Henry Cisneros, by
Taylor Jones ©
LA Times Syndicate
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 wasnt sure how much he had paid her over the
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 Administrations 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.
Cisneross 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 wasnt 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
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
She would rather cut off her arms than have to do this, but shes
in extremis, Medlars 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 Im a private citizen, nobody cares. If Im
a Cabinet officer, youve got something
Im not saying
you will do something. Im just saying you could
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 Cisneross 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 Gores
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 peoples lives.
More so than what is going on in Washington.
Rodríguez, like many people, feels that many Latino leaders working
in Washington forget whats really important because theyre
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 its 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,
Floridas 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 nations 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 its sometimes frustrating to get people in Washington
involved in what we do. Theres a different attitude here than in
the rest of the country. Its 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.
Theres a perception that we dont care, that we dont
participate and were standing by the sidelines. That couldnt
be further from the truth, says Marco Davis with the National Council
of La Raza, considered to be the countrys most prominent Latino
organization. People want to know whats going on and they
want to get involved. The problem is a lot of times they dont 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.
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 Clintons
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 Clintons Cabinet when Peña resigned from his position
as Energy Secretary. As UN ambassador, Richardsons 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, Richardsons easy-going style helped
make the former congressman the Clinton Administrations go-to
guy for solving sticky situations around the world. And there have
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 Richardsons
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 partys leadership
with its ties to labor and environmental groups bitterly opposed
The president was in the uncomfortable position of not being able to count
on his partys 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
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. Torress conversion pushed other members
to cast yea votes, and when the nail biting was over, NAFTAs
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 Richardsons 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, its
management training for the White House.
Unlike Cisneros, Richardsons 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. Richardsons affable and down-to-earth personality even
helped him escape laffaire 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.
Richardsons 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 thats 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,