By Mike Lillis - 10/09/13 10:00 AM EDT
Deep into the pages of his lively new memoir, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) recounts why his parents so respected John F. Kennedy that a portrait of the 35th president “shared my dining-room wall with Jesus Christ.”
“He was a people’s president, he was for the little guy. He stood for fairness for everyone,” Gutiérrez writes. “I learned what a leader should be like because my parents responded when they felt John F. Kennedy stood up for the common man.”
Indeed, if there’s an underlying theme to Gutiérrez’s political design, it’s that he’s an underdog guy. It’s a natural sentiment, perhaps, for someone who’s frequently felt like an outsider himself.
Born in Chicago to Puerto Rican immigrants, Gutiérrez was, in his own words, “a short, brown-skinned kid with curly hair” who dabbled with hair relaxer in an effort “to imitate the handsome white guys” around Lincoln Park. But when his father moves the family back to Puerto Rico, the teenage Gutiérrez faces a very different dilemma: He’s suddenly “the gringo” — a high schooler whose Spanish is so poor that he mispronounces his own name on the first day of class.
“It’s the story of my life,” he writes. “I’m too Puerto Rican for America and too American for Puerto Rico.”
After a series of odd jobs and cul-de-sac careers — cab driver, janitor, spark-plug salesman, exterminator, English teacher — Gutiérrez dove into politics on the wings of indignation, after deputies of Chicago’s Democratic machine urged him to back a white Republican for mayor over the liberal Harold Washington, the Democrats’ black candidate.
His first race didn’t end well: He won only 24 percent of the vote in a bid to oust Dan Rostenkowski as Democratic committeeman of his home ward. But that “kamikaze effort,” as he calls it, put him on Chicago’s political map, won him a job in Mayor Washington’s office and set him on the path toward Congress.
“I might have gotten knocked unconscious, but it made people think maybe I was a good guy to have on their team,” he writes.
The lopsided loss highlights another thread running through Gutiérrez’s story: He is, at heart, an activist who respects power but not necessarily those who hold it, and he has no problem challenging authority in the face of perceived injustice.
Indeed, Rostenkowski was no ordinary ward leader; he was a political juggernaut who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. And Gutiérrez has since picked similar battles, whether shaming Democratic leaders to accept a congressional pay freeze, bucking President Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement, or, as a lowly freshman, attacking “a long-time Democratic member” who’d ridiculed him in front of a crowd in the House cloakroom.
“Tell you what, I’m going to take my right hand and tie it behind my back,” he told his tormentor. “I’ll whip your ass with one hand. Since you’re so funny and badass, let’s go settle this right now.”
The unnamed lawmaker “looked stunned,” Gutiérrez writes, “and then quickly walked away without looking back.”
Gutiérrez also makes little effort to hide his disdain for certain congressional traditions and Capitol Hill luxuries. The subway that shuttles lawmakers from their offices to the Capitol, for instance, is “just like a political Disneyland.” The lawmakers who wait hours along the House aisle for the opportunity to shake the president’s hand at the annual State of the Union address are like “groupies … camping out on the lawn for a Springsteen concert.” And a lecture from former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) on the reverent “institution” of Congress brings a dismayed roll of the eyes.
“Apparently, nobody worried that anyone would hear ‘institution’ and summon an image of a place for the mentally ill,” Gutiérrez writes.
But he reserves some of his harshest criticisms for President Obama, a fellow Chicagoan who, in Gutiérrez’s eyes, hasn’t fought nearly aggressively enough to overhaul the nation’s broken immigration system. Indeed, the most revealing sections of Still Dreaming detail Gutiérrez’s often-turbulent relationship with Obama over that singular issue.
Gutiérrez had been unnerved by then-Sen. Obama’s support for a 2006 law to build hundreds of miles of border fence. And he was irate after a White House meeting in March 2009 when Obama told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) that then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel would be the president’s point man on comprehensive immigration reform.
“His plate was too full for immigration,” Gutiérrez writes. “Telling us Rahm was in charge sent a clear message —
nobody was in charge.”
The relationship devolved further when Gutiérrez went on a national speaking tour hammering the Obama administration for a spike in deportations. At a subsequent White House meeting, the president took Gutiérrez aside and delivered a terse message: “Why don’t you get off my back?”
Obama’s 2010 State of the Union speech didn’t mend any fences. When the president dedicated just 37 words to immigration reform, Gutiérrez called on advocates to take to the streets.
“Obama already thought I was a pain in his presidential back,” he writes. “But his indifference in the State of the Union had me genuinely pissed off and tired of waiting.”
In search of leverage, members of the CHC considered blocking ObamaCare to push their immigration agenda, “and maybe we should have,” Gutiérrez writes. But the group dropped that idea, not least because of Obama’s appeal for their help during a March 2010 meeting.
“How do you think it feels to be the first black president of the United States and not be able to do more for black people?” the president asked, according to Gutiérrez.
In an interview Tuesday, Gutiérrez said Obama “wasn’t using the race card, but he exposed himself; he revealed himself.”
The goodwill didn’t last long. Two months later, Gutiérrez was arrested in front of the White House to protest “our foot-dragging president,” the first of two such arrests in Obama’s first term.
Then, just months before the 2012 elections, Obama launched a new policy to defer deportations for Dream Act beneficiaries — the very move he’d said for years he didn’t have the authority to make. Gutiérrez called it “one of our greatest victories, the culmination of years of activism.”
Now he’s in the fight of his life to pressure Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill before the two-year clock runs down for those immigrant kids.
“I really think we’re on the verge of making it happen,” he said Tuesday by phone.
Now in his 21st year in Congress, Gutierrez can no longer pretend he’s an outsider on Capitol Hill. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to quit the fight and play by everyone else’s rules.
“Sometimes I almost feel like an elder statesman, which reminds me that it’s probably time to start some new trouble,” he writes in Still Dreaming. “Of course, if I want trouble, there’s always my relationship with our president.
“But,” he adds, “I’m working on that.”
ABOUT THE BOOK
Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill
By Luis Gutiérrez
W. W. Norton & Company;
432 pages, $27.95