One of Congress’s leading advocates for the poor and for an open government prepares to leave after 18 terms.
It’s rare for U.S. Representative Henry Gonzalez to not follow through on a promise, but in late 1997 he did just that.
He didn’t retire in December after all, as he had announced he would earlier in the year.
The 18-term Democratic Congressman from Texas had said that poor health would force him to leave his seat at the end of the year, a seat he has held for 36 years. But in rethinking his decision he felt it improper to pass along the costs of a special election to taxpayers and instead announced he would stick it out until the end of his term and not run for re-election this November.
That kind of thinking isn’t unusual for Gonzalez, say the people around him. He has always placed great value on the responsibility with which his constituents have entrusted him election after election, and the idea of betraying that trust by stepping down early ran counter to that belief. So through the end of the 105th Congress, he’ll continue playing the role he has crafted for himself and fills well-that of the populist voice for the disenfranchised, the progressive voice against secrecy and domination by government, and the eloquent voice in support of aid for the poor.
Gonzalez began his political career in 1953 when he became the first Mexican-American elected to the San Antonio City Council, and then broke similar ground when he was elected to the Texas State Senate. In 1962 he became the first Mexican-American from Texas to be elected to the U.S. Congress. He has never liked such tokenistic labels, though, preferring to be known simply as an American.
An Early Advocate for Housing
Gonzalez’s commitment to housing began long before his first election. As a college student he worked on a successful campaign to bring public housing to San Antonio, and eventually became deputy director of that city’s Housing Authority in charge of development and family relocation. Once elected to Congress, Gonzalez worked with President Johnson on the Model Cities program and successfully won Model City designation for San Antonio.
As Chairman of the Housing Subcommittee of the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services-the only Housing Subcommittee Chairman who had worked for a public housing authority-Gonzalez presided over the nation’s housing and community development policy during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Time and again, he clashed with those presidents and their appointees as they attempted to cut funding for programs. Despite the intransigence of such officials, most notably Reagan’s HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce, Gonzalez succeeded in shepherding several key pieces of legislation through passage in the 80s, including the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, and the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act, which boosted federal funding for housing programs, including some new programs such as Housing for People With AIDS (HOPWA).
His work in housing did not go unnoticed. Among the recognitions he received were the 1991 National Alliance to End Homelessness Award for Public Sector Achievement, the 1997 Fair Housing Award, and a Housing Assistance Council Special Award in 1996. In 1990, Shelterforce bestowed Gonzalez with a 100 percent score in a Housing Scorecard, ranking members of Congress based upon their voting records on housing legislation.
“We never needed to lobby him,” recalled veteran housing activist Cushing Dolbeare, “because he was always on our side already.” He often went out of his way to listen to what housing advocates had to say about pending legislation, and almost always supported their campaigns, she said.
Forcing Open the Fed
A staunch champion of full disclosure from financial institutions, Gonzalez was responsible for the Homeownership and Equity Protection Act of 1994, designed to curb creditors’ practices of “reverse redlining,” by which lenders would target disadvantaged communities for credit on unfair terms, including high-rate/high-fee home equity loans. As Chairman of the full House Committee on Banking and Financial Services, Gonzalez was responsible for “de-mystifying the Federal Reserve more than anybody in history,” says Representative Barney Frank (D-MA). “He substantially changed the way the Fed operates, particularly in the way they release information to the public, in that he forced them to open minutes and decisions.”
Gonzalez’s call for the removal of Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volker “gave him a forum to address what he thought were honest grievances” about the excessive powers the Fed had gathered through independence and secrecy, said Frank DeStefano, a Congressional staffer who worked with Gonzalez for many years. (Gonzalez’s staff says he is no longer granting interviews.)
Gonzalez’s passion for openness in government went beyond banking, and he worked tirelessly to investigate and bring to light cover-ups, conspiracies, and government gaffes. He established committees to investigate the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, led investigations into the administrations of presidents Reagan and Bush, ultimately calling for impeachment hearings for the two, and was involved in the initial hearings around President Clinton’s Whitewater affair. He was active in the investigations into the S&L crisis of the 1980s as well.
Such efforts were meant to shed light on the inner workings of government in order to make the system more accountable to the people who elect officials. Gonzalez is unique because of his “basic belief that the first and foremost thing for an elected official is the relationship to the people in his district and their needs,” said DeStefano. His office doors in both Washington and San Antonio are adorned with signs proclaiming “This office belongs to the people of the 20th Congressional District, Texas.”
Changing Lives of Americans
Gonzalez is “one of the few people who live by their beliefs on a daily basis and put them into practice” said DeStefano. “You couldn’t find a person more committed to helping the poor and the working man.”
Known for his feistiness-stories of Gonzalez resorting to fisticuffs are legendary in Congress-Gonzalez was not one to back down against the majority. His speeches in support of his commitment to the poor and disenfranchised have moved members of Congress to tears, and his frequent letters to colleagues in reproach of their conduct often made headlines, as did a missive to Jim Leach (R-IA) in 1994, in which he called the Congressman “obstinate,” “disobedient,” and “obdurate,” among other things.
For his part, Leach was one of the key speakers at the unveiling of Gonzalez’s portrait in Congress in October, 1997, and gave no indication of having let that letter diminish his view of Gonzalez as a peer. “I know of no more honorable member of Congress,” he said. “Throughout his effective career in public service, Henry Gonzalez has changed for the better the lives of millions of Americans [and] has steadfastly stood up for those less advantaged in American life.”
Although he went back on his word about stepping down early, Gonzalez says he is firmly committed to stepping down at the end of this year to enjoy more time with his 21 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The Republicans who saw him as a resilient thorn in their side for so many years are no doubt relieved, but will likely not believe it completely until he has actually left the building.