Editor's Note: Jade Esteban Estrada is the writer of Glitter Political, a series of articles detailing San Antonio's political scene.
It’s a rainy Friday morning when I meet Texas State Rep. Roland Gutierrez in his Southwest campaign office. He’s just returned from a trip to Colorado, where he continues his research on cannabis legalization, a primary issue of his second campaign for Texas Senate. The scar that streaks through his left brow draws my attention to what may be the best hair in Texas politics.
Gutierrez, a Democrat representing Texas House District 119, which encompasses parts of San Antonio and adjacent sections of Bexar County, is in the midst of his effort to flip the seat held by Texas State Sen. Pete Flores.
Democrats lost their hold on SD 19 after last year’s special election to replace then-state Sen. Carlos Uresti, who resigned after being convicted of 11 felonies. The former senator was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Gutierrez, 49, came in third in the special general election behind U.S Rep. Pete Gallego, who ultimately lost to Flores in a runoff. This time, Gutierrez feels the time is right.
“I’m certainly not going to let Pete Flores continue being the rubber stamp for [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick,” he said. “[As a state senator], you need to be able to think for yourself and be able to see what’s best for this community.”
For the past 20 years, Gutierrez has specialized in immigration law, assisting foreign nationals and their families with visas. That work has taken him to China now 15 times.
“If you knew Spanish and English and Mandarin, you would communicate with 85% of the world,” he says. “I’m trying to learn Mandarin, but it’s hard.”
But certainly not out of reach. After all, sheer will has driven Gutierrez’s political ascent.
In 2001, Gutierrez’s lost his first run for San Antonio City Council by 150 votes. Three years later, he ran for County Commissioner for Precinct 1, but lost to Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez, the uncle of current Democratic opponent Xochil Peña Rodriguez. The third time was the charm, though, and he won the District 3 council seat in 2005.
It’s difficult to ignore the political intelligence he’s amassed since his days on the dais. That growth has allowed him to thrive when speaking on the floor of the Republican-controlled Texas House.
“It’s different from being a member of city council, [where you are] one of 11 people. Now you’re one of 150 people. [So], you’re trying to find your voice.”
Even so, finding that voice took time. He describes himself as a “liberal bomb thrower” during his first few years in the Pink Dome, playing defense to GOP game plans.
In time, though, Gutierrez finessed his strategy.
“You know, I need to be a little nicer on the front mic,” he said of that realization. “Be a little nicer on the back mic. I need to help people along the way get their legislation done — at least the stuff that doesn’t offend me ... or my constituency.”
These days, he believes legalizing cannabis can garner support from both sides of the aisle and help fund education by generating $3.6 billion in taxes.
“If you talk about true conservatism, which is like Edmund Burke kind of stuff, right? Cannabis is exactly that,” Gutierrez explains. “The libertarians of the Republican Party agree with me. They want full legalized cannabis. They don’t want the government in their backyard. They want to be able to take this plant that heals them and do what they will with it. Every state around us has legal cannabis — and legal gaming.”
Gutierrez says that, in many ways, he takes after his father.
“My father was a superhero to me,” he says. “But he was tough. I think I was in college [when] my father told me that he loved me for the first time. I knew that he loved me, he just didn’t [outwardly] express his love.”
Gutierrez credits his father with instilling him with a strong work ethic.
“‘You’ve got to work,’ he said. ‘No matter what’s going on in the world. No matter what problems [arise]. You just have to keep knocking on doors.’ So, when the doors closed, he kept on knocking,” Gutierrez says, tears forming in his eyes.
While that work ethic helped fuel Gutierrez’s political rise, his immediate family brings him a sense of balance.
“Time is so precious. The kids bring me back to normalcy. Those little girls are only going to be little one time,” he says of his tweenage daughters, Victoria and Izabella. “They’re not so little anymore. Work is always going to be there. You got to find the balance, and that balance is your children.”
During a conversation about the value of bilingualism, he switches from English to Spanish with brow-raising dexterity.
“Believe it or not, when I was about six years old, I hardly spoke English,” he says in his signature Texas drawl. “Somewhere along the way, I watched a lot of Westerns, and I started talking like this.”
I ask Gutierrez why he’s chosen to devote his life to public service.
“It’s a short life,” he says. “I believe we have to squeeze all of the juice out of those lemons. We have to take these opportunities to improve ourselves, improve the lives of the people around you and make [the world] a better place to live.”
To that end, Gutierrez thinks legal cannabis is a step in the right direction. Even so, he adds that he’s unsure whether the political will exists right now.
“But,” he adds, “I’m sure gonna try.”
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