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Taking a Taxi to the House of Representatives

Tom Williams/Roll Call

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Before joining Congress, Luis Gutierrez picked up thousands of passengers while working as a taxi driver.

But one stands out.

The man was well-dressed, Gutierrez said, reminding him of the Gordon Gekko character in “Wall Street.”

“You’re really smart, you’re real articulate, and you seem like you’ve got a good story and you want to go somewhere,” the man told him. “But I see one problem.”

“What’s that?” Gutierrez asked. “This guy’s obviously been successful. He’s going to give me that little morsel of truth,” he thought.

“You didn’t shave today.”

The passenger told Gutierrez that he would double his $15 fare if he would promise to shave every day for the rest of his life. 

“You gotta shave every day,” he told Gutierrez. “You never know who you’re going to meet.”

As it turns out, the well-dressed passenger didn’t know who he was meeting — a future Member of Congress.

Now a Democratic Representative for Illinois’ 4th district, Gutierrez says moments like that from his years as a taxicab driver still stick with him.

And yes, he took the money. Who wouldn’t?

“I can’t say I kept the promise,” he said. But he has always remembered that piece of advice. “[Driving a cab], you meet a lot of people and you get a lot of great advice.”

 

Behind the Wheel

Before he became one of the nation’s most prominent Hispanic politicians and before his 18 years of experience in Congress and his successful run for Chicago City Council, Gutierrez drove a cab, on and off, for eight years during the 1970s and ’80s. 

When he first started driving a cab in 1976, it was for a familiar reason: The out-of-work college senior was looking to make money. He was studying at Northeastern Illinois University to become an English teacher and was hoping to make enough to travel to Puerto Rico to see his long-term girlfriend at the end of the summer. Cab driving seemed like an obvious choice, and Gutierrez received his license with little trouble.

“I don’t remember it being very difficult to pass the test [to get a license],” he said. “What was difficult was when the first person got into my cab and said, ‘Take me to the northwestern train station.’”

Having grown up on the west side of Chicago, Gutierrez hadn’t spent much time downtown — he hadn’t stayed in the Hilton Hotel or taken an Amtrak train, and he often found himself bewildered when passengers would ask him to take them to downtown hot spots such as the Playboy Club. 

So he did the only possible thing to do: He asked his passengers for advice.

“I just confessed to all my passengers, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m working, and I’ve got this goal,’” he said. “And people were very nice.”

After driving the night shift for two and a half months, Gutierrez made enough to move to Puerto Rico to be with his girl. He sold his stereo and most of his belongings, and then he set out.

The girl — Soraida — became his wife during the next two years, and they returned to Chicago  in 1978 to start their life together.

But there were few jobs in the city to be had for an English teacher.

Gutierrez went to Exelon Corp. and offered his services as a meter reader. “You’re overqualified,” they told him. So he offered to work in customer service. “That’s where we promote the meter readers,” they said.

Facing the prospect of becoming a busboy — a job that Gutierrez had once suffered and didn’t care to have again — he hopped behind the wheel.

This time, he drove for a year, working six or seven 12-hour days each week. Having leased the cab from a company, working long hours with few days off was the only way to make money.

“I wasn’t around the house for Christmas Eve, but it didn’t matter ’cause I didn’t have kids,” he said.

He remembers listening to the radio on his boom box — “cabs then didn’t have radios,” he explained — and keeping his cash and change in a cigar box. The hours were long, but there was a freedom and simplicity to cab driving that Gutierrez sometimes misses.

“There’s a rhythm to it, and there’s an independence to it, and there’s a finality to it,” he said. “You pull the first flag, and you pull the last flag. You’ve picked up the first tip and the last tip of the day, and your day ends, and you can go home.”

 

Back to Cab Driving

Gutierrez stopped driving cabs for the second time in 1979, when he became a social worker for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He was making less money, but the hours were easier. Gutierrez stuck with the agency until he did two things in 1983 that, individually, made a lot of sense but still struck some as odd.

He went back to cab driving.

And he ran for Democratic committeeman for the 32nd ward in Illinois.

“It was kind of hard to do campaigning, being a social worker,” he said. “You don’t want to mix government employment with politics. So I kind of said to myself, ‘You know, this is one area he can’t touch me.’”

Gutierrez went back to driving a cab seven days a week. He was working twice as long as he had as a social worker, but he was also making twice as much money. He managed to pay his mortgage, open a campaign office and finance his campaign by driving a cab.

When the campaign kicked into high gear, Gutierrez drove his cab three days a week and campaigned the other four. The taxi driving, he said, didn’t affect his campaigning — in fact, it was quite the reverse. 

“I was in campaign mode,” he said of his time driving a cab during his run for committeeman. Passengers would comment on his intellect and ask what he was doing driving a cab.

“Of course, all cab drivers will tell you that it’s only temporary,” Gutierrez said, “but for me, I was actually telling the truth!”

The cab driving facilitated his campaign, but Gutierrez laughs when he looks back on the comparison between him and the incumbent, Dan Rostenkowski, then a Congressman and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Dan Rostenkowski: Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, one of the most influential and powerful men in Washington, D.C.,” read Rostenkowski’s campaign literature.

“Luis Gutierrez: He drives a cab!” read Gutierrez’s.

Gutierrez lost, garnering only 24 percent of the vote, and went back to cab driving until he was asked by then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington to serve as one of his advisers. He drove his cab right up until the Sunday before he started his job with the city.

The following Monday, Gutierrez walked into City Hall, wearing a brand new blue suit and maroon penny loafers. In 1986, he ran for alderman in Chicago’s 26th ward and won. In 1992, he ran for Representative for Illinois’ 4th district and won.

And Gutierrez never again got back behind the wheel of a cab.

When he rides in cabs today, Gutierrez finds that drivers often recognize him — listening to NPR all day gives most drivers a pretty good grasp of current events. He describes cab drivers as “connoisseurs of the news,” so they usually figure out who he is once he gives directions. 

And even though he’s no longer a cab driver, he speaks of cabbies as if they’re old friends.

“I always have a good experience with my cab drivers,” he said.

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