Washington - Luis Gutiérrez is excited about the next stage of his public life.
He does not feel nostalgic about leaving Congress, where he has worked for 26 years.
For a quarter of a century he has been part of a trio of Puerto Rican lawmakers, along with Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano.
In his last days in Congress, Gutiérrez, representative from Chicago (Illinois), said that he will certainly miss all the friends he made at the Capitol, but not the pomposity of the position.
Nor will he miss all those nights on the couch in his old office in the Rayburn Building of the Federal Lower House.
Like many members of Congress, including outgoing speaker Paul Ryan, for years during House sessions, Gutierrez slept for years in his office.
Before stepping into the House as a Congress member for the last time, Gutiérrez was interviewed by El Nuevo Día.
During his last weeks in Congress, the institution itself reminded him that he was on the way out.
Like almost a hundred lawmakers who do not return in January, he was in an office in the basement of the Rayburn building during the last four weeks of session. He smiled when saying that at least, he was given two cubicles. The others only had one.
"Now I understand what a 'lame duck' is (an elected official who does not return to his position). You almost do not exist. You do not vote for the next Speaker, you are not in the organization of new committees, it's all about how you can use the vote to persuade some members or help others advance their careers, "Gutierrez said.
After representing Illinois 4th Congressional District –with influential Hispanic voting base, particularly those of Mexican and Puerto Rican origin- Gutiérrez gets ready for his new role.
As he announced a few months ago, as of January 3, he will be a senior public policy advisor for the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), an organization dedicated to defending the rights of immigrants.
In May and after his daughter´s campaign for Chicago City Council, he is moving to Puerto Rico where will be able to vote in 2020.
However, Gutiérrez, 65, plans to walk the USA to discuss the issues that have been in his Congress agenda for years: the future of Puerto Rico and a comprehensive immigration overhaul measure. “Now I can speak more about Puerto Rico in Utah, Nevada, Las Vegas,” he said.
“How does it feel to close the office in Congress?”
-After the elections it´s like the institution wants you to leave. (Almost a hundred representatives will not return to their positions in January). They show some kind of disdain even though you have been here for a long time. I am among the 50 who stayed longer in Congress. I also want to move forward with my new life but it´s like they make it clear to you (that his term is over)
Didn´t you regret the decision?
-Not at all
During session periods you stayed in that building 24/7.
-This is not the first time. When in 2006 I announce I was going to retire, people told me: “Are you mad? Where are you going to go?”. I have assumed the responsibility of being here but I have been thinking about when to retire for a while
What will you miss about Congress?
-I have many friends there. I am not going to miss the formal part, being in Congress, presentations, the search for opinions. Just as an example of how far I am from the formal part, many have always wanted to be close (to the President) during the State of the Union message. (Some lawmakers camp in the corridors waiting for a chance to greet the President). In my case, I´ve seen half of those messages on TV in my office.
What is your greatest achievement?
—When I arrived, immigration was in the lowest level of the Congress agenda now, it´s on the top. In 2010, Nancy Pelosi said there would not be a vote for the Dream Act. When we submitted the bill on the DACA benefits, in 2017, all Democrats co-sponsored it.
And regarding legislation?
-When I started, I said we should freeze congressional salaries. Six month laters, salaries were frozen. I proposed what became NACARA (to protect Central American immigrants), although the author was Lincoln Díaz Balart. They may say DACA is not a legislation but it is our initiative.
And your frustration?
- Puerto Rico´s colonial status and not having achieved a comprehensive immigration reform
What is pending?
- The same things (decolonization and immigration reform) I go back to my homeland because the issues regarding Puerto Rico are not over.
Recently, Republican Rob Bishop place the issue back in the hands of the government of Puerto Rico to legislate a referendum.
- I think that Junte de Mujeres -M18- they came here together, a group of Puerto Rican women, it´s a good example of what can be done about the status. Environmental groups, union leaders, the LGBTT community and others can do the same.
Will a statehood: yes or no referendum in San Juan –certified by the Department of Justice- find echo?
– Pro statehood I believe remains static in little more than 40 percent. Puerto Ricans people do not have an inalienable right to statehood. The only inalienable right is the right to independence. No matter what happens, that right will exist for the people of Puerto Rico.
You will still have access to the floor and can try to influence your friends.
-I want to be the lawyer of the people. I want to talk to Casa Pueblo and other environmental groups, to see how to draw a plan to have a power grid 50 percent based on renewable source in the short term. I want to talk to farmers. I want to help to bring Puerto Ricans together. I think our future is among them.
(Gutiérrez made a stop to speak about Carmen Yulín Ruiz, mayor of San Juan who was a member of the Junte de Mujeres)
I am not saying that Carmen Yulín wouldn´t be a great governor but she can do a wonderful job here. I have not seen a Puerto Rican coming from the island more welcomed in the USA. Yulín is probably, since Luis Muñoz Marín, the best known Puerto Rican resident politician in the United States. Alexandria Ocasio Cortes must be the best known politician of Puerto Rican descent in the USA.
–I think she (Ocasio Cortez) has a great future in Congress. I know she will do it very well but at some point she will have to make a transition –just like what happened to me- to uphold her principles and achieve things at the same time.
What did you learn here?
Nothing happens here without external pressure. It is true that power is here with the votes of Congress members. But power can be well used if there are external agents.
During your years in Congress, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been in the White House. Who was the best President?
—Barack Obama. I saw the greatest growth with him as President.
Who has treated Puerto Rico the best?
-None of them.
What do you regret?
-There are many mistakes but I am to regret, it´s not regarding my work in Congress. It´s about the impact of my work in Congress in my personal life. I never made it to balance things. I took a plane this morning (the day of this interview). There were two girls, one probably 2 or 3 and the other 9. They were taking pictures, really happy with their parents. (Gutiérrez has two daughters). I saw that and asked myself “how many of these opportunities did I miss?