WASHINGTON - Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, who has become a liberal champion of immigrants and Latinos in Congress, said Tuesday he is retiring from the House so he can focus on rebuilding Puerto Rico and rallying American voters for 2020.
Speaking at a Chicago news conference, Gutiérrez said he decided not to seek re-election next year once Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia told him he wanted to run for the Illinois Congressional District 4 seat. Gutiérrez said he supports Garcia for the job.
"I'm going to leave Congress at end of my term in 2019, but i'm not retiring," Gutiérrez said. "(I'm) not giving up the fight for Latinos, women, the LGBT community, environment or the rest of the issues I've been fighting for" in Congress, he said.
The news was met with sadness from immigrant advocates and cheers from immigration hardliners.
Gutiérrez, who arrived in the House in 1993, said he wants to build new energy and a new vehicle "to prepare ourselves for 2020."
He said he and his wife will be taking a "quasi-sabbatical" and travel to various cities throughout the country so they can "talk to people about how we build the infrastructure for the 2020 election."
"I'm not retiring from the fight for immigrants' rights," Gutiérrez said in Spanish. "I'm changing my focus."
But Gutiérrez said "his island," Puerto Rico, the place of his parents' birth, is calling him.
"I love Puerto Rico and she's in a lot of pain and there's a lot of people that have turned their backs on her and she needs to be rebuilt," Gutiérrez said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Gutiérrez, known for his fiery, unscripted speaking style, is one of the more progressive members of Congress. He has been an antagonist to many Republicans and President Donald Trump. But he also has not hesitated to criticize Democrats and has worked with many Republicans for immigration reform.
He was an early critic of President Barack Obama over deportation policies and as he reminded reporters at his news conference, he voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement.
He is highly popular with immigrants and some parts of the Latino community and has been arrested at protests over the now ended test bombing on the island of Vieques, which is part of Puerto Rico, and in immigrant rights demonstrations.
Gutiérrez won't actually leave the seat for a year. Elections will be held in November 2018 and and in January 2019, newly elected members will be sworn in.
But his announcement comes as immigrant advocates are fighting for legislation to allow young immigrants known as Dreamers to remain in the U.S. and as Puerto Rico has hit 10 weeks of struggling without electricity after Hurricane Maria thrashed the island.
Frank Sharry, a longtime immigration reform advocate on Capitol Hill, said in a statement that Gutiérrez has been a "torch-bearer, a deal-maker and a street-fighter" and that "it will take a village to replace" his leadership in Congress.
"Rarely has one person so masterfully combined the power of a member of Congress, the passion of a movement leader, and the love of a community and its allies," said Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.
Fellow House members said Gutiérrez's departure would be missed.
"I don't want to believe it," said Rep. Nydia Velásquez, D-N.Y. "We came in together and we have fought many battles and some of those battles are still out there."
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., a freshman congressman who is the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from Florida, said Gutiérrez's departure will leave a "big gap."
"He's one of those people who could bridge the gap between various Hispanic cultures," Soto said. But he said "new generations can answer the call too."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Gutiérrez's legacy "will serve as a constant guidepost to all those fighting for immigrant rights and beyond."
"Luis Gutiérrez is not only the fearless and passionate voice for anyone in search of the American dream in this country," Menendez said in a statement, "he has become the conscience of Congress on issues of equality, justice, and fairness."