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McNeely: Little-noticed, lasting results

By Dave McNeely
March 6, 2013 at 11 p.m.

Sylvia Garcia of Houston should be in the Texas Senate for the next several years. Or at least for three years and nine months.

Garcia, 62, won a special runoff election Saturday, by just more than a thousand votes, to pick a replacement for the late Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. He died Oct. 16 of complications from a 2007 liver transplant.

Garcia, a figure for decades in Houston and Harris County politics and a former city comptroller and eight-year member of the Harris County Commissioners Court, beat state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

If history is a guide, Garcia will probably represent the solidly Democratic district as long as she wants - or until after the next redistricting, set for 2021.

President Barack Obama carried it in the Nov. 6 general election with about two-thirds of the vote.

Garcia's victory confirms the Democrats still keep 12 votes of the 31 in the Senate - just enough to block things under the Senate's two-thirds rule to bring up bills.

If Garcia adopts a time-honored practice of raising money from lobbyists and interest groups after the Legislature adjourns, she should have some time to build up a war chest.

That will make a potential Democratic challenger think awhile before taking on someone with a couple of million dollars in the bank.

She also is fortunate enough to be taking over one of the 16 Senate seats that got a four-year term after redistricting.

That means she'll next face election in the normal election process in 2016. A state representative like Alvarado can't run for a Senate promotion without giving up his House seat.

While being a Texas senator pays just $7,200 a year, there seems to be no shortage of people who want the job. Texas state senators represent more people than do members of Congress.

There are 36 members of the U.S. House from Texas, contrasted with 31 members of the Texas Senate. That means a Texas senator represents 16 percent more people than a congressman.

As for the low pay, in truth, for an attorney like Garcia there is probably more than one firm eager to put her on retainer, as happens with several other lawyer-legislators.

And with well more than two decades of city and county service under her belt, Garcia's retirement pay from those jobs probably is well above the salary of a school teacher.

An election, and few came ... It was a very tight election with a light turnout. Just 6.22 percent of the district's registered voters turned out.

Of those, more than half voted before election day - either by absentee ballot or in person through early voting.

In Garcia's case, 21.3 percent voted absentee, 32 percent voted early, and 46.7 percent voted election day.

Although Garcia edged Alvarado in all three categories - absentee, early, and election day - it wasn't by huge margins, as the final election result of 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent shows.

The low turnout - about an eighth of the 48 percent that turned out in the district in the November general election - meant that without coattails and party apparatus to count on, getting out the vote became a house-to-house search.

For Garcia, it was a sweet victory that should help relieve the pain she felt when she was surprisingly unseated from a county commissioner's job in 2010.

She had been elected to that post in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. But an electorate angry at Barack Obama blindsided the unsuspecting Garcia by elevating a political unknown, Jack Morman.

Even some high-ranking GOP officials had never heard of Morman until he won with 51 percent.

Saturday's special election was precipitated by Gallegos' death too late to get his name off the ballot.

Voters chose the late Gallegos rather than let Republican R.W. Bray win the Nov. 6 election by default.

Gallegos' name won with almost 71 percent, and Gov. Rick Perry called the special election for Jan. 26.

Garcia narrowly led Alvarado 45.5 to 41.6 percent in that election, but was short of a majority.

Six other candidates split 13 percent, forcing the runoff.

The good news for Alvarado is that because it was a special election, she was able to seek the senator's job without having to give up her House seat.

Alvarado says she's eager to return to her job in the capitol. She tweeted to her followers:

"I go back to Austin on Monday, and I won't skip a beat."

The results in Senate District 6, which is about 75 percent Hispanic, perhaps gave a hint of how much appeal to Hispanics new Republican U. S. Sen. Ted Cruz might have.

In 2012, Cruz got about a third of the vote in the district.

Apparently, the Hispanic surname is not as important to most Hispanic voters there as the party-indicating initial after the name.

<em>- Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist who covers Texas politics.</em>



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