The Education Of Gutierrez

Mr. Gutierrez Goes To Washington

In 1992 Luis Gutierrez was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. As a young congressman from Illinois, Gutierrez and fellow Democrats rode into Washington determined to clean up the place, to put an end to congressional perks and the power of special interests.

After a year in office, Gutierrez was profiled by 60 Minutes in 1994. His candor won raves from critics of Congress, but his fellow Democrats were not amused - even suggesting that he be punished. Now five years later, 60 Minutes II revisits.

Click here for the two segments:

1994 Interview

When he first arrived in Congress in 1993, Gutierrez believed that he and the 110 other newly elected legislators could make a difference.

"I thought that there would just be this huge group of people all running to the same finish line," Gutierrez said.

Visit Luis Guterriez's official Web site.
"All of us saying, 'We're going to do campaign-finance reform; we're going to eliminate the parking at National Airport, the chauffeurs are gone, the perks and the privileges, the things that make us different,'" he said.

"Well, people take that stuff pretty personal[ly] here. They take it as a personal affront to themselves," he said.

Congress, he said, is "the belly of the beast," a "monster.

Still, a few newcomers, including Gutierrez, resisted. At home in Chicago, this son of Puerto Rican parents is called "El Gallito," the Little Fighting Rooster.

He helped deliver Democrats to Mayor Daley's son, Mayor Daley. He represented a district made up of Latinos, blacks, Irish, Poles and Ukrainians.

Before he took his seat in Congress, he had been invited, along with other freshmen, to meet Democratic House leaders Dan Foley, Dan Rostenkowski, Dick Gephardt and others. He thought they wanted to lead the charge for change.

He was wrong. Gutierrez was foolish enough to believe that the older hands actually wanted to hear what he had to say about the low opinion the public had of Congress, so he spoke up.

"They basically told me to shut up," he said. "But I was acting respectful to the House leadership. I was showing deference to them and saying, 'I want to help us,'Â…I was including myself as an equal member. Bad mistake."

The leadership was not amused.

He was told, in so many words: "Maybe you shouldn't even be seen, much less heard in the Congress of the United States," he said.

Gutierrez learned that congressmen with seniority are sensitive types who never forge a slight, especially when it is time to hand out plum committee assignments. He suspected they'd bury him on the Agriculture Committee. He ended up on the Banking Committee.

"But let me suggest to you, I'm not on the Banking Committee because it was a committee I wish to serve on," he said. "I'm on the Banking Committee because there were five empty slots they couldn't fill."

The education of Gutierrez was well under way when the North American Free Trade Agreement issue arrived. He was leaning against it. He started getting phone calls from his fund-raisers.

This, said Gutierrez, is what they said: "'Luis, how you doing, buddy? How's everything going?'Â… Luis, we need you to vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement."

Luis Gutierrez, as he looked in 1994
"'I'd like you to vote for it. It's important. The president needs youÂ…. I'm calling to tell you about my difficulty. I'm having a - difficulty in raising money for your next fund-raiser,'" Gutierrez reported they said.

"And it'd be a lot easier for me to make the phone calls and to be there for you, because people love you, Luis, don't take me wrong, they really believe in you. But Luis - you'd be amazed how many people are saying to me, I just can't help Luis unless he votes,'" Gutierrez said he was told.

"If you think and if anybody thinks that there wasn't an orchestrated, organized, coordinated effort on behalf of the White House and political operatives there to talk to your key fund-raisers, then you're living in another world," he said.

"People understand that in order to get elected to Congress, it cost a lot of money," he added.

Washington can be a dazzling place to a freshman congressman, and the threat of not returning because of a campaign funds shortfall can have a powerful effect.

But there's nothing like a call from the president. Gutierrez admitted that he was impressed, and swayed.

But he voted against NAFTA anyway. "Let's put it this way," he said. "The invitation to the White House got canceled pretty quickly."

Still, this congressional Don Quixote continued to tilt at sacred windmills. He tried to end free congressional parking at National Airport and failed. He wrote a bill to further limit the money congressmen could take from political action committees. And he and others wanted to tamper with pork-barrel projects.

This approach didn't work too well, according to Gutierrez. "Was I naive enough to think that everything we said in the campaign was going to come to fruition once I got here and that I was going to be part of just thihuge movement of change?" he said.

"OK, I admit I'm guilty. But have I lost that? Have I lost my heart and my soul in the process? No," Gutierrez said.

In his first year, Gutierrez discovered that Washington is a seductive and dangerous place; in order to remain true to yourself, you must be very careful about the company you keep.

"My mother, she said, 'Tell me with whom you walk and I'll tell you who you are,'" he said. "I'm walking with a group of people that people don't think highly of. And so, of course, they say if he's walking with them, then he's one of them."

1999 Update

Soon after that 1994 interview, Luis Gutierrez found himself in hot water. His Democratic colleagues accused him of grandstanding for personal aggrandizement, rather than congressional reform.

But Gutierrez's constituents back home in Chicago praised him for his integrity and candor and continued to send him back to Washington. He won three more elections by overwhelming majorities.

But the aftermath of the interview was tough, he now says. "It was a very difficult time. Many members shunned me, would not speak to me at all. People made fun of me: 'When are you going to go paint the sign at the airport?'"

House colleagues called him a "self-serving phony who cut his political teeth in the rough-and-tumble of the Chicago City Council, then pronounced himself a great congressional reformer."

His fellow Democrats were so angry they wanted to get the party caucus to reprimand him. That never happened, but Gutierrez was not named to any high-profile committees.

Today he's on the same committees he got when he first came to Washington seven years ago: Banking and Veterans Affairs. But he says with a laugh that he is not bitter.

And since 1994, Gutierrez has smoothed out some rough edges. He wears a sharper suit and carries himself more like a veteran than a freshman.

He no longer has a mustache. Gutierrez says that it literally fell off as a result of all the stress.

Is he still El Gallito? Yes, he says.

In 1994, for the first time in 40 years, the Republicans won control of the House. Much to his dismay, Gutierrez found that his mocking of the establishment came back to haunt him. But he also felt vindicated in a way.

"Republicans would say, much to my chagrin, 'Oh, I used your 60 Minutes program. And I put it up there on the monitor to get all my troops organized and ready to go.'" he recalls.

"I think the reality is that Democrats understand when they lost the majority that many of the issues that I raised, along with others, were substantive issues and were part of the reason the Democrats are no longer in charge of this House," Gutierrez says.

But he also learned the value of being a team player: "I didn't mean to challenge their - their integrity - but challenge their wisdom, nd what they thought was important and in a priority. And to that extent, yes, I'm more careful."

Broadcast produced by Barbara Dury; Web story produced by David Kohn;