Congressman Luis Gutierrez on His Surprisingly Lively New Memoir

The 11-term congressman discusses growing up Puerto Rican in Chicago, his advocacy for immigrants, and his tense relationship with President Obama.

Photo: Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune 

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez 

Politicians’ memoirs are often a deadly mix of dull and pretentious. So I was surprised at the liveliness of Luis Gutiérrez’s memoir, Still dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill. Gutiérrez wrote the book with his former COS, campaign manager/friend of 21 years, Doug Scofield, who was also a top aide to Rod Blagojevich in his run for governor. The 4th District congressman claims, as they all do, that the words are his, and the memoir’s scrappy and at once boastful, self-deprecating voice sure sounds like the 59-year-old 11-term congressman and former Chicago alderman (26th Ward).

Gutiérrez has become the national voice of immigration and, according to the Washington Post, a rock star in the immigrant community—at immigration rallies around the country, people tug “at his shirt” and refuse to leave “until he agrees to have his photo taken with them.”

The son of immigrants from Puerto Rico, Gutiérrez grew up at 849 Willow Street in Lincoln Park—an early chapter is titled “When Lincoln Park was Puerto Rican.” He describes learning to live in gang territory; the Latin Kings vs. the Harrison Gents—one member of the latter was shot to death in the front yard of Gutiérrez’s elementary school, Newberry. In 1969, after his freshman year of high school at St. Michael’s (the high school adjoining Old Town’s St. Michael’s Church has since been closed and converted into condos), Gutiérrez’s father decided to take his family back to the safety and greater educational opportunity of Puerto Rico. The son shuttled between that country and Chicago, in the process becoming political, impatient and shrill. He describes a forklift-driving job at Chicago’s Helene Curtis and his decision to climb atop his company vehicle and exhort his fellow workers, “We create all the wealth for this company, and we get nothing in return.”

Gutiérrez assures me that he plans to stay in the lower House, that that he is not angling for an ambassadorship. Obviously not. He is relentlessly critical of President Obama for promising when he sought Gutiérrez’s support in 2006, as the rookie U.S. Senator moved toward a run for president, and repeatedly in the first term that he would put comprehensive immigration reform at the top of his agenda. He broke that promise—repeatedly. Gutiérrez describes a meeting during the 2008 transition when a weary looking Obama snapped, “See anybody else here? Do you think I meet with everybody….You need to give me some time. We have an economic crisis. Let’s talk again in March or April.” Gutierrrez presents the President as almost petulant: “Why don’t you get off my back,” he asks the congressman during a White House meeting after Guttierrez reminded him that immigration seemed in constant free-fall on his presidential to-do list.

Against the wishes of the Secret Service, Gutiérrez wheeled into the White House State Dining Room cartons full of petitions during a March 2009 meeting. Obama was annoyed: “I saw a defensive and frustrated Obama, a man who does not like his priorities challenged.”  Gutiérrez complains about the 2010 State of the Union in which Obama mentions immigration last, almost in passing, in just 37 words, “most of them about enforcement.” He bitterly notes that Obama deported more people in his first year than George W. Bush did in his.

I spoke with Gutiérrez by telephone as he waited to board a plane to New York where he would be keynoting a “pro immigrant rally.” Three times in about 20 minutes he said, “Hold on a sec,” and dropped our call to take a photo with a fan. (He described one as an airport “cleaning lady.”)

Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, with occasional snippets from the memoir in brackets.

             

CF: Wow! You are tough on Obama. What’s your relationship like now?

LG: I met with him six-seven weeks ago, cordial meeting. He referred to me as “Luis” and I referred to him as “Mr. President, ” and we were very polite to one another. Let me make one thing absolutely clear. I was the first to endorse him in 2008, very early, and I campaigned for him very hard. [Gutiérrez writes that most of his “Congressional Hispanic caucus colleagues were backing Hillary Clinton.”] Same in 2012. …. I went to the convention to speak on his behalf and I didn’t only go to the convention, I went to [the RNC in] Tampa with Dick Durbin and Jan Schakowsky for a whole day. And I left my grandson behind at Disneyland out in Orlando to go and do that. …. I wish him the best. And 99.9 percent of the time I voted for every last one of his policies. You can’t name one that I haven’t voted for

CF: Would you have voted for a strike in Syria?

LG: No, I said I had serious reservations and doubts about the strike in Syria.

CF: Has Obama done anything on immigration that you’ve been happy about?

LG: Once the President used his executive authority, to help the “Dreamers;” well he didn’t actually approve the Dream Act [the Dream Act died in the Senate in late 2010] … So do I think there’s a little bit of contradiction between doing that and deporting their parents, sure, but look it’s a work in progress. We’re working together. [Gutiérrez writes that Obama “touted” his decision to help the Dreamers by exercising “executive action” as if “it was as natural to him as talking about change and hope.” ]

CF: You write that Obama directed you to talk to Rahm Emanuel, his then-chief-of-staff, when you brought up immigration in 2009. Do you think he was basically brushing you off—“Give me a break and just don’t talk to me about this anymore.”

LG: I think he hadn’t given it much thought. [Gutiérrez writes that “Today, President Barack Obama often sits as far away from me as he can.” ]

CF: You didn’t support Rahm Emanuel for Mayor and actively supported Gery Chico. When I last interviewed you, you were very harsh in your assessment of Rahm. You blamed him for NAFTA and for sidelining immigration reform when he was COS. You complained that every conversation about public policy was an opportunity for Rahm press releases and “mini publicity stunts.” When I asked you why Rahm wanted to be Mayor you answered, “Because he can’t be Speaker of the House.” How’s your relationship now?

LG: I sat down with Mayor Emanuel a couple of weeks ago … He had made me a pledge to make Chicago the friendliest immigrant city in the country, and you know what, he’s done a lot, including $250,000 for the Dream Fund which he raised for Dreamers who go to school. I always find it a little ironic that he was at the White House during the deportations and now he codified that the city of Chicago will not cooperate with immigration agents and deportation. Rahm and I have been working very closely together since he became mayor … Rahm called me and said, “Let’s take the eraser to the board and start fresh.”

CF: There were rumors that you were considering a run for mayor in 2011. Why didn’t you run?

LG: In the end, I said to myself, if I do this, are people really going to think I’m serious about the national movement for comprehensive immigration reform, or are they going to think it’s about me wanting to be mayor of the city of Chicago?  It’s something I would love to do, but what is my vocation in politics? I think it’s comprehensive immigration reform, getting this bill signed and watching it get implemented. I couldn’t do both at the same time.

CF: Is there a mayor in this country who is a leader on immigration?

LG: I think we have one in the city of Chicago.

CF: Will you support Rahm in 2015 when he runs for reelection?

LG: Absolutely. As we speak, I see absolutely no reason not to support him … I got to tell you quite frankly, I count on him for his advice, and for his knowledge of the way Washington works moving forward.

CF: You don’t hold NAFTA against Rahm? [The Clinton operatives who pushed through NAFTA were Bill Daley and his deputy, Rahm Emanuel]

LG: I have been over NAFTA for quite a while And I think what I found so interesting is how many Democrats ran away from NAFTA in 2008 … including Hillary Clinton… They were all apologizing and giving excuses for all the bad things that happened with NAFTA. In 1993 it was difficult to say no to Rich Daley the mayor—who has been very supportive of my campaigns and very critical to my success in reaching Congress. … It was very difficult to tell him, and to tell his brother who had been asked by the President of the United States to get it passed. But I needed to say no.

CF: You have infamously been known to sleep in your office and shower in the congressional gym. Do you still do that?

LG: Yes, last week it was one night there, one night at the hotel. … I bid on the internet on hotel rooms. Comes up $85/$90 a night.

CF: One of the things I found fascinating about the early chapters is your father deciding that Chicago was not a good place to raise children—as you write, “the drugs and hippies and gangs, and riots and assassinations. It was no place to raise their children…” And so in 1969 he moves the family back to Puerto Rico. Is that true today?

LG: No.

CF: What has changed?

LG: The murder rate in Puerto Rico is probably twice the national average of any state in the nation.

CF: You describe much better education opportunities in Puerto Rico. You were able to finish high school in three years and enroll at the public and almost tuition-free University of Puerto Rico. Is that true today?

LG: No, there are many more programs today, but back then maybe five percent of Latinos that graduated from high school in 1971 went to college. If you went to my high school in San Sabastian, there was like 70 percent that went to college. Going to college was a rite of passage in life in Puerto Rico. … Very few of my friends who I went to high school with at St. Michael’s or elementary school at Newberry … went on to college.

CF: When you go back to the west of Larrabee, north of North Avenue part of Lincoln Park where you lived as a boy, what goes through your mind?

LG: I think about how Puerto Ricans can’t afford to live there, how it’s full of McMansions. And I can’t go down North Avenue without thinking about how they built impassable medians down the street dividing the north side of North from the south side of North which had become increasingly African American. ….I think of Ogden Avenue and how they shut it down so there would be no way from Cabrini Green to Lincoln park.            

CF: You lost badly—24 percent of the vote—in 1984 when you ran against Dan Rostenkowski for committeeman of the 32nd Ward. You and your wife and young daughter were then living in a house on Homer Street in Bucktown that you bought for $28,000 in 1980. The year before, you had a Molotov cocktail thrown through your front window in the middle of the night burning down a good part of the house and almost killing your family. You also describe the police as being less than helpful in a case that was obviously arson. Was anyone ever charged with that crime?

LG: I don’t know to this day; know better to ask questions that I know won’t be answered. [He links the firebomb, indirectly, to Rosti’s precinct captains who tried unsuccessfully the year before to persuade him to put a poster for Republican mayoral candidate Bernie Epton in his window. He attributes the request from these Democrats to their distaste for the prospect of Harold Washington, a mentor and hero to Gutiérrez, becoming the city’s first African American mayor. The Gutiérrezes named their younger daughter, Jessica Washington Gutiérrez.]

CF: Where do you live now?

LG: For the last 20 years we’ve lived in Portage Park. It’s the most Latino Chicago neighborhood I’ve ever lived in. Following the fine immigrant tradition we live in a two flat. My daughter and her husband and my grandson live on the first floor and my wife and I live on the second. [That daughter works for the state as a consumer advocate. Her younger sister lives out of state working on a Ph.D. in history.]

CF: Who are you supporting for president in 2016?

LG: I think Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee … I think she’d make an excellent president … I think it’s her turn.

CF: The Latino vote was so important in 2012. If your frustration level with Obama gets high enough, could you imagine finding a Republican to support?

LG: No, I can’t imagine that happening anytime in the foreseeable future … I am going to continue to have an excellent, friendly relationship with Paul Ryan and with other Republicans as we work on comprehensive immigration reform.

CF: Who are these other Republicans?

LG: Sen. Rubio of Florida [Gutiérrez writes that he was told by an Obama aide to “stand firm against Rubio’s proposal,” and while Gutiérrez writes that it doesn’t go far enough, he adds, that “the unspoken reason” was that Obama didn’t want a Republican to be seen as “doing more for immigration than he has.”] And John McCain, I’m happy he’s back. I think he played a key role in getting in approved in the Senate … We needed him. He’s very knowledgeable.

CF: For Governor, do you have a candidate? [This preceded Bill Daley dropping out of the race; I emailed Gutterrez’s scheduler for a reaction to the Daley bombshell but did not hear back by post time.]

LG: I have endorsed pat Quinn … I think Quinn has done a wonderful job in serving that immigrant population in Illinois, especially when he stood up to the President and said that his state police department would not cooperate with immigration control and enforcement and deportation of immigrants from this state. So, since that day, I’ve had a vey high level of respect for him.

CF: You’ve been a leader on immigration in the House. Do you have constituents in the fourth district who say, “Come on, start worrying about bringing in money to this district and serving your constituents?”

LG: I think I do that well. I’m very cognizant of the needs of my district, of my state, and of the city of Chicago. The days of pork-barrel politics are gone in the Congress, but I work on issues of housing or education or the environment; my record is very much in tune with my congressional district.

CF: Are you going to run for another term? (He has been in congress nonstop since 1993.)

LG: Yes, hoping the people of the 4th will let me go and finish this work, even if we pass comprehensive reform as I expect we will this fall, there will be much implementation … The White House has told us that when we pass comprehensive immigration reform it will probably take 24 months from the moment we pass it to the moment there will be a site where you can go and apply for a benefit under the program.

CF: There’s going to be an active US Senate race here in 2016. I expect Mark Kirk will run again, but there will be lots of competition among Democrats. Any interest in moving up?

LG: No, none whatsoever … I have absolutely no desire, and, if I did, I would have used the book to expound on solving world poverty or saving the nation from itself.

CF: Did you have a memoir model in mind when you started to write?

LG: I really like the grittiness of Malcolm X’s autobiography and his relationship with Alex Haley, and I really enjoyed the political vignettes in Chris Matthew’s Hardball. [How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game] … I tried to relate those experiences so others who want to take on the vocation of public service; I say okay, now you have a better sense of what it’s like.

CF: I’ve read that you have a house in Puerto Rico. How much time do you spend there?

LG: We sold our house there. Too complicated. Too many times that I worried whether the property taxes were paid on time. I have so much family there [his father died recently but his mother lives there], many friends from high school and college … I have much of my extended family there … Out of the year we spend maybe 10-15 days there.

CF: How does your wife, Soraida, respond to this rock star business; people wanting to touch you and have their picture taken with you.

LG: She has traveled so much with me; she has seen it so many times and she simply says, “That’s why you always have to stay on the straight and narrow. People expect a lot from you and you’re their leader.” She has gone to restaurants where she’s seen all of the personnel come out of the kitchen. She has seen the head of a restaurant say, “Oh, I’ll take care of that” [and add] , “I’m not doing it because I like you. All my staff in the kitchen told me I better not charge you for that. …One time a woman came up to us, “M’am can I give your husband a hug and kiss? “ She said “Absolutely.”
 

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