When Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez leaves Congress at the end of the year, it will mark the end of an era for Hispanics and Texans who relied on the San Antonio Democrat as their champion.
Gonzalez, the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Texas and dean of the state’s congressional delegation, shocked his colleagues and the San Antonio political Establishment with his decision to retire after 36 years for health and family reasons. He is 81 years old.
“This is going to be a major loss for the Hispanic community,” state Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio, said in a telephone interview. “No one is prepared to take over with the kind of influence and clout Henry has. No one even comes close.”
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he was saddened by Gonzalez’s announcement.
“There goes an institution,” Becerra said. “Once the history books are written, it will be filled of tales about Henry … about David taking on Goliath not just on civil rights but on banking and other issues.”
In a statement, Gonzalez said he decided to step down by Dec. 31 on the advice of his family and doctors.
Last month, the former chairman of the House Banking Committee was hospitalized in Washington after a dental infection spread throughout his body, damaging a heart valve and causing fatigue and congestion.
Aides said Gonzalez, who is known best as “Henry B.,” is recuperating at his San Antonio home and is under the care of a cardiologist. He has been granted a leave of absence from the House for this week, and it is not known when he will return to Washington.
Gonzalez wrote. “I have been able to speak my mind freely, to do what seemed best for the greatest number. … That kind of independence is a rare gift, and that’s what the people gave me.”
His retirement is the second major loss for San Antonio Democrats this year. Rep. Frank Tejeda died at the beginning of his third term of complications from a brain tumor.
However, the Democrats are expected to hold onto Gonzalez’s 20th Congressional District, where they hold a strong majority. Once he officially resigns, Gov. George W. Bush will have to call a special election.
Among those who have expressed an interest in running for the seat are Gonzalez’s son, state District Judge Charles Gonzalez; state District Judge Andy Mireles; Bexar County Democratic Chairman Walter Martinez; state Rep. Christine Hernandez; and former San Antonio City Council member Roger Perez.
From 1989 to 1995, Gonzalez was chairman of the influential Banking Committee, overseeing the closure of failed savings and loans and the bailout of depositors. He pressed for more openness from the Federal Reserve and investigated scandals dealing with the sale of arms to Iran and President Clinton’s involvement in Whitewater.
In recent years, Gonzalez had to fend off critics who said he was too old to be in a leadership role. Last December, he summoned some of his best oratory to plead for a final term as the ranking Democrat on the banking panel. He speech to fellow Democrats moved some members to tears and fought off a challenge from two of his colleagues.
Gonzalez’s career in Washington was marked by eccentricities - attempts to impeach Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, fistfights with critics, rambling speeches before empty chambers, and his trademark neon blue and green suits.
At times, his reputation as a cantankerous oddball belied his legislative achievements in areas ranging from public housing to civil rights.
Gonzalez is credited with helping repeal the poll tax in Texas, bringing the World’s Fair to San Antonio in 1968, boosting the political fortunes of a young John F. Kennedy and bolstering the economy of his hometown.
As a state senator in Austin, Gonzalez established himself as an orator with a 30-hour filibuster opposing segregationist measures.
“Henry is an extraordinary figure in Texas politics,” said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, who will become the senior Texas Democrat upon Gonzalez’s retirement.
“He was a trailblazer for civil rights and economic justice and often a lonely voice arguing for a minimum wage and basic rights. We’re all sorry to see him leave.”
Gonzalez is the second-most senior member of the House, after Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. Gonzalez was first elected to Congress in 1961. The most senior member of the Texas delegation after Gonzalez is Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, who was first elected to Congress in 1970.
At home, Gonzalez was known in San Antonio as the voice of the people, especially the less fortunate. In some ways, he never left his hometown, refusing to move his family to Washington and returning most weekends to hold court in neighborhood cafes and other local haunts, taking the pulse of his constituents.
Although he was seen by many Hispanics as an icon, Gonzalez refused to be known only for his ethnicity. He turned down repeated invitations to join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and sometimes argued with other Hispanic lawmakers and advocates on issues pertaining to Hispanics.
“He was a good role model for Mexican-Americans,” said Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who filled Tejeda’s seat. “Nobody worked harder.”
Al Kauffman, regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, remembers marching next to Gonzalez about a decade ago to protest American military involvement in Central America. Even in his 70s, Kauffman recalled, Gonzalez was strong in mind and body.