Few people in American politics have been underestimated as often as Henry B. Gonzalez, the Texas populist.
It happened again last month when the Democratic leadership decided to back another candidate to replace Gonzalez as leader of the Democrats on the Banking Committee of the U. S. House of Representatives. All of Washington’s political experts were firmly convinced that Gonzalez was a goner.
But, he fought back, rallied his colleagues and won another term as leader.
While the outcome confounded the experts, for Gonzalez the come-from-behind victory must have seemed like just another day at the office.
Every step of his political life has been taken the hard way. This year was nothing new. Fifty years ago, he was told that, as a Mexican-American, he shouldn’t even think about running for a seat on the San Antonio City Council. Even his mother begged him to forego the race, telling him “you’ll make the Americans angry.” But, Gonzalez ignored the advice and went on to win his first political office.
Nonetheless, obstacles seemed always to roll into
Gonzalez’s path when he sought advancement–to the Texas Senate, to the U. S. House of Representatives, to the Chairmanship of the Housing Subcommittee and to the Chairmanship of the House Banking Committee. It was a long tough journey to the top, a fact based, in part, on racial and ethnic prejudices, but even more on Gonzalez’s unyielding independence.
Independence translates into unpredictability, and there is nothing that makes lobbyists more nervous than a Congressman who cannot be placed in a pigeon hole in advance. Special interest pleas and lobbyists clutching campaign checks never faze Gonzalez. He has made mistakes, but the missteps have been his own, not the product of some zealous influence peddler.
Despite efforts to deny him the Housing Subcommittee
Chairmanship in 1981, Gonzalez performed magnificently in the job, blocking efforts in the Reagan years to destroy key housing programs.
When Committee Chairman Freddie St Germain was defeated in the 1988 election, again there were rumblings that Gonzalez was “not up to the job.”
As it turned out, Gonzalez worked around the clock to push through a critically needed rescue of the deposit insurance funds in the wake of the collapse of the savings and loan industry.
Not only did Gonzalez’s leadership bring speedy recapitalization of the insurance funds, but he also crafted major regulatory reforms for both the banking and savings and loan industry. The efforts sent a shock wave throughout the financial industry and provided a wake up call for the entire regulatory community.
He followed this effort with a series of wide-ranging investigations of savings and loan operators who had wrecked hundreds of institutions and plundered billions of dollars of federal deposit insurance funds. He forced out the savings and loan regulator who had allowed the problems to grow, and revamped the agency’s structure from top to bottom.
Gonzalez’s tough stance not only changed laws, but it brought about a sea change in agencies that had played it cozy for too long with the industries they were regulating. Today, Washington’s regulatory community is more conscious of its ongoing responsibility to the taxpayers in protecting the deposit insurance funds.
While he was forced to spend countless hours wrestling with the financial mess left by his predecessors, Gonzalez never lacked the time to work with community and consumer organizations who sought protection for people and communities who depended on the nation’s banking system. Often, he took the Committee into inner city neighborhoods to hear directly from the people.
Rarely would he allow a hearing to be scheduled without making certain that the consumer and community organizations had been given a chance to testify and present their case. When other Members and the media walked out after hearing only the industry testimony, Gonzalez would sit for hours to listen to the consumer side of the issue.
Once during Gonzalez’s chairmanship, law firms and lobbying groups hired couriers to save all available seats for the lobbyists during a critically important hearing, crowding out community activists who had traveled all night from St. Louis. An outraged Gonzalez interrupted the hearing to lecture the lobbyists about the fact that the hearing room belonged to the people, not to the elite of the Washington lobbyists.
And this was much more than political rhetoric. Gonzalez repeatedly mobilized his Committee to resist efforts to roll back the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and eliminate housing programs so critical to the survival of poor people.
In an era when political thought is becoming increasingly homogenized and sadly predictable, Henry Gonzalez’s gutsy brand of independence is a rapidly diminishing commodity in the Congress.
Thanks to the arrival of some last minute sanity in the Democratic caucus, Gonzalez will be in a leadership role for two more years. That’s good news not only for the Democratic Party, but for the nation.