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Gutierrez to begin next chapter—and it’s not Congress, mayor, governor

Rep. Luis Gutierrez with his wife Soraida and daughter Jessica, left, announces his retirement from congress and plans for the future during a press conference on November 28, 2017. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and his wife Evelyn joined him. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Rep. Luis Gutierrez — a staunch President Donald Trump critic, immigration rights advocate and one of the highest profile Latino politicians in the country — on Tuesday announced that he would not seek re-election, in part, to help rebuild Puerto Rico.

And just as important to the Chicago political world, he said he is not leaving Congress to shift his focus to a run for governor or mayor. His endorsement on Tuesday of Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to succeed him also frees up the mayoral field for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Garcia in 2015 forced Emanuel into a runoff election.

Gutierrez, the Northwest Side Democrat, stressed that he’s not “retiring” and will still fight for immigration, racial justice, women’s and LGBT issues, while also focusing on rebuilding Puerto Rico.  And he hinted he could throw his hat into the political ring again some day.

“I’m not going to rule out any future office,” Gutierrez said. “I’m not leaving. I want to engage.” He did not rule out running for president.

“Life to me is like a novel. There’s only a certain number of chapters,” Gutierrez said, saying he wants to spend it with his wife and daughter, traveling across the country and “creating a new fierce framework for immigrant rights.”

Gutierrez, 63, became a U.S. representative 25 years ago, representing the 4th Congressional District — which includes many neighborhoods and suburbs with large Mexican and Puerto Rican populations. He’ll serve until the end of his term in 2019.

Known as “El Gallito” — Spanish for “Little Rooster — Gutierrez has been a staunch supporter of independence for Puerto Rico, his ancestral homeland, for decades. With tears in his eyes, Gutierrez vowed to help rebuild the hurricane-ravaged U.S. commonwealth — where thousands remain homeless.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez speaks at a press conference with Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia beside him, announcing his retirement from Congress. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“I love Puerto Rico, and she’s in a lot of pain. And there’s a lot of people that have turned their back on her, and she needs to be rebuilt. And I cannot be here in the 4th Congressional district and rebuilding the home of my mom and my dad. Where my wife was born. A place that I love so much,” Gutierrez said. “And I’m going to work really hard until she’s completely rebuilt to 21st century standards.”

Gutierrez was asked several times about his political future, saying he has no plans to run for governor of Illinois or mayor of Chicago: “Yes, I rule out running for mayor of the city of Chicago,” he said.

The veteran congressman and former Chicago alderman even ruled out running for governor of Puerto Rico. He and his wife are heading there on Sunday. Gutierrez, too, said he’s also taking a “quasi-sabbatical” with his wife to talk to immigrant communities — in Georgia, Alabama, and other states — to rebuild “infrastructure” for the next presidential election.

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With tears in his eyes, Gutierrez made his official announcement at a packed news conference.

“Today I’m announcing that I will not be seeking re-election.” Gutierrez said. “This is my time to move on. …What a better time than when you’re on top.”

Gutierrez signaled his retirement at Maggiano’s Little Italy, standing next to Garcia. Gutierrez said he expects Garcia to be a “champion” in Chicago and nationally.

“Chuy, Jesus, I know you’re going to do such a good, incredible job,” Gutierrez said. “You are ready and that’s why I’m here.”

Garcia said he is “proud to be the lived immigrant experience in Chicagoland and the U.S.A.” He vowed to fight for immigrant rights.

“I get it because my bones and the air that I breathe as I walk through the neighborhood and smell the mole that’s being cooked in houses in Little Village, the Middle Eastern food stalls in Albany Park … on behalf of all of you, I refuse to see my country squander the gift that so many have dreamed of and fought for,” Garcia said.

“The Chicago immigrant eats fear for breakfast every morning. When your history is that you risk leaving all you know for a better life, fear and hardship is something that you take in stride,” Garcia said. We must never allow fear and oppression to catch fire and guide our nation. And we stand at a crossroads.”

The news was expected after the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets reported it late Monday, but it was still a shock to the political world. Gutierrez had filed nominating petitions to get on the ballot earlier Monday.

The news conference was held in a room decorated with blown-up photographs of Gutierrez and Garcia with the late Mayor Harold Washington. Both were part of the coalition that helped elect the city’s first African American mayor.

Poster showing Jesus “Chuy” Garcia with Mayor Harold Washington.

Despite the long history between Gutierrez and Garcia, the two have not always been on the same team. When Garcia ran for mayor in 2015, Gutierrez backed incumbent Emanuel.

Asked about that on Tuesday, Gutierrez said he was already supporting Rahm’s campaign and couldn’t break his word.

“Decisions had been made,” he said.

And while Garcia’s congressional run would seem to put the county commissioner out of play for a 2019 mayoral run, he said he has no plans to endorse Emanuel.

“No deals, absolutely not,” Garcia said. “He played no role in my decision to run in this race. This race feels right to me.”

Gutierrez said he told the mayor about his decision not to seek re-election at about 11:30 a.m. Monday, but the congressman declined to share details of that conversation.

“You’ll have to ask the mayor about that,” Gutierrez told reporters.

Emanuel issued a statement lauding Gutierrez.

“One thing I know is Luis Gutierrez will not stop fighting for what he believes in until the last vote is cast, and even then will continue working for the causes he has championed throughout his life because he believes in them with his heart,” the mayor said. “Luis Gutierrez’s journey from a taxi driver to a US Congressman is a testament to the power of the American Dream. I have been proud to call him a dear friend and trusted colleague, and stand with Chicagoans and Americans everywhere in expressing my appreciation for his service and wishing him well in his next chapter.”

Garcia will have to gather over 800 signatures in just under a week. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) say they’ll also run for Gutierrez’s congressional seat.

After learning of Gutierrez surprise decision to retire from Congress, Moreno said he had “25 guys at my house until midnight last night” plotting strategy and preparing to circulate his nominating petitions.

The $374,658 in Moreno’s campaign fund cannot be used for a congressional race, but the alderman said it shows his ability to raise money.

Contributing: Fran Spielman