Perseverance, work ethic define area’s newest state rep
By Theodore Schleifer
December 27, 2014
By the time Harris County’s conservative leaders fished for their car keys at their Election Night watch party, there were few candidates left to congratulate. Nearly every Republican had won, and each had earned a handshake or name-check from the movement’s political class. Every one, that is, but Gilbert Pena.
Pena finally had triumphed in his fifth run for political office to score the biggest local upset of the evening, but his name remained unsaid. Amid the post-election jubilation, the new state representative was unnoticed. Pena’s supporters would argue that’s because he had been underestimated – again.
“If you underestimate Gilbert Pena, you’re making a mistake,” said his treasurer, Bill Treneer.
Pena, an unassuming retiree derided as a perennial candidate by those Republican signal-callers, rode a GOP wave to oust Pasadena Rep. Mary Ann Perez by 155 votes in November. Pena struggled to woo any donors or political support – Perez’s war chest was 250 times the size of his – but the short and reserved man is used to upending how others perceive him.
The 65-year-old rose from a hardscrabble early life to become a new legislator thanks to a work ethic that can make him impossible to ignore.
Neither of Pena’s parents was in the picture when he moved to Houston in first grade to live with his aunt. She spoke only Spanish, and that showed in the classroom.
Teachers would ask the future state representative to read English – which he insisted he could – and when he inevitably failed his teachers’ challenges, he had his first experiences with racism and hatred, Pena said.
“You can’t read,” his first-grade teacher said, according to Pena. “Don’t you ever tell anybody you can read.”
He continued to tell them just that, even if he had to spend three years in first grade. He sat in the back of classrooms, avoiding pesky classmates as he taught himself quietly to do what other kids had done for years. When he reached Ms. Walker’s seventh-grade classroom, he believed he had made some progress with his reading.
“How come Gilbert’s just reading a book?” one classmate asked Ms. Walker.
“Don’t you worry about what Gilbert’s doing,” Pena recalled her saying. “I got him on a special assignment.”
After Walker’s first year with him, she no longer separated him from the rest of his T.H. Rogers Junior High class.
“If God told her, ‘Ms. Walker, you can’t make it into heaven unless you can tell me one person you did good by,’ ” Pena said wistfully last month, “she could point down to me and say – ‘Gilbert, right there.’ ”
He finally had learned to read, but that skill wouldn’t help support his aunt at home. So, Pena began busing tables for 50 hours a week at El Patio on Westheimer Road. At 50 cents an hour, Pena’s weekly paycheck meant his aunt no longer had to pick cotton to make the same $25 a week.
“We did anything to make a dollar for our parents,” said Ben Pena, Gilbert’s first cousin. During the summers, Pena and his two younger brothers would visit Ben’s family in Wharton County to pick cotton and pecans from sunrise to sunset.
To make those dollars, Pena admits he short-changed his education, which he began to view as merely offering a bus ride to his job at the country club. When he had washed the last dinner dish there, he would walk the three hours home.
He soon dropped out of high school to work three or more jobs at once. A paper route in the morning. An eight-hour shift at a steel company in the afternoon. Cleaning offices at night. Odd job led to odd job for the next two decades. Before long, inevitable layoffs would slide Pena down the ladder back to minimum wage work, erasing any gains he had made since high school.
“I had to do something that would better my life,” he said. “I’m getting to an elder age and I’m thinking, how much longer am I going to have to work like this?”
A drunken driver whose vehicle busted through the median on Interstate 10 accelerated his timeline. The accident wrecked Pena’s left knee, but it also forced him out of his newfound trucking job and created time for college – something no teacher, not even Ms. Walker, believed he could enter or finish. He earned a political science degree from Texas Southern University at age 47.
Pena later found some financial stability installing refrigerators across Texas, working weeks at a time on trips that capitalized on his work ethic and built the bank account to raise his four kids. He spent any free time he had feeding, bathing and tending to his special needs son, who today is 25 and still lives with Pena and his wife.
“I don’t think I could do that 24/7,” said Ben Pena. “But he does it with a smile on his face.”
As he became more secure, the Pasadena resident’s thoughts began to turn to politics as he saw rising taxes cut into what he had earned. He ran for state Senate in 2008 to “get my name out,” he said, and his performance in the Republican primary encouraged him to run for state representative in 2010. His retirement in 2011 enabled him to treat the campaign like a full-time job in 2012. He lost then, too.
Pena said he was unsure about running for the Legislature a fourth time this year. He decided he would make a bid only if he received assurances from Austin power brokers and political action committees that they would financially support him.
And he received those assurances, he said.
But when Pena’s campaign manager, Temo Muniz, presented Pena’s proposed path to victory to Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Associated Republicans of Texas, two of the state’s premier conservative PACs, neither one cut checks, Muniz said.
So, Pena worked even harder. He raised virtually no money and had none of the professional frills that typically accompany a legislative race in one of Texas’ few competitive districts. Instead, he knocked on doors for around four hours every day, almost always by himself and pitching the district’s Hispanic voters a socially conservative message.
“I’ve never seen a guy who works that hard from dawn till dusk every day,” said Treneer.
And he won.
Pena does not have any policy experience or expertise – he does know he plans to support Joe Straus for speaker and that he cares most about education issues – but he said that his “hard times” separates him from the lawyers and businessmen who dominate the Legislature. Many of them have called him to offer their congratulations, but he said he will remember that the Austin establishment never had his back.
“I want to be able to come back and say, ‘You didn’t believe in me,’ ” Pena said. “I’m waiting. They’ll come knocking.”