In the 1950s, San Antonio was a changing place. Although during the 1930s, its most notable representative was arch-liberal Maury Maverick, the 1938 midterms saw his ouster in favor of anti-communist and New Deal critic Paul J. Kilday. Kilday’s record as well as the region’s conservatism would hold until the Eisenhower years, then he and the region would shift in a liberal direction despite the region’s vote for Eisenhower in 1956. This can be attributed to the rise of more liberal Latino voters in San Antonio, and their chief figure would be Henry Barbosa Gonzalez (1916-2000).
As a San Antonio councilman from 1953 to 1956, Gonzalez oversaw the desegregation of public accommodations in the city. This wasn’t his first rodeo on civil rights; in 1945 he had resigned as chief probation officer of Bexar County after he was denied permission to appoint a black officer. In 1956, Gonzalez was elected to the State Senate, and mounted a 36-hour filibuster (a Texas Senate record) in 1957 against ten bills intended to work around segregation with future Congressman Abraham J. Kazen, which resulted in the defeat of eight of them. Kazen spoke for 14 hours, and Gonzalez did so for 22. This effort would make headlines, and it would set him up for his next position.
In 1961, Congressman Kilday was appointed a judge by President Kennedy and resigned his post. The special election to succeed him was a high-profile event, with Vice President Johnson coming down to Texas to campaign for Gonzalez, and former President Eisenhower campaigning for Republican John W. Goode. Gonzalez would win the special election by over 10 points and would sail to reelection in future elections, being the first Mexican American member of Congress from Texas. As Burka and Smith (1976) wrote about him, “He is a folk hero to his constituents: he leads parades, attends festivals; in the right place, he is a legend in his own time”. Indeed, Gonzalez’s record on constituent service matched his folk hero reputation. As one high level Texas official familiar with Washington said, “If I had a problem with the federal government, I’d want to live in Henry B’s district”. His political power was unrivaled in San Antonio for the duration of his time in office. As one former reporter in his district said of him after his death, “Like everyone in San Antonio, I both feared and admired Henry B. After all, he was regarded as only slightly less powerful than God and just as easy to offend” (Russell, 2001).
At the Forefront of Civil Rights and the Great Society in Congress
After his election to Congress, Henry Gonzalez proved the most liberal Democrat in delegation until the election of Bob Eckhardt in 1966. He initially wanted to get on the House Armed Services Committee, but was assigned to Banking and Currency, where the chairman, fellow Texas Legend and populist Wright Patman, mentored him and prophetically advised, “Henry, you just stay on this committee and quit making a wave about Armed Services, and you’ll end up as chairman” (U.S. House of Representatives). In 1964, he helped pass the Housing Act of 1964 and successfully pushed for the end of the Bracero program, which employed migrant workers who often worked in dreadful conditions for lower than minimum wage. Gonzalez voted for every major civil rights law and in 1966 he was one of only two Texas representatives to vote against striking fair housing from the civil rights bill under consideration. He was to many conservatives a reviled figure because of his unapologetic and combative style. It didn’t help that of the four Republican presidents he served with, he supported the impeachment of three (Nixon, Reagan, and Bush). As was written in a 1976 Texas Monthly article, “…Gonzalez has a distinct mean streak; once you get on his enemies list you never get off – “and that”, explains one Washington observer, “includes anyone who’s ever had a cross word to say about him”” (Burka & Smith). During his second term, he punched Congressman Ed Foreman (R-Tex.) in the arm for calling him a “pinko” on the House floor and in 1986, he punched a man in a San Antonio restaurant for calling him a communist.
Contrary to those who thought of Gonzalez as a “pinko” or communist, he proved a strong backer of the Vietnam War effort, even as anti-war sentiment was ramping up in the 1970s. During that decade this elevated his scores with conservative groups and lowered his scores with liberal groups. His political route in the 1970s was a source of disappointment for many liberals who hoped for greater things from him. Although once an outsider in Texas politics, Gonzalez had become his own sort of establishment in San Antonio. Also, his advocacy for amendments that instructed U.S. representatives to financial institutions to vote against loans to countries that expropriated property of U.S. citizens and businesses without compensation demonstrated an opposition to communism.
Gonzalez and The House Committee on Assassinations
After the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, there was a lot of reevaluations of certain events, and among these were the Kennedy and King assassinations. The Church and Hart-Schweiker Committees had revealed CIA involvement in international assassinations, and many Americans wondered whether the organization could have been implicated in assassinations in the United States. Among them were Gonzalez, Thomas Downing of Virginia, and D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy, who advocated for the creation of an investigative committee. The House Committee on Assassinations was established in 1976, with Downing being its first chair. However, he was retiring, so Gonzalez succeeded him in the 95th Congress.
The Committee would be a troubled one and an element of the investigation would give JFK assassination conspiracy theorists ammo with an audio recording that would later be decisively disproven. The House Committee on Assassinations will in itself be a future post, so I will not get in depth about it here beyond Gonzalez’s role in it. He was a constant critic of the Warren Commission and would have intense disagreements with head counsel Richard Sprague. This got so bad Gonzalez tried to fire him on February 10, 1977. However, he received no support for this from the other committee members, so he resigned on March 2nd. In a two-page resignation letter he despaired of the situation he found as chairman, writing “I found in the committee an administrative nightmare; I found a chief counsel who assumed the full powers of the committee itself (and by implication usurped the powers of the House itself); a chief counsel who was insubordinate and insulting, not to mention disloyal” and further called Sprague “an unscrupulous individual, an unconscionable scoundrel” (Burnham). Sprague himself would resign not long after as numerous representatives stated that they wouldn’t vote to continue the committee if he remained chief counsel. Given the support the chief counsel received from other committee members, the conflict between Gonzalez and Sprague appears to have been one of likely no more than personalities. On March 30th, the House voted to continue the committee, with Louis Stokes of Ohio as the new chairman. In 1979, Gonzalez pushed for further investigation into the murder of Judge John H. Wood, who he held was murdered by organized crime for his tough sentencing on drug cases. Ultimately, five individuals would be indicted for the crime, with actor Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles, being convicted of pulling the trigger on the orders of drug lord Jamiel Chagra.
The 1980s: Opposition to Reagan and Savings & Loan Bailout
Gonzalez was back to form as the liberal he had been in the 1960s and largely opposed to the era of deregulation. He warned of a coming collapse of the savings and loan industry. In 1983, Gonzalez supported impeaching President Reagan over the invasion of Grenada and again backed impeachment over Iran Contra. On banking issues, he had a reputation as a populist, and his role on the House Banking and Currency Committee was where he shined most. Gonzalez positioned himself as a fighter against predatory lenders and the Federal Reserve (he called for an audit before Ron and Rand Paul brought the proposal its modern publicity) and his constituents loved him for it. In 1989, as the new chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, he held hearings on the Lincoln Savings and Loan and its owner Charles H. Keating Jr., who would be convicted of fraud and earned praise for his leave no stones unturned approach. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution at the time, Robert E. Litan, characterized him thusly, “He doesn’t calculate the political consequences. When he smells something bad, he goes after it” (Kenworthy). His colleagues from both sides of the aisle viewed his role here positively: Republican Toby Roth of Wisconsin praised his handling, “Many members from his side of the aisle are trying to whitewash what happened. But he has the stick-to-it-iveness of an English bulldog. He’s a genuine old-fashioned public servant” (Kenworthy). Future Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), at the time a representative, was also impressed with Gonzalez. He said on the hearings, “When Henry thinks he’s right, there’s no standing in his way. It’s difficult to have hearings like this. It hurts peoples’ reputations. But when the sun sets, he will have done a national service” (Kenworthy). Gonzalez would go on to manage passage of the bill bailing out savings and loan institutions.
Critic of Bush
In 1991, Gonzalez voted against authorization for use of military force on Iraq for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and charged that U.S. agricultural loans made to Iraq during the Reagan Administration were used for the purchasing of weapons with the Reagan Administration’s knowledge. This charge was never proven, and Gonzalez proposed to impeach Bush for not seeking Congressional approval first. He would also call President Bush a “liar” on the floor of the House in 1992 before he was forced to change his language after Robert Walker (R-Penn.) objected as calling the president a “liar” is against House rules (Russell, 1992).
In 1994, the Democrats lost Congress and Gonzalez lost his post. In 1997, his health declined after a dental infection spread to a heart valve and spent half of the term recovering. Reading the writing on the wall, he reluctantly retired and was succeeded by his son, Charlie, in the 1998 midterms. His son would serve until 2013. Gonzalez’s lifetime MC-Index score is an 11%. To this day in Texas “Taco Day” is celebrated on May 3rd, Gonzalez’s birthday, to celebrate his achievements.
Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.
Burnham, D. (1977, March 3). Gonzalez, Assailing His Committee, Quits as Assassination Inquiry Head. The New York Times.
Gonzalez, Henry Barbosa. U.S. House of Representatives.
Iraqgate. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Kenworthy, T. (1989, December 6). Gonzalez’s Pugnacious Populism. The Washington Post.
Kohout, M.D. (2007, September 13). Gonzalez, Henry Barbosa (1916-2000). Texas Historical Association.
Russell, J.J. (1992). The Eternal Challenger. Texas Monthly.
Russell, J.J. (2001, January). We Remember Henry B. Gonzalez. Texas Monthly.