GOP Lawmaker Relishes Role as a Flamethrower
As night settles over the Capitol, Tom Tancredo is seated in his congressional office, smoking a fat cigar and nursing a plastic tumbler of scotch.
The president is unhappy with him, the Colorado Republican says. So are GOP House leaders. One congressman, a California Republican who wants Tancredo run out of the party, is badmouthing him all over town. Tancredo exhales a billow of blue smoke.
Life is good.
With Congress weighing the toughest border security bill in years, the four-term House member from suburban Denver has emerged as the GOP’s most prominent voice on immigration -- the one “to place our goal posts,” as he puts it.
He has done so with a blow-torch persona and uncompromising stance that pays no mind to party labels or diplomatic niceties, international or otherwise. His forum is talk radio, the political press and the food-fight shows on cable TV, which feast on each deliciously provocative morsel:
President Bush is a hypocrite on border issues. Republicans shill for big business. If Islamic terrorists attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons, we should bomb Mecca.
To critics, Tancredo is a hatemonger and mean-spirited demagogue. To supporters, he is a rare politician with the spine to speak his mind (and theirs as well). Either way, his talk of militarizing the border and hunting down and deporting millions of illegal immigrants has complicated White House efforts to put a friendlier face on the GOP and court Latino votes. That explains why so many of Tancredo’s enemies are fellow Republicans.
“Party I couldn’t care less about,” he says. “If it gets hurt by this, it deserves to be hurt.”
Tancredo -- pronounced Tan-CRAY-dough -- is even pondering a run for president in 2008. Not to win -- he doesn’t kid himself -- but to put illegal immigration front and center, even if that drives a wedge further in the GOP.
“There are times when being in the minority looks better to me,” he says. “You can certainly be closer to your own principles. Maybe that’s what this party needs is to get kicked in the butt.”
So far Tancredo has traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- three early voting states -- imploring voters to press each presidential candidate on immigration and “not let them equivocate.”
Last month, in another bit of heresy, he campaigned for independent Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman freelance border patrol, in his unsuccessful congressional run against Orange County Republican John Campbell.
The crowd of 125 or so in Newport Beach booed and hissed the president when Tancredo recounted Bush’s condemnation of the Minuteman Project. The same day that Bush had criticized the citizen patrol, Tancredo was on the Arizona-Mexico border praising its heroism.
“Needless to say, I am not on the guest list at the White House,” he said merrily.
Tancredo dates his interest in immigration to his years as a teacher dealing with bilingual education. “It was far more political than educational,” says Tancredo, the grandson of Italian immigrants. He suggests that today’s newcomers are more likely to segregate themselves as “some hyphenated something or other” than try to assimilate.
He sees his work on immigration as part of a larger fight to save Western civilization from a “cult of multiculturalism” that threatens to cleave the country into ethnic fiefs.
“It’s of no consequence to me where you’re from,” he says, shouting over the roar of the Orange County crowd. “All that I ask of you is that when you get here, you become an American!”
To some, that talk is not just ugly but wrong, suggesting that the aspirations of today’s immigrants are somehow different and less noble than, say, those of Tancredo’s grandparents.
Nobody likes illegality or wants to hurt the economy or “undermine the American way of life,” says Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. But Tancredo’s punitive approach is not a solution, she says; it hurts Republicans by casting the party “as unrealistic and anti-immigrant.”
Tancredo’s stance on border security is all stick, no carrot. He favors tougher policing, stiffer penalties for employers hiring illegal workers, and changes in federal law so the children of illegal immigrants are not automatic U.S. citizens.
He says a guest-worker program, the heart of Bush’s approach, should be considered -- skeptically -- only after the borders are sealed and the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the country have been sent home. Anything less amounts to amnesty for criminals, Tancredo says.
His foes may wish to marginalize him; most willing to be quoted for this article insist that Tancredo is irrelevant to the immigration debate. Still, he has forced Congress to move his way. The immigration bill that recently passed the House was stripped of language supporting a guest-worker program, after a Tancredo-led revolt.
“If the president were going to call six to 10 people and lock them in a room and say, ‘Solve this problem,’ my guess is Tom would not be on the list,” said Walt Klein, a longtime Colorado campaign strategist and friend of Tancredo. “But my guess is by the time they got to the meeting, they’d be fully aware of what Tom Tancredo has been saying for the last two, three years.”
At 60, Tancredo has a contrary streak that is nearly a lifetime long. As a boy, he watched old-time Westerns and rooted for the Indians. (He can’t remember why.) In 1960, he supported Richard M. Nixon over John F. Kennedy, pitting him against the nuns at his Catholic high school and all but one other student in a 90-2 straw vote.
Tancredo was teaching junior high civics in Denver when he first ran for public office as a way to encourage student involvement. It was 1976 and, after Watergate, Republicans were desperate for warm bodies. Tancredo campaigned for the state House as a reformer, listing the family spaghetti recipe on one side of his brochures and his “good government” recipe on the other.
Once elected, Tancredo soon fell in with a group of like-minded conservatives, known as “the House crazies” for their unbending philosophy and guerrilla tactics. He left the Legislature in 1981 to head the regional Education Department office, then led the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Golden, Colo. He is fondly remembered for his irreverence -- on his door was a sign: “Will Think for Food.”
Even now, for all his combustible rhetoric, Tancredo appears a man of good cheer and little pretense. He discounts himself as “too fat, too short and too bald” to be president.
Speaking at Newport Beach’s posh Balboa Bay Club, he recounted a trip to Target to buy emergency underwear after his luggage was lost. In a CNN interview on immigration legislation, he unfurled a long, winding metaphor about “a mail-order bride” and her “bad seed” baby when, abruptly, he stopped and laughed at the verbal mess he’d made.
In 1998, Tancredo emerged from a crowded field to win an open House seat. He has been easily reelected despite having promised to quit after three terms because, he says, his work on immigration is so vital.
The broken vow was all the more brazen given Tancredo’s leadership in the Colorado term-limits movement, which was enraged by his turnabout.
“I am sorry I let them down, because I did,” he said of his old allies. “I would feel the same way if I were them.”
Fans admire that bluntness almost as much as Tancredo’s hard line on immigration. “He doesn’t resort to the typical political correctness of wanting not to offend someone,” said Paul Darafeev, a 50-year-old factory owner, who showed up in Newport Beach after hearing Tancredo on talk radio.
At times, it seems that Tancredo just itches to offend.
When the Denver Post profiled the honor roll student of an illegal immigrant family, Tancredo unsuccessfully tried to have the family deported.
Campaigning against the use of Mexican ID cards in the U.S., he posed in front of a mock consular photo of Mexican President Vicente Fox, drawing protests from the Mexican government.
His call to bomb Mecca, in a July radio interview, brought worldwide condemnation, including criticism from the State Department.
“I don’t like when people call me a racist or a xenophobe, or all the rest of that,” he says back in office, his voice softening. But then life is full of trade-offs. “I had to say the things I said in order ... to get the focus” on immigration.
His efforts haven’t endeared Tancredo to many colleagues.
Darrell Issa, the California congressman who wants Tancredo banished from the GOP, says Tancredo shoots off his mouth while others do the serious work.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Things are wrong and I’m the only one with the truth,’ ” says the Vista Republican, who has repeatedly voted for tougher immigration laws. “But it’s harder to meet your responsibility.”
Tancredo scoffs. “I could spend from now until eternity in the process he’s described and get squat,” he says. The only reason lawmakers acted, he insists, is because of the grass-roots anger he incited.
“It’s the best use of my time,” he says, “and it makes them mad as hell.”
Given his passion, then, it is surprising to hear Tancredo speak of legislation that makes him even prouder than his work on immigration.
Tancredo was just one co-sponsor of the 2002 Sudan Peace Act. But his work fulfilled a pledge he made to himself years ago after attending a church service devoted to the tortured African nation.
A photograph of Tancredo at the White House -- “way in the back!” -- and a pen Bush used to sign the bill have a prominent spot in his office, along with a cross, a sword and poster-size pictures of his grandkids. (There is also a bumper sticker reading, “Viva Tancredo.”)
He makes no effort, when asked, to square his compassion for the Sudanese with critics’ portrayals of him as an anti-immigrant ogre. “That’s not my job,” Tancredo says. “I am who I am.”
With that, he steps from his office and strides through the Capitol, cigar ablaze. Smoking is prohibited. But Tancredo puffs away, paying no heed.