- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Linda Chavez withdrew yesterday as President-elect George W. Bush's pick to head the Labor Department, blaming the "politics of personal destruction" for wrecking her chances.
In a hastily called press conference at Mr. Bush's transition headquarters in Washington, Mrs. Chavez insisted she never employed an illegal immigrant in her home, as her opponents had charged.
Instead, she said, she was simply helping Marta Mercado, a penniless Guatemalan refugee seeking to leave an abusive relationship. A friend had asked her to help the woman, she said.
"I've not led a perfect life, I don't think anybody has," she told the throng of reporters in the official briefing room. "I'm not Mother Teresa. However, I have tried to do right by people who have been in need. And some of that doing right by people recently has gotten me where I am here today."
She denounced Washington's political climate, blaming a desire to "destroy" people for how a story about her aid to an illegal immigrant became front-page news.
"So long as the game in Washington is a game of search-and-destroy, I think we will have very few people who are willing to do what I did, which was to put myself through this in order to serve," she said. "What has happened over the last few days is quite typical of what happens in Washington, D.C."
In a later interview on CNN, she warned that other Bush nominees would face even worse because of the bitter Florida recount battle.
"I think this really is an attempt to not to let Florida go without retribution, and I think they're going to be out to get George Bush's nominees," Mrs. Chavez told CNN.
She added that Bush officials had not been overly supportive.
"I've also been around this town long enough to know that if no one is calling you and saying 'Hang in there,' that that is not a great signal either," she said.
Mr. Bush said he was saddened by the news and still believes she would have been a strong addition to his Cabinet. Calling her a friend, he added, "I understand her reluctance to move forward."
Knowledgeable transition officials who knew Mrs. Chavez would withdraw long before she announced it said privately that her likely replacement will be Elaine Chao, who served in the administration of Mr. Bush's father before heading the United Way.
While Mrs. Chao wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican appears to be the likely choice, others are on the short list. Among them are former Rep. James M. Talent of Missouri; Stephen Goldsmith, former Indianapolis mayor and a Bush adviser; Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee; and Rep. Jennifer Dunn, Washington Republican.
At her press conference, Mrs. Chavez, 53, surrounded herself with six immigrants who said she had helped them in their times of need. One young man, Josh Iturrino of New York, said he even calls her "mother."
Conspicuously absent, however, was any member of the Bush team. Chief of Staff Andrew Card had privately assured her that some senior transition officials would be at the microphone while she withdrew. But just before the press conference began, transition spokesman Tucker Eskew whispered to her that she was on her own.
Before her announcement, top Republicans had quietly begun backing away from her as they heard about conflicts in statements she had first made to the FBI and the Bush vetting team and later statements and answers she gave to two FBI agents on Sunday.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott had scheduled a meeting with her yesterday morning but then canceled it before noon.
Although she withdrew her nomination, Mrs. Chavez appeared defiant about her conduct, saying she had a difficult childhood and would always try to honor those who helped her by helping others.
She helped Mrs. Mercado "even at the time knowing that there was some risk to me," she said.
"I think I always knew that she was here illegally. I don't check green cards when I see a woman who is battered and who has no place to live and nothing to eat and no way to get on her feet.
"And I have to say to you today that, knowing everything that has happened over the last week, that if that woman showed up at my door, if I was asked by a friend to do that again, I would do it in an instant, without hesitation."
She conceded, however, that she made a mistake in not revealing the relationship to transition investigators earlier. She said she should have realized her conduct would be "misinterpreted."
Mrs. Chavez, a longtime commentator and conservative labor activist, is the first Bush nominee to withdraw. She already was facing tough resistance from labor unions, who object to her opposition to affirmative action and raising the minimum wage.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the labor movement would mount as much of a campaign against former Sen. John Ashcroft for attorney general and Gale A. Norton for interior secretary as it had against Mrs. Chavez.
"We pledge to do everything in our power, working with our allies in the civil-rights, women's rights and environmental communities to persuade the Senate to reject these nominations," Mr. Sweeney told a news conference yesterday.
It was, however, the story of Mrs. Mercado that destroyed Mrs. Chavez's chances. ABC News reported over the weekend that Mrs. Chavez had employed Mrs. Mercado, who was then not eligible to work in the United States, as a housekeeper in 1991 and 1992.
While the Bush team discouraged Mrs. Chavez from dropping out after the story first broke, some Republicans became concerned about reports that she made statements to a neighbor about the illegal alien she had befriended.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the neighbor, Peggy Zwisler, employed the Guatemalan woman for household tasks between 1991 and 1993. The newspaper said the FBI was investigating whether a conversation between Mrs. Chavez and Mrs. Zwisler last month was an attempt to influence how Mrs. Zwisler would respond to an FBI background check on the nominee.
The attorney who spoke to the Journal on Mrs. Zwisler's behalf was Neil Eggleston, the former White House associate counsel who worked with Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos on Whitewater scandal damage control.
Internet columnist Matt Drudge first reported the link, noting that Mr. Stephanopoulos now works for ABC News, which broke the story.
Last night, Mrs. Chavez said she was clear with her neighbor.
"I told her if the FBI came to talk to her to tell the truth. I didn't need to tell her that, she's a lawyer," she said on CNN.
But after the ABC report, other news organizations expanded the story, asking whether she had lied to the Bush transition team and the FBI about the relationship.
Mrs. Chavez in large part blamed the media gathered before her for her downfall.
"Unfortunately, because of the way in which the stories have played over the last few days, the fact that all of you have made, I think, a great deal more of this story than need be and have, in my view, not told the story of some of the people around me, I have decided that I am becoming a distraction and, therefore, I have asked President Bush to withdraw my name for secretary of labor," she told reporters.
She left after taking only a few questions and refused to answer shouts of reporters demanding to know if she had lied to the FBI or tried to cover up her behavior.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the "silver lining" to Mrs. Chavez's withdrawal is that Mr. Bush now can appoint a labor secretary "in the distinguished tradition of recent Republican presidents."
Those secretaries, including John Dunlop and Elizabeth Dole, were effective in "enforc[ing] the nation's labor laws fairly for the benefit of all America's working families," Mr. Kennedy said in a statement released by his office.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, sounded a similar theme, adding that Mrs. Chavez made the right decision in withdrawing.
"There should be no question that the person who is in charge of enforcing America's labor laws respects those laws herself," Mr. Daschle said in a statement released minutes after Mrs. Chavez's announcement.
The union opponents of Mrs. Chavez's nomination, ironically, have called for more lenient rules for employing illegal immigrants. The AFL-CIO last year called for a blanket amnesty for illegals.
John Godfrey contributed to this report.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide