They don’t call Democratic congressman Luis Gutierrez “El Gallito” — “The Little Rooster” — for nothing. It’s not just his diminutive size, but his outspoken style. Apparently, he’s always trying to “wake people up.” And one of his favorite targets, it turns out, is President Obama, a fellow Chicagoan and one-time friend and colleague that Gutierrez backed over Hillary Clinton in 2008.
For the past four years, the two men have locked horns repeatedly over Gutierrez’s signature issue — immigration reform. As Gutierrez tells it, the president, despite his own civil rights background, has never understood the depth and intensity of Latino aspirations, and has been far too willing to play politics with an issue that concerns his entire community – and indeed, the entire country.
He has clashed with Obama over the president’s decision to keep deporting undocumented immigrants – in fact, in record numbers, roughly 400,000 a year, ostensibly to appease conservatives and to build support for a legalization program. Early on, Obama promised to increase pressure for legalization once the debate over health care reform was settled. But it never happened. Always, the answer was the same: “Mañana.”
Gutierrez, who’s not a patient man by nature, hasn’t been willing to wait. In calls to his office, and in visits to his district and trips across the country, he recorss the pain and hardship of Latino families in deportation proceedings every day and feels compelled to act, he says.
So, he’s taken it upon himself to push and even embarrass the president by staging sit-ins, getting arrested, and in the waning months of 2012, even conducting an end-run around the White House to try to forge a bipartisan deal on the Dream Act with Florida senator Marco Rubio.
That last maneuver finally got the president’s attention. Gutierrez, in fact, may have single handedly ensured Obama’s re-election by forcing the president to issue an executive order that formally stayed the deportation of Dream Act beneficiaries, pending further legislative action. Obama had said he would never take such action. But the threat of Republicans seizing control of the immigration issue — possibly wooing back Latino electoral support — forced his hand.
Thanks to the executive order, Latino support for Obama soared back to its 2008 levels. That probably made the difference in close contests in Florida and other key battleground states that ended up deciding the 2012 election.
Gutierrez remains humble about his role in securing the deportation stay. But it’s not the first time he’s stood up to party leaders – and won. His new memoir, Still Dreaming: My Journey From the Barrio to the Capitol Hill, which includes vivid accounts of his past political races, shows a determined man unafraid of clashing with his fellow Democrats to force them to listen to the grassroots – and to take action.
In the 1980s, he resisted efforts by his own party to block the insurgent candidacy of African-American Harold Washington for Chicago mayor – and the Old Guard never forgot it. Later, when he ran for alderman, party leaders tried to sabotage his own campaign. He strongly suspects, but can’t prove, that the 1984 fire that burned down his home was a message meant to silence him. If it was, it clearly didn’t work.
Within months of getting elected to Congress in 1993, Gutierrez briefly became a national folk hero when he spoke out against a measure sponsored by President Clinton that exempted House and Senate members from a federal wage freeze. Gutierrez decided to circulate a bill that would freeze their salaries also. On the CBS program “60 Minutes,” host Morley Safer hailed him as a “Don Quixote tilting at sacred congressional windmills.” The bill failed but his fellow Democrats were not amused, and several stopped talking to him – for years.
Gutierrez credits his father’s quiet example for helping him find his political destiny. It was his father, he notes, that moved the family back to Puerto Rico when he was a young teenager. His parents wanted the family to know its roots and to recover the cultural strength they felt they were losing in Chicago. He was dumbfounded and angry at the time — but now he sees the wisdom of it all.
He learned Spanish and immersed himself in the struggles of his people. A tireless Latino advocate — and immigration reform champion — was born.
“My father was right. I never would have become the person I am today if we hadn’t gone back to Puerto Rico,” he says.
Gutierrez’ book may remind the reader of another political memoir, Obama’s Dreams of My Father, which helped launched the president’s bid for the White House. Still Dreaming may not get Gutierrez the national attention he so richly deserves, but it’s a sign of just how far the 10-term legislator has come — and where he may still be going.
For now, the presidency may be out of reach, but Obama‘s old Illinois Senate seat, currently occupied by the ailing Mark Kirk, a Republican, is up in 2016, and the country could certainly use another Latino governor — and a Democrat, for a change.
Maybe it’s time the Little Rooster crowed a little louder.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com