Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E11583%257E927629%257E,00.html

Often maligned, Tancredo has no plans to back down
By Dan Haley, Denver Post
Tuesday, October 22, 2002 -

He was told to never darken the steps of the White House again.

His life has been threatened and his mental capacity questioned. Even some fellow Republicans prefer to keep him at arm's length, passing him off as the embarrassing, zipper-always-open uncle you have to invite over for Thanksgiving.

But Tom Tancredo isn't budging an inch on immigration.

Tancredo - once needled by his statehouse colleagues with a rendition of "Short People (Got No Reason To Live)" - will never be mistaken for a bruiser like Jesse Ventura.

But the Littleton Republican can be as tenacious as a professional wrestler and will take on anyone, including his own party, the media and the president of the United States.

Unfortunately, his words often stir up the ugliest elements of the immigration debate, making it uncomfortable, and sometimes impossible, to agree with him.

Over the past weeks, Tancredo's actions and words regarding 18-year-old Jesus Apodaca, an illegal immigrant, have polarized the issue and brought out the worst in both sides.

And even though he's no stranger to controversy, and publicly maintains a stiff upper lip, the scorn heaped on him seems to be taking a toll.

His stance on issues such as bilingual education and school vouchers has given him legions of fans and thousands of detractors since he emerged on Colorado's political scene in the mid-1970s. But immigration has been the most contentious issue he's dealt with, he said.

Sitting with The Post's editorial board last week, the 57-year-old lawmaker grew emotional as he talked about how his high-profile controversies have affected his family. In that seemingly unguarded moment, he cut a sympathetic figure.

But don't feel sorry for Tom Tancredo. He knows exactly what he's doing.

And buckle up, he's just getting started.

For better or worse, he's dragged Americans into a much-needed debate over immigration. His words, offensive to some, have forced us to consider some important policies that other politicians are afraid to broach, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of highly sought-after voting blocs.

He talks passionately about immigration, saying it affects nearly every other issue that politicians deal with: growth, education, health care.

He's right.

And he doesn't waffle on his stance: There are legal ways into this country. If you're not here legally, hit the road.

He reads books about immigration. He stays up late talking about it to a nearly empty House chamber while C-SPAN cameras roll. At times, he feels like he's talking to himself, but when he returns to his office, the calls start pouring in.

Most callers see the issue as Tancredo does, in sharp terms of right and wrong.

And the debate has become as racially divisive as any other issue over the past few decades. Tancredo admits his strong sentiments often stir up the knee-jerk racists who rear their heads in unison when talk turns to illegal immigrants.

But it's not enough to make him stop, or tone down his words.

"I know there are people who are attracted to this for the wrong reasons," he said. "I don't want their help and they do nothing good for the movement."

Those who oppose him can be equally offensive. Since September, he's received hate mail, and credible threats have been made on his life. "There are many, many days when the job is not as appealing as people think," Tancredo said.

He insists his stance on immigration isn't based on racism or animus for foreigners, and you have to believe him.

He does admit to stirring up the rhetoric to call attention to an issue that's dear to his heart. After all, he says, he's just one member in the 435-member House of Representatives. Kicking and screaming is sometimes the only way to get attention.

His main goal is to get people to focus on the issue.

But if you kick and scream too loud, will anyone listen?

I asked him last week if he ever thought about just shutting up for awhile.

And after a long-winded answer, the type you'd expect from a filibustering politician, Tancredo, glancing down at his folded hands, simply replied "no."

"How can anybody not talk about this?"

With Tancredo, at least you know what you're getting.

If nothing else, that's refreshing.

Last week, Iraqis went to the polls to answer one simple question: Should Saddam Hussein be retained as leader?

They had two boxes they could check: "Yes" or "You bet."

According to the Iraqi government, every single one of the 11,445,638 registered voters answered "yes." That's an amazing 100 percent. In 11 million votes, there wasn't one hanging chad. Not even a dimple.

Katherine Harris, shame on you. When Saddam is ousted from his current job, maybe he can apply for Florida secretary of state.

Wonder what Tancredo would think of that?

Dan Haley (dhaley@denverpost.com) is a member of the Post editorial board.


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