BOOK REVIEW: ‘Still Dreaming’

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By Luis V. Gutierrez

Norton, $27.95, 413 pages

The new memoir by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, is a page-turner. While the partisan sniping is there — and unflattering Gutierrez items from the Chicago press are not there — the basic thrust of this man’s life story is inspiring, funny and quintessentially American. Assisted by co-writer Doug Scofield, Mr. Gutierrez describes a hardscrabble youth in Chicago and Puerto Rico that took grit and courage to overcome.

“I was an English-speaking American kid dropped into the middle of a Caribbean island,” he says of his 16-year-old self. “I was living the contradictions between Chicago and San Sebastian,” for “the truth was that even a Puerto Rican kid who grew up eating rice and beans could become a gringo on this island.”

Mr. Gutierrez’s parents had returned to the land of their birth with Luis and his sister out of a desire to start their own business, and to school their children in a place free of the social upheaval of late-1960s Chicago. Teenagers are good at feeling like misfits; young Luis‘ uprooting gave him extra reasons.

Politics rescued him. It was the independentistas who assured him he was a real Puerto Rican, and gratitude to them has kept the congressman attached to their quixotic cause: making the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, population 4 million, its own country.

I was struck by the immediacy of the book’s scenes — from a Gutierrez uncle boiling and selling cuchifritos (pig parts) from his tropical backyard, to the author patrolling a city incinerator on Chicago’s West Side to try to get a public-works crew to stop loafing.

Also striking are the passages that cut against the grain of the Democratic Party. I don’t only mean the author’s characterization of President Obama as a peevish prima donna who doesn’t keep his word.

Mr. Gutierrez, emulating his parents’ fierce work ethic, had door-to-door sales jobs and drove a cab, eventually discovering that door-to-door politicking was his strong suit. Returning to the mainland for college, he rose in Chicago politics as one of congressman-turned-mayor Harold Washington’s reform Democrats.

To battle the patronage-heavy Daley machine, he says, was to stand up for the taxpayer. He fought public-sector waste. The machine turned “services that you deserved and should receive simply because you paid your taxes into favors that were delivered personally” by a precinct captain who expected your support in November. It was wrong. So was the election trickery — voter rolls that “showed a lot more Polish families than you saw when you actually walked down the street,” and fraudulent absentee and write-in ballots used in close races.

Policing fellow Democrats was the thing to do in Chicago; there weren’t any Republicans. When Mr. Gutierrez came to Washington in 1992, persisting with that didn’t go over well. Wresting perks from the powerful and trying to cap congressional pay made the young House member obnoxious to his own caucus. He vacated that political space to Newt Gingrich’s insurgent Republicans, choosing instead to carve out a niche in immigration, an important but neglected issue.

This was a quirky choice for a Puerto Rican, since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Then again, the growing population in his West Side district hailed from Mexico. Ironically for a goo-goo liberal like Mr. Gutierrez, he made himself into a cleaned-up version of a machine pol. He convinced the executive branch it was OK for a legislative branch official to assist legal residents through the bureaucratic hoops to citizenship, a task done up to that time only by nonprofits.

Republicans will imitate him if they are smart.

As he negotiates with them on immigration, thorny disputes lie ahead — such as whether people not lawfully here will have their health care paid for by the federal government. He should take to heart the principles in “Still Dreaming.” Doing so would help this passionate defender of minorities find a way to balance that concern with a concern for ordinary taxpayers (many of whom are also minorities).

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