 2016, getting 40 percent of the vote to Uresti’s 56 percent.
Gallego, a University of Texas School of Law graduate, spent 22 years in the Texas House representing a West Texas district and two years in the U.S. Congress representing a district that encompasses much of the same territory as Senate District 19.
Texas law defines a candidate’s residence as “one’s home and fixed place of habitation,” which leaves some room for interpretation.
In its legal challenge filed in District Court in Travis County, the state Republican Party alleges that Gallego resides in a Southwest Austin house that he purchased in 2000 with his wife, Maria Ramon, a lawyer with the Texas Office of Court Administration.
The party’s lawsuit points to a homestead exemption claimed for the Austin property — a tax break provided only for homes used as a “principal residence” — and a July column in the San Antonio Express-News that discusses photos showing Gallegos’s truck parked outside the Austin house in May and Gallego leaving the house on a Monday morning in July.
“It is now undisputed that Gallego does not actually live day-to-day in Alpine, and most likely has not done so since, at best, sometime in 2000,” the lawsuit said.
Archer told the Express-News in mid-August that the homestead exemption on the Austin house belonged to Gallego’s wife and that, in addition to paying utilities in Alpine, he also registered his car there.
Chad Dunn, a lawyer for the state Democratic Party, is not involved in the lawsuit but predicted the GOP effort is doomed because the Texas Supreme Court long ago determined that only an opposing candidate has the legal standing to file suit in residency disputes.
“Knowing some of the lawyers who brought it, who know better, I only assume this was an effort to obtain some free campaign attention” at Gallego’s expense, Dunn said.
The Flores campaign did not join the lawsuit, though two voters from the district are part of the challenge.
James Dickey, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said the challenge to Gallego’s candidacy is a matter of law, not an attempt to bolster Flores.
“Unfortunately, the people of Senate District 19 had representation for years from somebody who didn’t think the law applied to him. Here we have a candidate now who doesn’t think the law applies to him,” Dickey said. “It’s time that ends. I’m happy to be the one to help them end it if necessary.”