WASHINGTON — To many who've heard his high-octane rhetoric in the House of Representatives or on the presidential campaign trail, a single issue defines Rep. Tom Tancredo: cracking down on illegal immigration.
But what's less obvious is the extent to which the immigrant experience has shaped the Colorado Republican's own life.
His paternal grandfather was a boy when he arrived alone at Ellis Island from Italy in 1894, a note with scribbled directions pinned to his shirt. Decades later, as a second-generation Italian-American running his first political race, Tom Tancredo handed out campaign fliers that included his mother's recipe for spaghetti sauce.
Tancredo grew up in Denver, where his boyhood was far from idyllic. His father was an alcoholic who turned violent when he drank, and Tancredo battled depression and panic attacks as a young man. He recalls a night when he and his mother sought refuge in an orphanage to avoid facing his father.
"It's hard for me now, even at 61 years old, to look back at my childhood and think of a happy time," he said in a recent interview with McClatchy Newspapers. "Most of the times that were supposed to be happy times — Christmas, birthdays, holidays — were things I looked to with dread because my father (was) going to get drunk."
As a five-term representative from a solidly Republican district in the Denver suburbs, Tancredo has become a leading voice in Congress calling for a hard line on illegal immigration, the issue that also drives his campaign. Tancredo recently announced plans to leave Congress after his term ends, but he's continuing his presidential run, even though polls show him in low single digits.
While critics charge that Tancredo is mean-spirited — he recently tried to obtain the arrest records of undocumented students who were participating in a news conference on an immigration bill — friends and associates say his candor masks a compassionate personality and an earnest zeal to do what he considers right.
"Some have accused him of being outspoken to a fault," said Walt Klein, a Denver consultant and longtime friend. "But Tom doesn't talk in pastel colors. He tells you where he's coming from and he's straightforward about it."
"He has a definite belief that he adheres to," said Jackie Tancredo, his wife of 31 years. "This is a guy who has no secrets. He's very straightforward."
Tancredo sees no inconsistencies in his melting-pot roots and his stand on immigration. His grandparents, he said, wanted desperately to assimilate into the American culture, even to the point of forbidding their children to speak Italian. By contrast, he said, today's immigrants resist blending in and are fostering a diverse multiculturalism that he thinks is weakening America.
Looking back on his childhood, Tancredo talks openly about the clinical depression that hung over him for years and led to a deferment from the draft during the Vietnam era. He says it was like being in a dark tunnel, and he credits his wife for helping him get on track after they met as schoolteachers in the early 1970s.
Tancredo was the youngest of three brothers, but his siblings were much older and out of the house while he was growing up. He describes himself as a "latchkey kid" who attended Roman Catholic school while his mother worked long hours as a department store clerk. His father was a meatpacker and became a truck driver after the plant closed.
His tough stance on immigration began to emerge while he was a teacher, after the Colorado legislature enacted a bilingual education law. Tancredo saw it as an ominous sign that "the assimilation process was breaking down."
His students dared him to run for the state legislature. He took them up on it, and served in the Colorado House from 1976 to 1981.
He headed the regional office of the U.S. Education Department from 1981 to 1993. After five years as the head of the Independence Institute, a conservative Colorado research center, Tancredo won election from the affluent 6th Congressional District, south of Denver, in 1998 and began playing a leadership role on immigration.
Although Tancredo promised to stay in Congress for no more than six years, he broke his pledge in order to continue his fight on immigration, and says he now considers the term-limit pledge his biggest regret.
He's friendly and approachable, but he's fashioned a reputation as a polarizing figure who doesn't pull his punches.
He insulted Muslims by suggesting that the United States could "take out" holy sites such as Mecca and caused an uproar in Miami by comparing the city to "a Third World country." The Bush White House considers him persona non grata for ridiculing the president's immigration policies.
Tancredo acknowledged the image he's created but stressed: "It doesn't come from any animus I hold toward anybody.
"And as long as I know that, as long as I feel comfortable with what I know is in my heart, then I can't tell you I care an awful lot about the image. Except when you're running for president, I'm sure it's not helpful."
ON THE WEB
Tom Tancredo's official campaign site