In 1978, Texas Democratic Rep. Eligio “Kika” de la Garza was invited to accompany his colleague Rep. Leo J. Ryan to Guyana on a fact-finding mission and escort people being held at the People’s Temple colony to safety.
De la Garza, like several colleagues in the House, turned down the invitation due to the House’s “hectic” schedule. Ryan and four other members of his delegation were murdered as they were getting on a plane to leave the country before more than 900 people committed mass suicide in the jungle.
De la Garza died Monday at the age of 89. He served in the House of Representatives for 16 terms from 1965 to 1997, representing Texas’ 15th District.
Before his time in Congress, de la Garza left high school at the age of 17 to join the Navy at the end of World War II before becoming a lawyer.
From 1981 to 1995, de la Garza served as chairman of the powerful House Agriculture Committee. His floor strategy to get farm bills passed while chairman was to get Farm Belt lawmakers to link with urban members who supported food stamp and nutrition programs in the bill.
De la Garza also worked on the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which earned him credit from then-President Bill Clinton.
“Kika de la Garza was a good man, very effective congressman, valued friend & a champion for opportunity and social justice,” Clinton tweeted on Monday. “I’ll miss him.”
Kika de la Garza was a good man, very effective congressman, valued friend, & a champion for opportunity and social justice. I’ll miss him. https://t.co/nDM3IQvpgO
— Bill Clinton (@billclinton) March 13, 2017
De la Garza also had a good working relationship with Kansas Republican then-Rep. Pat Roberts, who would become chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
“Out of respect, we never called him the Ranking Member,” Roberts, now a senator, said in a statement. “We called him Chairman Emeritus. Kika served with distinction and provided great leadership for all of agriculture. He was not only my chairman, but a colleague and a close personal friend as well. Our relationship was a classic example of how members could work across the aisle.”
Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro said de la Garza inspired him to pursue public service
Kika de la Garza worked tirelessly to make life better for Texans. My prayers are with his family and loved ones in this difficult time. pic.twitter.com/Y9C7wehnV9
De la Garza was also an amateur linguist and gourmet cook who frequently spoke with foreign dignitaries in their native language. He also dressed up as a clown during Barnum and Bailey’s congressional night in Washington at the D.C. Armory.
He frequently voted with Democrats on economic issues like the Family and Medical Leave Act and increasing the minimum wage.
But he disagreed with his party on abortion and gun control, voting against the 1994 Crime Bill, which included a ban on assault weapons.
— Mark Stricherz contributed to this report.