December 1, 2000

Maverick Congressman Memorialized As `A Voice For The Downtrodden'

By James E. Garcia

Former Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, who represented his San Antonio constituents for 37 years before retiring in 1998, died on Tuesday. He was 84.

San Antonio Express-News Columnist Gary Martin, writing in his newspaper's Wednesday editions, described Mr. Gonzalez as "a voice for the downtrodden and racial minorities" who was elected to office in an era of racial segregation. Mr. Gonzalez, a Mexican American, was the first Latino from Texas to serve in the House of Representatives.

Rev. David Garcia, a Catholic priest who administered the last rites to Mr. Gonzalez, said the former congressman died peacefully and surrounded by family late Tuesday afternoon in a San Antonio hospital.

"It was a very beautiful, a very intimate moment with the family and with Henry," Garcia said.

Hospital officials did not disclose the cause of death, but family members said Mr. Gonzalez awoke Tuesday morning complaining of a fever and dehydration. Two years ago, the congressman announced his plans to retire in 1997 after developing a rare heart ailment.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, who replaced his father in Congress and recently won reelection, told reporters at a brief press conference Tuesday evening, "It is a sad day, but I think we need to remember the contribution that my father made."

Throughout his 42-year political career, Mr. Gonzalez was regarded as an independent and trailblazing public official who prided himself on challenging authority, sometimes even in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

In 1956, Mr. Gonzalez became the first Hispanic elected to the Texas Senate in 100 years. In an era in which blatant racial discrimination was still openly tolerated, it was not an easy victory. It took three recounts to determine Mr. Gonzalez had won - and by only 309 votes.

In the Texas Senate, Mr. Gonzalez forged his reputation in history forever when he filibustered for a record 22 hours to express his contempt for pending bills designed to keep Texas schools segregated.

Five years later, Mr. Gonzalez was elected to the U.S. House and would serve 18 consecutive terms. There, too, he would become a champion of civil rights legislation. As he raised his right hand and was sworn into office, Mr. Gonzalez held gripped in his left hand a draft of a bill to end poll taxes that discriminated against the poor and minorities. His proposal would eventually become part of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, a bill signed into law by fellow Texan, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

According to Martin, Mr. Gonzalez told his Democratic colleagues in the House shortly before he retired that when he first joined Congress, "I was something of a curiosity, being the only so-called ethnic minority member in my delegation...I was accepted as a peer, but that was not to say I felt welcomed. And I stand before you today, accepted, but seen by some as an inconvenience and unwelcome obstacle.

"They cannot say that I have failed," Gonzalez said, "only that they fear I will."

Garcia is the editor of Politico - The Magazine for Latino Politics and Culture.

Political career of Henry B. Gonzalez

Reprinted from the San Antonio Express-News

May 3 1916: Born in San Antonio

1937: Gonzalez receives associate degree from San Antonio Junior College

1937-1939: Gonzalez attends the University of Texas at Austin

1943: Receives law degrees from St. Mary's University School of Law

1941-1944: Gonzalez serves in military intelligence

1946: Serves as Bexar County's Chief Probation Officer.

1950-1951: Gonzalez becomes Deputy Director of Bexar County Housing Authority

1953-1956: Gonzalez becomes the first Mexican-American elected to the San Antonio City Council. He serves part of his term as mayor pro tempore

1956: Gonzalez becomes the first Hispanic elected to the Texas Senate. He won the 1956 election after three recounts and by just 309 votes.

1958: Gonzalez sets a national filibuster record by speaking for 30 hours in the Texas Senate against segregationist legislation proposed by his party's incumbent governor Price Daniel. Fourteen of the sixteen bills he opposed died.

1958: The first Mexican-American to run for Texas governor, Gonzalez fails to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination

1960: Gonzalez re-elected to the Texas Senate.

1961: Gonzalez loses bid for U.S. Senate

November 1961: In a special election to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Rep. Paul J. Kilday, Gonzalez elected to the U.S. House representing the 20th District. Gonzalez becomes the first Hispanic Texas to serve in the U.S. House.

Nov. 4 1961: Gonzalez begins congressional service. Gonzalez would be elected to 18 consecutive terms.

1962: In his first vote as a congressman, Gonzalez votes in favor of a bill to spend $1.5 billion on construction of academic facilities at public and private colleges.

1963: Gonzalez takes a swing at Texas Republican Congressman Ed Foreman who accused him of being a communist.

Nov. 22 1963: Gonzalez rides in President Kennedy's motorcade when Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas.

1977: Gonzalez quits as head of House Assassinations Committee saying that the murder of John F. Kennedy would never be solved because vast and powerful forces including the country's most sophisticated crime element won't stand for it.

1981: Gonzalez becomes chairman of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development. There he tried to fen off President Reagan's attempt to cut federal housing programs.

1983: Gonzalez calls for the impeachment of President Reagan after the invasion of Grenada.

1986: Misdemeanor assault charges filed against Gonzalez, know for his feisty temper, after he slugged a man in a San Antonio restaurant who called Gonzalez our No. 1 leading damned communist. The charges were later dropped.

1987: Because of the Iran-Contra scandals, Gonzalez introduces legislation calling for the impeachment of Ronald Reagan.

1989: Gonzalez appointed chairman of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee. His leadership in cleaning up the Savings & Loan crisis applauded by Republicans and Democrats.

1990-1992: Banking Committee stages explosive hearings that not only charge the Bush Administration with conspiring to sell advanced weapons to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but also publicize embarrassing ties between President Bush's son Neil and a bankrupt savings and loan.

November 1990: Running unopposed, Gonzalez re-elected in the 20th District.

1990: After intense negotiations with HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, Gonzalez passes a housing bill that includes his National Housing Trust.

December 1990: Minnesota congressman Bruce Vento challenges Gonzalez for the chairmanship of the Banking Committee. Gonzalez wins 163-89.

1991: Gonzalez calls for the impeachment of President Bush for his actions against Iraq during the Gulf War. Gonzalez cites evidence that the Bush Administration knew or should have known that federal farm product guarantees were being used by Iraq and the Atlanta branch of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro to generate cash to pay for weapons before the Gulf War.

1992: Gonzalez runs into trouble with the Ethics Committee for disclosing classified information during a speech about the Bush Administration's involvement with Iraq during the war.

November 1992: Running unopposed, Gonzalez re-elected to the 20th District.

1993: Gonzalez votes against the North American Free Trade Agreement. Gonzalez blocks investigation of the Whitewater scandals by postponing Banking Committee hearings. Accuses ranking Republican Jim Leach of acting as a shill for the Republican Caucus.

June 1994: Gonzalez agrees to hearings on Whitewater.

November 1994: Gonzalez defeats Republican Carl Bill Colyer with 62 percent of the vote in the 20th District. Republican Jim Leach takes over chairmanship of Banking Committee after Republicans regain control of the House.

1996: Gonzalez defeats Republican James Walker and is re-elected to the 20th District with 64 percent of the vote.

September 1997: Gonzalez announces that he will not run for re-election in 1998.

July 1997: Gonzalez falls ill with a dental infection that threatens a heart valve. He was absent from Congress for 14 months before returning in September 1998.

August 1998: Gonzalez vows to protect President Clinton from impeachment.

December 19, 1998: Gonzalez' last act as a congressman is voting on the impeachment of President Clinton. He casts his votes against impeachment.

December 31, 1998: Gonzalez officially steps down from his seat in Congress.

January 6, 1999: Gonzalez watches his son Charlie be sworn in as a member of the 106th Congress, succeeding him as the Representative for the 20th District.

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