Illegal Immigration Foe Rep. Tom Tancredo Retires

December 8, 2008 - 6:39 AM
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Centennial, Colo. (AP) - When Tom Tancredo, the lightning-rod Colorado conservative, went to Congress a decade ago, he promised he wouldn't disappear in Washington. He sure didn't.
 
Tancredo made headlines clashing with Democrats and his fellow Republicans. He could be hard to figure even by his allies. The grandson of Italian immigrants, Tancredo founded the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus and achieved national recognition with aggressive, biting rhetoric against what he called out-of-control immigration and bilingual education.
 
At home, Tancredo lived six doors down from Columbine High School, but he resisted calls for stronger gun control after the nation's deadliest high school shooting in 1999. He was born Catholic, but converted to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and blasted Pope Benedict XVI for defending immigrants during a papal visit to Washington.
 
Tancredo was called racist for presidential campaign ads that suggested Latino immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. He once said Miami was like a Third World country because of its growing non-English-speaking population. He suggested America should threaten to destroy Islam's holy city of Mecca in case of a future terrorist attack.
 
Tancredo's poorly funded, longshot run for president ended in 2007, and he stayed quiet the rest of the campaign.
 
Now he's retiring, maybe to run for Colorado governor in two years, maybe to join a right-leaning think tank, perhaps one like a suburban Denver organization he ran in the 1990s. An inflexible but at the same time gracious man, Tancredo, 62, knows he made plenty of enemies in Washington. It seems he wouldn't have it any other way.
 
Tancredo recalls that when he ran for Congress in 1998, he repeatedly made one promise: "I guarantee you this, if you send me there, I'm not going to just take up space. You're going to know there's someone there, and he's gonna be loud and somewhat boisterous."
 
Tancredo grinned.
 
"And I think I've lived up to that promise."
 
His refusal to go along with the crowd didn't win him any plum committee assignments or top billing on major legislation. But it won him a measure of respect, even from those who disagreed with him.
 
"When he found out he couldn't work within the system to establish what was important for the country, he kind of abandoned that process and went straight to the American people and made that case there," said Mike Coffman, Colorado's Republican secretary of state who will succeed Tancredo in a district that includes Denver's conservative southern suburbs.
 
Five years ago, Coffman refused to share a stage with Tancredo at an Iraq War rally in Denver, a protest by a veteran against a congressman who received a deferment from service during the Vietnam War.
 
Now Coffman says he's looking to Tancredo for guidance.
 
"It is better to be an outsider than to compromise your principles," Coffman said. "He set a course, to go beyond the Congress and to make a case directly to the American people, even if that means alienating your colleagues, which he did."
 
Some say Tancredo's unflagging interest in illegal immigration overshadowed his other work. Tancredo sponsored 2002's Sudan Peace Act, and he worked to improve diplomatic relations with Taiwan -- two arenas few of his constituents would identify with.
 
"He has great principles that I think were overshadowed by his work on the immigration issue," said Rep. Doug Lamborn, a fellow Republican from a Colorado district just south of Tancredo's.
 
Tancredo's sharp words will leave him with a single-tone legacy, said Princeton University congressional historian Julian Zelizer.
 
"When he's discussed, he'll be used I think as one of the examples of what was wrong with the Republican party," Zelizer said. "I think there'll be a lot of people who will say his kind of politics didn't sit well with a lot of Americans."
 
Tancredo seems a little worried he'll be remembered only for blasting illegal immigrants.
 
"There are a lot of issues beyond immigration that I want to deal with," he said. He mentioned energy policy, what he sees as a need for more domestic exploration for fossil fuels.
 
But he was sanguine about his influence if he'd stayed on in Congress.
 
"I just didn't feel that there was anything left I could do in the House," he said.
 
It's unclear what may be left for him politically, though he says he's considering a 2010 run against Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
 
Last summer, Tancredo headlined a rally of the Minutemen anti-illegal immigration group at a Denver park during the Democratic National Convention. Just a couple dozen showed up.
 
Tancredo's phone rings less now, and sitting in his suburban office amid empty bookshelves, he relaxes in a fleece zip-up pullover and seems to look forward most to catching more baseball games starring his grandsons.
 
But he promises -- again -- he won't disappear. And he takes pride in his decade in Congress.
 
"I've been able to move the debate in this country on a major issue. And that doesn't happen very often, that a member of the House of Representatives can do such a thing," he said. "I have been very, very lucky in that regard."