The 59-year-old Illinois congressman stands 5 feet 6 inches tall, which is only one reason he got his nickname, “El Gallito” — the little fighting rooster. Not minding is the other reason.
During two decades in Congress, Gutierrez has managed to tick off Republicans and his fellow Democrats. Once, he challenged another member of Congress who’d been razzing him — he won’t say whom — to a fist fight in the House cloakroom. “You want to go to the gym and prove something?" El Gallito said. “I’ll whip your a-- with one hand.”
“Conflict is part of the fun,” Gutierrez writes in his just-published memoir, “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.” The book, in parts, reads like a political indictment of President Obama, portraying him as a defensive, cavalier and calculating politician who betrayed his promises on immigration reform. El Gallito isn’t exactly challenging the president to a fist fight, but he does seem eager to draw the White House into the ring — rhetorically. The administration’s new focus on the issue, now that the government is running again, might give him a chance.
But right now, all Gutierrez wants to do is get to the Lincoln Memorial, a symbolically resonant spot to chat about his life. He’s so busy talking that no cabs are stopping.
A raspy voice interrupts him in mid-sentence. “I’ve got your money!” Charlie Rangel, the New York Democratic congressman, calls from the back seat of an idling car.
Gutierrez, as it turns out, lent Rangel five dollars to get out of jail three days earlier when they were both arrested, along with dozens of other protesters, for blocking a street near the Capitol during an immigration rally.
He’s had experience getting arrested and always makes sure he has enough money to post bond. He’s been locked up for protesting U.S. military bombing exercises off Vieques Island in Puerto Rico and, in 2011, while demonstrating
about immigration reform in front of the White House — another public taunt of Obama.
“I knew a long time ago I wasn’t going to be at the head table at a state dinner,” Gutierrez says during a thoughtful moment later in the day. “I knew I wasn’t going to get a good seat on Air Force One. I’m not going to play a round of golf with the president. I get that.”
The immigration warrior
Gutierrez’s centrality in the nation’s immigration debate prompts some activists to describe him as a Martin Luther King Jr. of the Latino community. It’s a nod to the tens of thousands of immigrants he and his staff have helped fill out citizenship applications and to his persistence in the often heated fight over immigration reform.