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EL ANDAR
WINTER 1998


table of contents

Henry Cisneros, by Taylor Jones © LA Times Syndicate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Las trampas del poder
With Henry Cisneros out of the picture, Latinos look to Bill Richardson to fill the void in Washington.

by Patricia Guadalupe

He was once known as the “great brown hope,” the one who would lead the Latino community to the promised land of power. Or so most everyone thought. Earlier this year he was indicted on 18 counts that include conspiracy, making false statements to the FBI and obstruction of justice. What went wrong?

Henry Cisneros came to Washington as one of the Clintonistas, ready to take on the world after an electoral sweep brought the Democrats to power for the first time since the late 1970s. The former mayor of San Antonio had just about disappeared from the public eye in the 1980s, when he decided not to run for reelection after admitting to an affair with former lobbyist Linda Medlar. He was quietly running a consulting company when Bill Clinton came calling and resurrected his political career by nominating him as Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a reward for his efforts in the ‘92 campaign.

During a routine background check, the FBI found that Cisneros had made payments to Medlar. Cisneros told the FBI he had helped her out with money because he “felt sorry” for her after the affair became public and her lobbying business suffered. He told officials the payments had stopped and that he wasn’t sure how much he had paid her over the years.
Clinton and his advisors believed the affair was a “dead issue” and did not see it as a stumbling block to nominating such a well-qualified person for the position since the Democratic Party, in control of the Senate, would sign off on any presidential nomination. Additionally, Clinton wanted to make the Cabinet “look like America” and was very keen on adding more Hispanics. The personable, highly intelligent and media-friendly Cisneros, with a Ph.D. in public administration, was a perfect fit for the position.

In contrast with Transportation Secretary Federico Peña, the other Latino on the Clinton Cabinet who preferred to work behind the scenes, the media-savvy Cisneros was more accessible, traveling extensively and being offered as the Administration’s official Hispanic commentator du jour. He was called upon to help with get-out-the-vote efforts in the Latino community, to comment on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to lobby Congress on Hispanic issues and to push for appointments of more Latinos to high-level positions within the administration. And he was fluent enough to repeat it all in Spanish.

Cisneros’s high profile was extended beyond his Cabinet duties. As far as Latino issues were concerned, he sat on the right-hand side of the President and he had his ear. The once scrappy, skinny boy from the Southwest was now part of the inner sanctum in the White House. And Latinos loved it. Hispanic groups knew that Cisneros was influential enough that “speaking with the president” was not empty rhetoric. Henry, as everyone called him, was back and making ‘em proud. People had pretty much forgotten about that “regrettable” affair. His wife had forgiven him and it was in the past. There was even a certain Hispanic machismo to it all. An affair wasn’t that big of a deal, in the scheme of things, many said.

Cisneros became the poster boy for Latino accomplishments. This is where one could get with hard work and hard study, people heard, as Cisneros was introduced at event after event. And it looked like he was going nowhere else but up and up and up. His name was bandied about for several positions, including vice president on the Democratic ticket for the year 2000. There were rumors he might return to Texas and try for the governorship he had passed on years before as too politically unfeasible. Because Cisneros carried considerable weight inside the White House, Latino leaders enjoyed unprecedented access to the president and other administration officials. Everything, at least on the outside, was looking pretty damn rosy for Cisneros.

And then on July 30, 1994, it hit the fan like a proverbial winter white out. Medlar emerged, literally a woman scorned. She filed a lawsuit for $256,000 against the HUD secretary for breach of contract, alleging Henry stopped making the monthly payments — $4,000 — he had promised until she found a job, or her teenage daughter finished college. She claimed that after her husband found out about the affair and filed for divorce, Cisneros urged her to walk away to avoid a messy court battle that would further hurt his name and reputation. In return he would help her out financially.

“She would rather cut off her arms than have to do this, but she’s in extremis,” Medlar’s lawyer, Floyd Holder, said at the time. Her lawyers described the agreement as “an oral contract” that Cisneros broke when he stopped making payments in January 1994. And Medlar held a trump card: recordings of conversations between the pair where he made reference to the payments and inferred she play along.
“…And the FBI loves things that have to do with sex and intimacy and so forth.…When I’m a private citizen, nobody cares. If I’m a Cabinet officer, you’ve got something…I’m not saying you will do something. I’m just saying you could…You’re not taping any of this, right?…”

She lied to him and later said that she had started making the recordings shortly after completing the oral agreement to protect herself.

Rumor had it the scandal would bring Cisneros down this time, but he fought back. Before a packed conference room on the top floor of HUD headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Latino Wunderkind told reporters, many of whom bet he was resigning, that he was staying on to continue “the important work of this department and this administration.” His diminutive wife, Mary Alice, stood by his side, appearing as the loyal spouse but looking more like a drawn, tired and irritated foot soldier suffering from battle fatigue and soured on life.
Apparently, the exquerida was desperate for money. Medlar sold the tapes to the tabloid show “Inside Edition” for $15,000 and went on the air saying Cisneros lied to the FBI about the amount of the payments and she had deposit slips to prove it. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed an independent counsel to investigate Cisneros and determine whether he had violated federal law by making false statements to the FBI, and to see if it all warranted prosecution. Cisneros later settled with Medlar for $49,000, which has no bearing on the independent counsel investigation.

The appointment of an independent counsel is widely seen as the beginning of the end for Cisneros’s future in Washington, at least with the Clinton-Gore team. He hinted that he would like to stay on as HUD secretary, but that was reportedly nixed by Gore associates who, with the 2000 election in mind, wanted to avoid any “messes” that would tarnish Gore’s rather squeaky clean image. They suggested he quietly resign. So on Nov. 21, 1996, Cisneros wrote to the President, “Though I would like to help build on the progress we have made…I have concluded that I cannot ask to be considered for service in the next four years.”

Cisneros accepted the position of chairman of the Spanish-language television network Univisión, in Los Angeles, trying to quietly slip away into business life.


Two years later, Cisneros is still fresh in the minds of many who considered him the most influential Latino leader in the country and others who think the near-hero worship is overrated and unrealistic. The younger generation of Latinos in particular question the need for a so-called leader in the Hispanic community. “There are so many unsung heroes in our community that get very little recognition outside of their own circle but yet do very important things,” said Shirley Rodíguez, a student at Fordham University in New York City and an organizer in the youth leadership training group Muévete. “We can sit here and complain that no one does anything for us and that there is nothing we can do about it. Or we can get up and do something about it. And this type of local community work has a direct impact on people’s lives. More so than what is going on in Washington.”

Rodríguez, like many people, feels that many Latino leaders working in Washington forget what’s really important because they’re so concerned with being part of the political “in” scene.
And in the Latino political landscape, what is “really important” means different things to different people. Part of the problem of looking for a particular leader to represent the interests of the Latino community with the national prominence of a Jesse Jackson, for instance, is the widely differing views among Hispanics and the terrible job, some say, the community has done in working within those differences.

Reverend Jackson, for instance, while not purporting to represent the entire spectrum of opinions within the black community, has managed to position himself as a national spokesman of sorts.

“See, the Cubans talk about Castro, the Puerto Ricans about political status, the Mexicans about immigration, and so on and so forth and no one can agree on anything, and it’s hard to get people to go out on a limb around here because everyone is thinking of their own interests,” said one Washington-based Latino leader. “That makes us look and act weaker than we really are.”

The Latino in-fighting extends to issues that Hispanics complain should be presented as a united front, often creating a climate of political schizophrenia. When Clinton administration officials asked several Latino groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund (PRLDEF) and the Hispanic National Bar Association for a list of candidates for Supreme Court justices, the groups could not agree on several of the names and even argued over who should be on the top of the list: a Mexican American or a Puerto Rican. In another incident, the nomination of a Puerto Rican attorney for a spot as U.S. federal judge was blocked by the representative for Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress and legislators on the island, who argued that her nomination would be an “unfortunate choice” because of her “differing views on statehood for Puerto Rico.”

In yet another incident, the two Cuban American Republicans in Congress, Florida’s Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, left the Congressional Hispanic Caucus when California Democrat Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles was elected chairman in 1996, arguing that his then recent congressional “fact-finding” trip to Cuba had been “an insult” to them and had shown his “pro-Castro” tendencies.

Sometimes the “demands” of Latino groups are unrealistic exercises in futility. The 1996 Latino March on Washington, trying to build on the activist atmosphere that developed after the Million Man March, brought many enthusiastic Hispanics to the nation’s capital, but Washington leaders considered the “free schooling for all, including university,” and the significant hike request in the minimum wage — among other demands — pie in the sky. None of the so-called Latino March “demands” have been met by the Washington establishment. Adds Elena Negrete-White, an organizer with the Washington office of the United Farm Workers, “I love this work, but it’s sometimes frustrating to get people in Washington involved in what we do. There’s a different attitude here than in the rest of the country. It’s more ‘establishment’ here.”

The answer to finding Hispanic leadership, some believe, is to develop scores of talent who would ostensibly become prominent Latino leaders in the future. Why rely on one person to speak for this growing and diverse community, they argue.
“There’s a perception that we don’t care, that we don’t participate and we’re standing by the sidelines. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Marco Davis with the National Council of La Raza, considered to be the country’s most prominent Latino organization. “People want to know what’s going on and they want to get involved. The problem is a lot of times they don’t know where to go and what to do. But once they find out, they become very enthusiastic participants of the process.”

In the meantime, who on a national level can fill the vacuum left by the crash-and-burn career of Henry Cisneros? Latinos point to people like Small Business Administration director Aida Alvarez and presidential advisors Mickey Ibarra and Maria Echaveste as examples of Hispanics who exert influence by working in smaller agencies or behind the scenes in policy-making role. But others point out that the national prominence and influence of a Cisneros is needed in Washington to guarantee that when the music stops, the community is not left standing without a chair to sit on. The behind-the-scenes folks may be well-known in their own circles, but yield very little political influence on the “outside.”



Bill Richardson, by Taylor Jones © LA Times Syndicate

 

Emerging from this atmosphere is one Latino who could end up more influential and politically prominent than Cisneros ever dreamed of: Energy Secretary Bill Richardson from New Mexico. Raised in Mexico City and fluent in three languages, Richardson turned his attention to politics when an elbow injury forced him to abandon his plans of a career in baseball. The former congressman, a key player in the passage of NAFTA and other Hispanic-related issues during Clinton’s first term, became the first Latino U.S. ambassador to the UN in the 1997, returning to Washington earlier this year to fill the “Latino vacancy” in Clinton’s Cabinet when Peña resigned from his position as Energy Secretary. As UN ambassador, Richardson’s informal style, sense of humor and wheeler-dealer character, so successful during his congressional days and tense diplomatic situations, was clashing with the by-the-book Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The Energy vacancy was the way out. While Richardson says he misses working at the UN, he wanted to go back to Washington “and work on domestic issues and get more involved in Latino issues in the U.S.”

Before his years at the UN, Richardson’s easy-going style helped make the former congressman the Clinton Administration’s “go-to guy” for solving sticky situations around the world. And there have been plenty.

In 1994, Congressman Richardson persuaded Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to release two Americans imprisoned in Baghdad who had wandered into Iraq and had been
convicted of entering the country illegally. Hussein agreed, citing Richardson’s “humanitarian appeal.”

In North Korea, that same year, he helped negotiate the release of a U.S. pilot held by the North Koreans after his helicopter crashed. In Burma, he was one of a few foreigners allowed to meet with Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi during a prolonged house arrest, and successfully lobbied for her release.

In Haiti in 1994, with the country on the brink of civil war and 3,000 U.S. Marines waiting off the Haitian coast, he persuaded military dictator Raoul Cedras to surrender power, telling him that as the Chief Deputy Whip in Congress he had enough votes to support a military invasion. As part of the effort to boot Cedras, Richardson met with Joaquin Balaguer, president of neighboring Dominican Republic, to persuade him to stop allowing goods essential to the Cedras regime in violation of UN sanctions.

After meeting with Fidel Castro for five hours, Richardson was successful in persuading the Cuban government to cut in half the $600 fee it charged Cubans who receive U.S. immigrant visas. And during a trip to Vietnam he collected more than 100 documents on U.S. servicemen missing in action.

Closer to home, Richardson was instrumental in passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, even while his own party’s leadership — with its ties to labor and environmental groups — bitterly opposed it.

The president was in the uncomfortable position of not being able to count on his party’s senior members of Congress for an important piece of legislation. As chief deputy whip and a junior member of the leadership, Richardson was literally in charge of “whipping up votes” for NAFTA while having to contend with less than zero support from many Democrats. An important consideration, Richardson and Administration officials figured, would be to capture the support of the Hispanic members of Congress who were sitting on the fence, and their coattails would hopefully bring others in.

One of the key legislators was California Congressman Esteban Torres. Richardson helped lobby Torres, who as a former labor official was naturally wary of a trade agreement that the labor movement vehemently opposed. But Torres signed on once the treaty included his proposals for labor and environmental side agreements and the development of a bank to finance projects on the border. Torres’s conversion pushed other members to cast “yea” votes, and when the nail biting was over, NAFTA’s passage catapulted Richardson into the political big leagues.

His success as negotiator for the free trade agreement, together with his foreign policy successes, has established him as one of the most powerful and influential Clintonistas out there. Although Richardson says he has considered returning to New Mexico to run for office, he is widely rumored to be at the top of the short list for vice presidential nomination on a Gore ticket. Even though Richardson prefers to focus on his present responsibilities, an aide says Richardson would “probably take half a second” to accept a vice-presidential nomination. Veep insiders consider Richardson’s departure from the diplomatic glamour of New York for a job at the bland Energy Department as a good indicator of support for Gore and an opportunity for the second-in-command to observe how Richardson operates in the bureaucracy of a federal behemoth. In other words, it’s management training for the White House.

Unlike Cisneros, Richardson’s closet is empty of skeletons. He drives an old car, loves Chinese food and gets his hair cut for less than $20. “I think the idea of a high standard of living [in Washington] and the perks is a great exaggeration,” he once told the Albuquerque Journal. Richardson’s affable and down-to-earth personality even helped him escape l’affaire Lewinsky largely unscathed. During confirmation hearings for the Energy Secretary post, Senate Republicans questioned why a UN ambassador would personally interview someone — Miss Lewinsky herself — for a lowly assistant position. Richardson brushed the question off as “helping out his friend,” White House deputy chief of staff John Podesta, adding that he often tries to do what he can to help out, especially for young people just starting out. In the town of networking and favors, people understood. Lucky for him, Lewinsky turned down the UN job offer and the congressional questioning went nowhere.

Richardson’s reappearance in Washington has reenergized Latinos who were demoralized by the Cisneros controversy, and the talk of political possibilities for the year 2000 grows increasingly louder. While Richardson appears to be on the fast track to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the political landscape beyond, Cisneros, who pleaded innocent, works to avoid jail. His trial, originally set for early November, has been postponed indefinitely. Presiding Judge Stanley Sporkin says he needs more time to consider several Cisneros appeals, including a request to throw out the Medlar tapes as evidence in a possible trial.

No one could have imagined that any talk of Cisneros-in-the-house meant up to 100 years in the Big House, and not four to eight in the White one. But that’s what it has come to. Univisión officials say they are standing by their man, but many Latinos have clearly moved on.


Patricia Guadalupe is editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report in Washington, D.C.

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