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In memoir, Rep. Luis Gutierrez writes of his youth, politics

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.)

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.)

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Updated: October 19, 2013 8:16PM

Whether it was growing up as a scrawny Chicago kid with a “Zapata moustache,” struggling to speak Spanish in his parents’ native Puerto Rico or challenging one of Illinois’ most powerful congressmen, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) always likes to cast himself as two things:

An outsider and a fighter.

The Illinois congressman and former Chicago alderman returns often to that theme in his new memoir, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.

While the Democrat has played a prominent role nationally in the push for immigration reform — drafting legislation, organizing rallies, constantly criticizing the White House and even getting handcuffed during displays of civil disobedience — he spends most of the book chronicling his early years in Chicago and Puerto Rico.

The result is a tale as much about the city’s history as it is about Gutierrez’s life. It portrays his unsuccessful challenge for a ward committeeman’s seat against powerful U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, how he was groomed for politics under the late Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, and how he learned the city’s machine-style politics as he clashed with fellow aldermen.

Gutierrez, first elected to Congress in 1992, spoke in an interview about immigration, politics and how it all figured into writing his life story at age 59. The following are edited excerpts:

Q: Why write this book?A:

“It was important to build the arc between my own personal life, the migrant experience of my mom and dad and the people I once saw. ... It’s almost as though my life was a training for the ultimate battle of winning of comprehensive immigration reform.”

Q: Why now?A:

“I’m getting older ... My hope is that we’re going to pass comprehensive immigration. I’d like to be re-elected and watch all the regulation, make sure it’s expansive. Then, I want to sit down and do some other stuff and be engaged in my community.”

Q: You’ve called on Congress, particularly Republicans, to let immigration reform move forward. How confident are you after it’s taken such a back seat recently?A:

“I am excited and motivated each and every day that we’re going to get this done. The deportations don’t stop ... [But] we know the votes exist.”

Q: You’ve been critical of President Barack Obama, other presidents and your own party, yet you’ve still supported Obama. How do you explain that?A:

“In 2007, 2008, 2009, Democrats were the majority, they told me to go find Republicans. Democrats were calling [immigration] the third rail of politics. I’m excited and happy to say they’re behind the bill. It’s the first time Democratic leadership has” backed it.”

Q: The book lays out your admiration for Washington. Why was he so important?A:

“What informs me most about my politics is there was a black man running the city of Chicago, and I saw white politicians abandon him. He was my first and primary mentor. He gave me the opportunity I have today.”

Q: You paint yourself as an outsider but then an insider, a “soldier in Harold Washington’s army” and a congressman. Which is it?A:

Harold Washington’s campaign “was an army for justice, not the same as the machine.” ... We opened the government up to women, minorities. Today, it’s very, very different, Chicago has been changed and reformed. The () council is more reflective.

Q: You describe working a lot of jobs — as a cab driver, at your father’s restaurant in Puerto Rico, banker, congressman, your short-lived business as an exterminator. Your favorite?A:

“I tried to be an entrepreneur. I started my business. [But my favorite was] handing out those toasters at the bank as a summer job, sitting in an air-conditioned bank in Manhattan.”

Q: Which place do you identify more with — the United States or Puerto Rico?A:

“It’s always like I’ve been too Puerto Rican for America and too American for Puerto Rico. I’ve always been on the outside...”

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