Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) made a rare appearance in this neck of the woods on Oct. 30, holding a freewheeling town hall meeting at Riverside-Brookfield High School.
Gutierrez is Illinois’ longest serving congressman. He was first elected to Congress in 1992 representing the 4th District, an oddly shaped district drawn to maximize the possibility of electing a Hispanic candidate to the House of Representatives.
After the 2010 census, Riverside, North Riverside and the northern part of Brookfield were added to district, which is shaped like an earmuff. The largest parts of the district are centered on the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods on the northwest and southwest sides of Chicago.
Gutierrez noted that he lived at the northern edge of the district at Irving Park Road and Cicero Avenue, while Riverside is at the southern edge of the district.
After the event, he told the Landmark that this was only his second trip to Riverside for an event as a Congressman and his first town hall in the area.
“I want to do more,” Gutierrez said.
The event grew out of summer meeting in Berwyn that Gutierrez attended this summer. The meeting was organized by members of the activist group Indivisible and attended by local members of a new local group called Action for a Better Tomorrow, which has since changed its name to West Suburban Action League.
Leaders of that group worked with RBHS officials to set up the town hall. The school auditorium was less than half full for the event, and the crowd included around 50 or so RBHS students.
Gutierrez said that he enjoyed the meeting, which a little over two hours.
“I think it was extraordinary,” Gutierrez said. “It demonstrates the diversity of the 4th Congressional District. “There’s no difference really between Riverside, North Riverside, the voters of Berwyn and most of the voters of Logan Square.”
Gutierrez never mentioned Brookfield during the meeting, perhaps revealing some unfamiliarity with the area.
The first 45 minutes were devoted to questions submitted in advance by students and read by student moderators Vivian Pina and Matthew Michaelson.
While most student questions were about public policy, many also touched on issues that teenagers face, such as how to reduce the stress that they feel in their lives.
“I have to say there was a little trepidation about the students,” said the 63-year-old Gutierrez. “I didn’t know what they were going to ask me about. Actually their questions were very difficult, because they were not questions I get asked.”
Gutierrez said that he tried to answer the student questions more as a dad than a politician.
During the final 90 minutes of the town hall Gutierrez answered questions from adults, touching on the disaster response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, immigration and immigrant rights, health care and gun control.
Gutierrez was born in Chicago, but he lived in Puerto Rico when he was a teenager before returning to Chicago. He has been a supporter of independence for Puerto Rico, but did not directly mention that during the town meeting. Earlier this year, Gutierrez introduced a bill in Congress calling for a referendum to be held in Puerto Rico to decide whether it should be an independent country.
Gutierrez made a recent trip to Puerto Rico to deliver aid and said that he will go again this weekend.
In terms of helping Puerto Rico now, Gutierrez said that sending money and taking in Puerto Ricans leaving the island might do the most good right now. He criticized the response to the hurricane by both the federal government, the governor of Puerto Rico, and some local officials.
He criticized the governor of Puerto Rico for not requesting federal aid to evacuate people from the island, noting that the law states that the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot act unless requested to do so by the governor.
“I cannot demand the federal government do something unless the governor demands it,” Gutierrez said.
Riverside resident Geanna Chapp, who works as the school nurse at Komarek School in North Riverside, told of her frustrations in calling Gutierrez’s Chicago office to get help for her parents, who are now here after being evacuated from Puerto Rico.
Chapp detailed numerous calls to Gutierrez’s office, which resulted in little follow up and no useful information or help. She said she then called state Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) and got a quick call back and some useful information.
Gutierrez said that he would look into the matter and apologized to Chapp.
“I apologize profusely for the lack of service that your mom and dad had,” Gutierrez said. “I’m sorry that we failed on a very basic level with your mom and dad. I assure you it won’t happen to another person calling our office.”
Many of the questioners were activists representing one group or another.
Gutierrez promised that he wouldn’t vote for a budget that would increase spending for deportations of those in the country illegally.
“I don’t think we should fund the deportation machine,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez is a strong supporter of maintaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has allowed those brought to the United States illegally while they were children to live and work in the U.S. without fear of being deported.
Gutierrez said that he is a strong supporter of gun control and said that Democrats probably have to regain a majority in Congress for strong gun control legislation to be enacted.
But he noted that many Democrats are fearful to take strong action on gun control, because they remember the defeats they suffered after passing the assault weapons ban in 1993.
“Democrats just have to get a backbone when it comes to guns,” said Gutierrez, who described Congress as a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association. “I think I have to be a better advocate for gun control in the Congress.”
Gutierrez, who is one of the most left leaning and activist members of Congress, said that he supports Medicare for All.
I believe that health care is a basic human right,” Gutierrez said. “Obamacare is a step in the right direction, but it is not the final equation that we need in America.”
He also called for action to combat climate change.
“We can’t get it wrong, because if we get it wrong we can’t fix it,” Gutierrez said.
RBHS senior Bailey Hastings, one of the few RBHS students to stay until the end of the meeting, said that she learned a lot.
“It was really informational,” Hastings said. “It was enlightening about a lot of the political issues. I learned a lot more about some issues that I knew some about, but it provided more context.”