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The spicy politics of Henry Gonzales.


Along the Alamo Plaza in San Antonio there's a spot where lone street preachers bellow away night and day. With voices laden with prophetic pleading and deepest empathy for fallen mankind, they usually garner only a few listeners. Despite their poor following, they never seem to lose their passion or hope they can save from a burning hell at least one lost soul from among the crowds taking a leisurely stroll from the Alamo to the River Walk.

It wasn't so long ago that every American city had a spot like this, even New York City. The freelance street preacher has largely disappeared from the central squares of urban America. Why has he survived in San Antonio? While the city's strong religious roots partly explain it, the more likely reason is the indomitable spirit of the Texas maverick.

That same fiercely independent spirit that refuses to be intimidated by convention, trendy fashions and ideas, or the odds against success, can be found also in central San Antonio's long-time Congressman, Henry B. Gonzalez, 74, one of South Texas' most famous mavericks. First elected in 1961, he has, since becoming chairman of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, brought back to a drifting Congress the long-forgotten virtues of fair-mindedness, non-partisanship, scrupulous honesty and devotion to the interest of the broad public over those of special interests.

Needless to say, such a man has made waves in the staid corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building, where he presides over banking committee hearings in Washington, D.C. He is a familiar figure as well within the chamber of the full House of Representatives, where for years he has preached against the political sins of presidents, Federal Reserve chairmen, cabinet officers, the banking industry and even other congressmen in lengthy, winding orations called special orders, often delivered before an empty house late at night.

His devoted constituents call him simply Henry B. That is to distinguish him from another Hispanic Henry who rose to political fame from the same home base - Henry Cisneros, or Henry C - the former mayor of San Antonio. He is a populist on many domestic issues and distrusts the concentration of power in larger banks. He is an ultra-liberal on foreign affairs, who preaches against American intervention in foreign nations' internal affairs. He even opposed the wildly popular incursion in Grenada by President Reagan.

He is not a slave to ideology. When the need arises, he can shock nearly everyone with his pragmatism and ability to be a conciliator between warring parties in Congress, or to adopt a point of view seemingly inconsistent with his liberal politics. He has won considerable admiration from even the conservative Republicans on the banking committee, while driving some of his fellow liberal Democrats to drink.

"He's the total loner," says Maury Maverick, Jr., grandson of the Texan whose cavalier refusal to brand his cattle inspired the adoption of the word "maverick" into the language. Maverick, an activist lawyer who once ran against Gonzalez for a Senate seat that was ultimately won by John Tower, now writes a column on politics for the San Antonio Light. Furthermore, notes Maverick - who says he has a "love-hate relationship" with Gonzalez, the congressman's ethics are beyond reproach, "bedrock honest."

Can an honest, loner politician exert the leadership, impose the discipline and build the necessary bridges to wield power, make far-reaching reforms and enact intelligent laws? "Yes," Maverick says, giving his fellow Texan the type of accolade rarely heard these days. "You can't run the country with total loners alone. You need the Sam Rayburns, but you need the loners, too, and beginning, say, with Tom Paine, they have tended to keep the country honest to the extent it has been. Henry is that way. And, with all the lying, cheating and stealing that has gone on in Washington in the last nine years, people ought to think of him as a national treasure."

For years Gonzalez worked away in near-anonymity, only his iconoclastic ways attracting attention. When he finally earned the seniority to head the Subcommittee on Housing in 1981, there were fellow Democrats who doubted he was capable of handling the assignment, say Capitol Hill sources. The declining political fortunes of public housing during the Reagan era made the job of subcommittee chairman a virtual "mission impossible." With the Reagan administration firmly opposed to new construction of public housing, backed by the political might of a Republican Senate, Gonzalez had little chance of passing new legislation - the conventional measure of success for a subcommittee chairman. So, Gonzalez's role was limited to more of a housing advocate who kept the issue simmering on the back burner. His public notice came mostly from his personal attacks on officials of the Reagan administration, "the most corrupt administration of seven administrations I've seen during my years in Washington," he told Mortgage Banking in one of a series of interviews conducted in both Washington and San Antonio. Former HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce came in for some particularly sharp criticism from Gonzalez as early as 1983 for being what Gonzalez viewed as an agent for politically favored special interests.

Henry B made minor waves with his penchant for launching impeachment proceedings. He first tried to impeach former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee, who launched a vigorous campaign to bring down inflation that resulted in driving interest rates to stratospheric levels. Gonzalez believed the anti-inflation campaign was being unfairly waged on the backs of the poor and would-be first-time home-buyers. He charged the Federal Reserve with being accountable to no one and a tool of the Eastern banking establishment.

He also launched impeachment proceedings against President Reagan for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. He most recently struck again introducing a motion to impeach President Bush over the Iraqi war. His penchant for endless oratory, neon blue polyester suits and bright orange sports coats further heightened his image as a colorful, offbeat congressman - but not one you would entrust with really serious matters.

His lack of legislative accomplishment in the housing arena during his tenure as subcommittee chairman, however, did not mar his chances in 1988, when, as the ranking Democrat on the committee, he was next in line to be chairman of the full banking committee. With 50 members, it is one of the largest committees in Congress and with the deposit insurance funds then under stress, it was clear this position would shape some critical reform legislation that was urgently needed. Surprisingly, Gonzalez's seemingly quaint handling of the subcommittee began to seem more of an asset than a liability, as the unfolding S&L crisis made a lightning rod of the dictatorial, outgoing House Banking Committee Chairman Fernand St Germain, who was driven from office by Rhode Island's voters.

According to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and published in a book titled Open Secrets, St Germain received $268,000 in the 1987-1988 election cycle alone from real estate and financial political action committees (PACs). By contrast, Gonzalez rarely accepts campaign contributions from any of the same PACs. He accepted only $27,000 in the 1987-88 election cycle, according to Open Secrets. Indeed, Gonzalez has criticized heavy reliance by members of Congress on such financing, believing it to create a powerful conflict of interest, where private interests are more likely to prevail over the common good, and prevent the passage of sound laws.

The Democratic leadership, despite possible misgivings, could not have refused Gonzalez for the chairman's job without causing the internal party battle of the century. "Henry will charge hell with only a bucket of water and think nothing of it," says Rep. J.J. Pickle of Austin, the dean of the Democrats' Texas delegation. The Democrats knew, too, that Henry B believed in the rules governing committee chairmen as much as any one, and had never been a party to any revolt. Gonzalez recalls that he had refused to participate in a revolt in 1986, when Doug Barnard, (GA-D), "came to me with tears in his eyes and asked me to challenge St Germain." Henry B says Barnard told him he regretted opposing Gonzalez back in 1980 for his chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Housing. Gonzalez told him, "Stop - I don't want it that way. I work regular order. I came up here to legislate, not to politick. The people back home didn't elect me to be chairman of nothing." His time would come one day, he said, and recalls telling Barnard, "If you deny me [the chairmanship] then, you'll see the biggest fight since Davey Crockett (who died defending the Alamo) chain-whipped a high society congressman after he called [Crockett] a drunken so and so."

Gonzalez, as chairman, has transformed himself from an iconoclast to a responsible legislative leader, with the exception of the foreign policy arena where he is still actively pursuing impeachment motions. He has transformed the committee from a private fiefdom to a model of "glasnost" for the rest of Congress. Nowadays the colorful, flamboyant suits are gone. In their place are mostly gray suits with reserved neckties. Although sparks occasionally fly in the committee, and the chairman enjoys a good laugh from time to time at some of the ironies and malapropisms of witnesses and committee members, he keeps matters focused and moving at a steady pace.

After two years on the job, he can point to a solid list of accomplishments, topped by the landmark S&L legislation, the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) of 1989. Pickle calls the FIRREA legislation "the single most important act of his career," turning around the "national disgrace" of the S&L disaster and overcoming some of the damage done by St Germain. In conference during final consideration of the 1980 Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act, St Germain played a lead role in pushing through an increase in deposit insurance from $40,000 to $100,000 for thrifts, at the same time the committee was voting to give S&Ls the power to enter riskier new lines of business, thus setting the stage for the ultimately immense cost of the S&L bailout. Last year, Gonzalez added another notch to his belt of legislation, with the passage of an omnibus housing law. Dubbed the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act, it was the first, major new housing statute, authorizing spending for a smorgasbord of housing initiatives, in more than a decade. In the handling of both bills, Gonzalez showed he had the discipline and concentration to gather the votes to pass difficult legislation. He didn't "go off chasing rabbits," says Pickle.

To bring off the thrift regulatory reforms contained in FIRREA, Gonzalez had to form a working relationship with the Bush administration, and enlist the Republicans behind him on the committee, along with the majority of Democrats. At a big bash at the Hemisfair Auditorium in San Antonio in December 1989, Gonzalez was lavished with praise by HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and FDIC Chairman William Seidman, among other Republicans. Indeed, the Bush strategy of working with Congress, after the Reagan years of confrontation, proved successful in terms of relatively quick legislative action on the issues of the S&L crisis and housing, due at least partly to the ability of Gonzalez to rise above partisan issues. One veteran housing lobbyist describes the climate Gonzalez created as "democratic - with a small `d'." In the give-and-take over the housing bill last year in particular, critics found Gonzalez, like any chairman, in a position to impose, or accept, a compromise they did not like.

Gonzalez's bitterest enemies, surprisingly, have turned out to be Democrats who were opposed to certain provisions in the two major laws passed by the committee, especially those that were compromises with Republicans or the Senate. This has saddened Gonzalez, but has not stopped him from playing the maverick. He is equally displeased when he perceives Republican partisanship at work. "The trouble with our political leadership is that instead of trying to figure out the problem, they're trying to figure out the angle. No country can survive for long in that way."

Financial regulation of thrifts and banks are two of the areas where American political leaders have failed the most, he says. Today's problems are the result of laws that were adopted to deal with a series of crises in the 1930s. They are not the result of a careful study of the problem, with a view to the long-range interests of American society, the congressman claims. Since World War II these laws have remained unchanged even though the financial world has been dramatically altered. "No American leadership in either the executive [branch] or Congress has been willing or able to address the absolutely changed world since 1950," Gonzalez says. The impact of volatile and historically high, real interest rates and the world-wide consolidation of financial institutions has never been carefully weighed. Instead, Washington "has sown the wind, and now we're reaping a whirlwind," Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez planted the seeds of his own whirlwind with his catalytic role in uncovering alleged wrongdoing and potentially improper congressional interference in the regulation of S&Ls. That was not what he expected when he began his investigations into the S&L industry's current problems. When he scheduled his first hearings in early January 1989, even before the new Congress was properly installed, he was intent on bringing an end to what he saw as the regulatory largess of the outgoing Reagan administration, which had authorized a series of special sales of insolvent thrifts under terms that seemed generous and beyond the legal authority granted by Congress. Gonzalez says he had no idea then that, by the fall of 1989, his relentless pursuit of the underlying causes of the S&L crisis would uncover what ultimately became widely known in the media as the "Keating Five." This group of five senators were allegedly involved in intervening with regulatory authorities on behalf of Charles Keating, who owned the failed Lincoln Savings & Loan. The matter is currently before the Senate Ethics Committee and at least some members that are included in the five are expected to be exonerated.

But, once evidence was uncovered that suggested an improper role by some members of Congress in connection with a failed thrift that represented a major cost to the government and the taxpayers, Gonzalez intensified rather than slackened his investigation. "He was content to let the chips fall where they may," says Chalmers Wylie of Ohio, ranking Republican on the House Banking Committee.

To add insult to injury, the senators that comprise the group of five that were brought to light in Gonzalez's hearings are mostly Democrats. When the Senate completes its own ethics hearings into the Keating Five matter, for example, it's possible the single Republican member of the group, Senator John McCain, of Arizona, may be exonerated, along with one Democrat, Senator John Glenn of Ohio, leaving the whole affair a Democratic one. (The other three are Senators Alan Cranston (CA-D), who is retiring, Senator Dennis DeConcini (AZ-D), and Senate Banking Chairman Donald Riegle (MI-D).

In relentlessly pursuing the root causes of the S&L crisis, Gonzalez has instilled a new moral vigor to the most familiar and frequently tedious form of inquiry in Washington - the congressional hearing. For Henry B, form is as important as substance. Gonzalez's devotion to open, windy hearings is based on his faith in the ability of the democratic process to fully uncover the nature of a problem, search out and find a consensus solution, and forge a workable, enduring new statutory cure. This runs against tradition in the House, where hearings frequently can prove to be highly partisan, even petty affairs, where the temptation is to bring witnesses in to stack the deck in a meaningless debate or to produce soundbites for the evening news. The majority of the Democrats on the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee seemed pleased with the hearing protocol of the new chairman, because Gonzalez allows everyone to speak, regardless of seniority. But, a minority of the Democrats think a Democratic congressman should treat their own party members with kid gloves. Instead, according to one Capitol Hill source, Gonzalez has remained unmoved by flattery or criticism. "In the process," says Pickle, "he has stepped on a lot of toes."

Whatever Gonzalez has done, he has taken only a first step toward changing and perhaps improving the legislative process. The FIRREA law, while probably the best effort that could have come out of Congress in 1989 in the midst of the thrift crisis, still has its flaws. There is probably no argument on that point.

Henry B's rough and tumble method of making laws was bound to cause him trouble sooner or later. Objections to the chairman's style were intensified by widely varying views among committee members and the administration on the proper legislative course to follow in shaping the recent housing statute. In December of last year, Bruce Vento, (MN-D), launched a surprise challenge to take over as House Banking Committee chairman. Congressman Vento had led the charge to build a different set of FHA reforms into the housing bill that would have a less negative impact on potential borrowers. In doing so, Vento came head-to-head with HUD Secretary Jack Kemp who was prevailing upon Gonzalez to opt instead for the administration's preferred reforms.

The Vento challenge was brought before the Democratic Caucus, a group largely unknown to the American public, which decides committee appointments and the rules that govern legislative procedures in the House. In 1964, the caucus gained the right to ratify the committee appointments of the Committee on Committees, made up of the Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee. This major victory was the result of a protracted, behind-the-scenes struggle by the Democratic Study Group to undo the old seniority system. The DSG was organized in 1959 to increase the power of the liberal wing of the Democratic party over Congress. The DSG has, from the beginning, been dominated by prominent Minnesotans like Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.

The rise of the Democratic Caucus to a position of almost absolute power has been nothing short of a revolution in how Congress doles out power and does it work. Before 1964, powerful committee chairmen could single-handedly make or break legislative initiatives without regard to the wishes of the majority. The Rules Committee and the Ways and Means Committee stood like gatekeepers, able to stop almost any legislation. Autocratic chairmen could often behave with impunity, as did the former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills. In 1975, the caucus completed its drawn-out revolution against the old seniority system, by transferring the power to make committee assignments and rules entirely to the Steering and Policy Committee of the Democratic Caucus. The Committee on Committees ceased to exist. The Democratic Caucus promptly ousted the legendary Wright Patman, chairman of the House Banking Committee and replaced him with a more pliant Henry Reuss of Wisconsin. This was seen by the Democratic party and press accounts at the time as a triumph of democratic reform. From the long view of today, it could be seen as an end to a working system of checks and balances that kept the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party engaged in a continuous and invigorating debate.

The ghost of the revolt against Patman came back to haunt the House Banking Committee in December 1990, when Vento challenged Gonzalez. "It was not a serious threat," says Pickle, but he concedes that "Henry did lose ground with the caucus." The caucus voted 163 to 89 to give Gonzalez another two-year term as chairman. During the next two years, Gonzalez will be in a major position of power to influence sweeping bank reform legislation that is quickly coming down the pike in this Congress. But, the Vento revolt exposed a fault line for Gonzalez that could pose a problem for him if he steps too far out of line from Democratic orthodoxy or the control of House leadership. At the same meeting during which Vento's bid was considered, the caucus also narrowly defeated Frank Annunzio (IL-D) to head the House Administration Committee. Annunzio suffered from his high profile relationship with the S&L industry.

The Vento revolt was launched somewhat hastily via an early December letter to the secretary of the caucus. In that letter Vento wrote, "the current chairman has unjustifiably singled out Democratic colleagues for criticism; has structured hearings without any apparent sense of consequence or purpose; he has treated the subcommittees and their chairs as irrelevant; and finally, has defied the rules of the Democratic Caucus by campaigning against a Democratic candidate by praising the ranking Republican of the committee in a television ad." The fireworks focused on a series of press reports, including one in Roll Call, a newspaper devoted to Capitol Hill developments, which revealed that Gonzalez agreed to tape statements that were to be used in a campaign advertising spot for GOP Congressman Wylie. Gonzalez claims it was not an endorsement, but simply a defense of Wylie against charges by Democratic opponent Thomas Earney, who alleged that Wylie was in part responsible for the S&L crisis. The commercial never ran. However, one Capitol Hill source close to the matter says that the commercial was not the real issue, but merely "a vehicle to bring a challenge for many other things, particularly the oversight hearings on CenTrust and Lincoln, where the Democrats were hit the hardest."

The Vento revolt received a boost from an unexpected quarter, the Democratic Study Group, which latched onto the unaired commercial as a serious grievance. Vento's longtime friend and fellow Minnesotan Martin Sabo wrote a letter to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley December 3, two days before the caucus met. Sabo, chairman of the Democratic Study Group during the last Congress [1989-90], is not a likely insurgent. The Almanac of American Politics 1990 describes him as having "a Lake Woebegonish taciturnity," but also points out he supported Les Aspin's (WI-D) successful 1984 bid to unseat the aging Mel Price and become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Sabo accused Gonzalez of violating the caucus's Rule 1(D), which prohibits campaigning for Republicans. Sabo's letter asked Foley to "investigate this matter and report back to the caucus." A spokesman for the Democratic Study Group adamantly denies that the Sabo letter had anything to do with the Vento challenge. A reporter for Roll Call, Tim Curran, said that a member of the Democratic Study Group telephoned him to tell him about the Wylie commercial in an obvious attempt to spark press coverage in Washington, where the story was largely ignored in the general press. Curran also says one source told him that Gonzalez received phone calls about the commercial, telling him, "If you go through with this, you're in deep trouble." Curran could not get anyone to corroborate this story.

It is perhaps ironic that the mechanism designed to give liberals more sway in Congress, the Democratic Study Group, played a part in challenging one of Congress' most liberal members.

Gonzalez, who first refused to respond to the challenge, finally issued a statement before the caucus, where he tied the whole matter into "a grueling two-month-long inquiry into the failure of Lincoln Savings and Loan." He stated, "These hearings touched sensitive nerves across the nation." Not surprisingly, Gonzalez was unbowed, stating to the caucus: "We are at a critical juncture in the nation's financial history and we cannot handle the issues in a namby-pamby fashion." He pledged to continue his glasnost and to give everyone a chance to be heard and warned that "the issues will continue to be tough and this, undoubtedly, means controversy for the chairman and the members."

In an interview in San Antonio before the Vento challenge surfaced, Gonzalez talked about the "ripple of opposition" that sprang up in October 1989. The issue at hand was a vote to issue subpoenas to top regulators to find out why Lincoln Savings was not closed faster than it was, because regulators on the front lines were aware of serious problems well in advance of its actual closing. There were 26 votes in favor of issuing subpoenas, Gonzalez recalls, comprising a bare majority of the 50-member committee. "America has a great debt of gratitude for the regulators who testified," says Gonzalez.

When the press and others began to pressure Gonzalez to go even further and subpoena the senators who made up the so-called Keating Five, Gonzalez said he would not. "Only once before, back in 1850, did a member of the House issue a subpoena of the Senate, and it's still over there amoldering away," Gonzalez says.

The clash between Vento and Gonzalez over the preferred way to build more financial stability into the FHA program was a factor in the decision to attempt to uproot the sitting chairman. Henry B says Vento refused to attend the final meetings of the conference committee where the FHA reforms were adopted. Vento, along with Congressman Thomas J. Ridge, (PA-R), championed the Vento-Ridge proposal, which was designed to preserve access to the FHA insurance program for as many homebuyers as possible, while at the same time shoring up the insurance fund to preserve it over time. In the final compromise, the provisions of the Vento-Ridge proposal were essentially gutted from the final bill after they had been approved overwhelmingly in an earlier vote in the House. The administration's proposals were adopted instead.

Henry B maintains strong ties to his district and travels back to San Antonio nearly every weekend to be with his wife, Bertha, and to visit his grown children and keep up with his constituents. On a recent visit to San Antonio he attended the funeral of a former sheriff, who had supported him for many years. His long public career, first with the city council, 1953-56, and then the state senate, 1956-61, has made him an "institution," says San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell.

Gonzalez is a unique political figure whose style is to offer an unusual degree of accessibility to his constituents. One byproduct of this accessibility is that he has occasionally come into close, even dangerous contact with the "violent elements that lurk beneath the surface of our society," as he puts it. When he worked for a while after World War II as an unarmed probation officer for the juvenile court in Bexar County, Gonzalez found himself more than once in a tense situation. Trained as an amateur boxer at the University of Texas, he was more prepared than his juvenile adversaries may have expected. Although he weighed only 134 pounds, Gonzalez says, "Never during my years as a probation officer did a juvenile run away from me." Once a juvenile stuck a .45 calibre pistol in his side. He pushed away the gun as the juvenile pulled the trigger. The bullet zinged by him, cutting his belt. Another time a juvenile came at him with a knife, and Gonzalez kicked him in the groin and took away his knife, Gonzalez recalls.

By 1950, as an official with the San Antonio Housing Authority, Henry B had become a sought-after leader of the Hispanic community. Once, as the master of ceremonies at a dance, he learned again to "be sensitive to people making a false move." Two young men began to quarrel and one broke a bottle in a defiant challenge to the other. The second man pulled out a gun and began to empty bullets into the other man, claiming he had once stabbed him. One bullet ricocheted off the bottle and whizzed by Gonzalez, who was seated on the podium. Gonzalez ended up taking the assailant into custody after the gunman had killed the man with the bottle.

In 1950, Gonzalez made an unsuccessful run for the Texas House of Representatives before he was elected to the city council. He also made his first and last campaign visit to a tavern. Gonzalez describes how after entering a tavern where he expected to find a crowd of potential voters, he found only a bartender and a lone patron in the corner at a table. He introduced himself to the bartender. A chair moved in the corner and the patron said, "Oh, you're Gonzalez." With his back to the patron, Gonzalez heard the click of a switchblade, and remembers seeing the eyes of the bartender grow wide with fear. He turned around to see a drunken man staggering toward him pointing a knife with a blade so big "it seemed like a sword," Gonzalez recalls. This time, Gonzalez decided, flight was better than fight, and he took off. "I didn't stop running for six blocks," he says.

Henry B stopped at a house and called the deputy sheriff, who came by in a car to pick up Gonzalez for another him back to the tavern. "The damn fool was still there," he recalls. The deputy sheriff disarmed him. After sobering up, the assailant realized he had mistaken Gonzalez for another man with the same last name. The other Gonzalez was the assistant district attorney, who had just sent the assailant's brother to the penitentiary. Henry B, who later visited his assailant in the county jail, found him contrite, and decided to drop the charges, to the horror of the deputy sheriff.

As Gonzalez tells it, his most harrowing day of all came on August 8, 1973, when he had a tense run-in with a group of radical Mexican-Americans during a speaking engagement at a conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Gonzalez recalls how a group of about ten young men, members of the Colorado Chicano Liberation Movement, arranged a meeting with him through a professor at the university, who apparently had no idea who they were. The group met Gonzalez while he was alone in a classroom the afternoon before he was to speak. The berated leader of the group, who Henry B remembers only as Vigil, identified himself to Gonzalez as the group's defense minister, and said that they were there to "examine him." After a number of questions, Vigil said, "We charge you with refusing to call yourself a Chicano, and we demand tonight that you call yourself a Chicano when you speak, and that you denounce the gringos in Colorado who have their boots on our neck. Otherwise, you can leave here now."

Gonzalez, who had first made a name for himself as a Hispanic leader in the 1950s by fighting and defeating efforts in Texas to establish a discriminatory poll tax and expand Jim Crow segregationist laws, was not about to take a back seat to a group of radical Mexican-Americans. "He's not a professional Mexican," Maverick says, referring to politicians who make a career out of pursuing exclusively the special interests of the Mexican-American population. So, Maverick says, it is no surprise he refused the demand of the Chicano radicals. Instead Gonzalez says he told them, "As far as the Mexican-American thing is concerned, the only thing I call myself is an American."

Consciously or not, he had thrown down the gauntlet. Vigil hurled a curse and Gonzalez sent a similar reply right back. A second member started to move toward Gonzalez, who then picked up a chair near him. "You take one step closer to me and I'm going to crack this over your head. Maybe you'll get me, but I'll get one of you." This stopped them. "You can't talk that way to us," Vigil said. "I just done it," Gonzalez replied. The group then "trooped out," but the battle wasn't over.

That evening when Gonzalez arrived at the auditorium, accompanied by the professor and his wife, a picket of about 30 Mexican-Americans, one black, and two young women were marching outside with a banner that read, "Gonzalez Go Home." Gonzalez, who finds humor even in tense moments, says the professor's only comment was that they had misspelled Gonzalez's name. "Let's go in," Gonzalez said. Vigil was at the door. "We prohibit you from entering," he told Gonzalez in Spanish. "Move out or I'll push you aside," Gonzalez told him. Vigil moved aside. After he entered and started down the aisle, the entire group of pickets suddenly ran in "hooting, hollering and yelling." The professor and his wife took Gonzalez to the front row. Vigil jumped up on the stage and grabbed the microphone. "In the name of the Chicano Liberation Movement, this meeting is canceled," he bellowed. Members of the group began shouting again. Four of them walked down to the front and stood near Gonzalez, and he noticed they had guns. "I looked around and at the professor's wife; she was as white as that wall," he said pointing to the bleached white wall of the elegant colonial room at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, where this interview took place.

Then, Gonzalez recalls, a man came in from a side door next to the stage and handed him a note. The note read: "The police are outside, do you want them to come in?" "No," Gonzalez told him, "and he scooted out." Gonzalez decided that the best tactic was to retreat, so he and the professor, with his ailing wife in between, walked slowly up the aisle. One of the radicals threw a chair that hit Gonzalez in the back of the head. "I almost lost my temper, but I managed to get to the exit." He decided to stage a diversionary tactic to allow the professor and his wife to escape. He run to the nearby faculty house, as the professor and his wife ran and jumped in the police car, which then took off. Ignoring the departure of the police car, the radicals ran after Henry B. "Let's get him," one of them said. Gonzalez ran to the door. A Hispanic woman opened it to let him in. "Ay, Dios mio!" she screamed, and slammed the door shut as soon as he was inside. The radicals started throwing rocks. One by one they broke all the windows in the house.

Gonzalez then decided he had no choice but to come out and try to get them to stop. He picked up a fireplace iron and stepped outside, saying "The first SOB that crosses this line will get his skull cracked," he told them. Miraculously the group stopped throwing rocks. They stood there not seeming to know what to do next. Then a policeman parked in a police car, showing he had "more guts than brains" quickly drove his police car up to the faculty house, grabbed Gonzalez and pulled him into the car, and sped off. To this day Gonzalez is convinced the whole episode amounted to nothing less than an assassination attempt.

The entire demonstration was captured on the university's closed-circuit TV. Later Gonzalez was able to identify the members by photographs sent to him by detectives at the Denver Police Department. The four men with guns, along with a young woman, died violent deaths shortly thereafter when they accidentally blew themselves up in a house near Denver, as they were trying to assemble home-made bombs.

Gonzalez had one more brush with violence in 1986, when a man carrying a knife approached him in a restaurant in San Antonio, calling him a "Communist." Gonzalez punched him out. Hopefully Henry B is past the point where he will have to face any more personal violence. But, if he does, you can bet he will display courage and cunning and the fighting spirit that has propelled him throughout his long career. The battles in the Congress, however, have probably just begun for this unique lawmaker and man of principles.

Robert Stowe England is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.
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Title Annotation:Profile
Author:England, Robert Stowe
Publication:Mortgage Banking
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Feb 1, 1991
Previous Article:Match game.
Next Article:The steady arm.

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