Chicago bid for Rep. Gutierrez could be loss for immigration reform push

While Chicago supporters of Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) are pushing him to run for mayor, immigration advocates in Washington are less enthusiastic about seeing one of their leading champions leave the Capitol.

Now in his ninth term, Gutierrez is considering whether to join a wide-open field of contenders for Chicago’s top job after longtime Mayor Richard Daley announced this week he would not seek re-election.

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A winning bid by Gutierrez would be an unmistakable loss for the immigration reform movement in Congress, where he has been the most forceful advocate and at times a singular voice for a cause whose political viability has teetered in recent years.

“There’s no one that delivers the punch the way Luis Gutierrez does,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. “He would be sorely missed.”

Since the Daley announcement on Tuesday, Gutierrez has released two separate statements indicating his interest in replacing him. The most recent statement, on Thursday, said Gutierrez was “humbled” by the encouragement and that Chicago “is ready for new, progressive leadership and for a mayor that can unite our diverse city. 

“I’m continuing to talk to supporters, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm I’m seeing and feeling,” Gutierrez said.

A source close to the congressman said Gutierrez was “giving a lot of thought to the race.”

Kelley said that while there was not yet a coordinated effort by immigration reform advocates to lobby Gutierrez, “many of us will of course want him to stay.”

“We want him to stay in Congress,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. “We need him here. We want him here.”

After 21 years of Daley rule in Chicago, the field of candidates is likely to be crowded. The biggest name in the race could be White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a man Gutierrez has frequently criticized. Yet in an early poll conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times, no clear favorite emerged. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart led with 12%, followed by state Sen. James Meeks with 10% and then Gutierrez at 9%. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. took 8% and Emanuel took 7% in the poll. More than one-third of respondents had no preference.

The election is Feb. 22. While candidates have to file papers by Nov. 22, Gutierrez could run without giving up his seat in Congress, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election said. He would resign his seat upon taking office in May if he won.

Gutierrez has been linked throughout his tenure in Congress with the push for a comprehensive immigration overhaul that would combine enhanced border security and enforcement with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But in recent years he has emerged as a chief congressional spokesman for the cause. A longtime champion for the issue, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), died in 2009, and a chief GOP advocate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), dropped his support for comprehensive legislation when he ran for president in 2008 and then faced a primary challenge from the right in his bid for re-election to the Senate.

Gutierrez has been a deliberate thorn in the side of President Obama on the issue, reminding him frequently of his promises on immigration reform and criticizing the administration for not confronting the issue aggressively.

In 2007, he cited the desire to see comprehensive immigration reform achieved as a reason for forgoing a challenge to Daley. With the likelihood of either a diminished Democratic majority or a Republican majority in Congress next year, a decision by him to run now could be taken as a signal that immigration reform is dead in the near term.

A source close to Gutierrez cautioned against that reading of his thinking but acknowledged that the prospect of a conservative Republican like Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas) or Steve King (Iowa) heading key House panels with jurisdiction over immigration policy was discouraging. “It’s always an uphill battle, but it’d be even more of an uphill battle,” the source said.

Immigration reform advocates lavished praise on Gutierrez but suggested he was not indispensable, pointing to other members of Congress who have pushed the issue in recent years. They include Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz), who has spoken out against the controversial Arizona immigration law; and Rep. Mike Honda, head of the congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Gutierrez “would be happy to have them play a more prominent role," Tramonte said.

And while Gutierrez would be out of Congress if he won the Chicago mayor’s race, he would not be abandoning the issue, she added.

“Immigration reform is in his blood,” Tramonte said. “He’s not going away.”