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Under fire, nominee bows out

Bush quickly nudges aside his pick for labor secretary, Linda Chavez, who blames "search and destroy'' politics.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001


WASHINGTON -- In his very first test under fire as president-elect, George W. Bush demonstrated Tuesday that he knows how to cut his losses.

Rather than fight to defend his nominee as secretary of labor, Linda Chavez, Bush allowed her -- in fact, encouraged her -- to withdraw her name. Thus he avoided a bruising battle with organized labor that would have distracted him from what he sees as the main event: getting the Senate to confirm his controversial nominee for attorney general, former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri.

Bush dropped Chavez with lightening speed, but Chavez did not go quietly. Although she had been part of the chorus of critics who scuttled the nomination of Zoe Baird, President Clinton's first choice as attorney general in 1993, Chavez bitterly condemned her own critics as practitioners of "the politics of personal destruction."

"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 told a hastily called news conference. "What has happened over the last few days is quite typical of what happens in Washington, D.C."

Coincidentally, Chavez was under attack for a mistake similar to Baird's.

She admitted she had invited an illegal immigrant into her home in the early 1990s, had relied on the woman to do chores around the house, had provided her with money and also had helped her find employment doing housework for a neighbor. She also admitted she had failed to disclose this fact when questioned by Bush's advisers.

Bush clearly realized a comparison would be made between Chavez and Baird. He also knew that his actions would be compared with Clinton's. Clinton had supported Baird for a month, until it became obvious that her nomination would be rejected by the Senate. Bush, instead, announced he was "disappointed that Linda Chavez will not become our nation's next secretary of labor."

Democrats saw Chavez's withdrawal as her only choice, given the similarity between her case and Baird's. "I am afraid she had no choice," said Clinton's former labor secretary, Robert Reich. "That precedent has been established."

In the final analysis, cutting Chavez loose was easy for Bush. Not only does he want to focus his attention on winning confirmation of Ashcroft, but Chavez -- unlike many of Bush's other appointees -- has never been a Bush insider. Furthermore, members of the Bush family are notoriously unsympathetic to people who cause them needless embarrassment, as Chavez did.

Bush said he first learned about Chavez's immigrant houseguest when it was reported Sunday on network television.

For her part, Chavez hotly denied any comparison between her case and Baird's. She insisted that her interest in Marta Mercado, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, was strictly humanitarian, and she did not see herself as the woman's employer. Baird admitted she employed a Peruvian couple to work in her home knowing they were illegal immigrants and also failed to pay Social Security taxes for them.

"My relationship with Marta was quite different," Chavez insisted.

Asked if this experience had caused her to reconsider her earlier criticism of Baird, she replied: "I do not believe that Zoe Baird was treated unfairly."

Ironically, the primary critics of Chavez's nomination were not particularly interested in her relationship with Mercado. Instead, the AFL-CIO had announced that it would oppose Chavez on grounds that she was anti-labor. Among other things, labor unions disagreed with her opposition to affirmative action and the minimum wage.

Although Chavez insisted she was withdrawing voluntarily because the controversy surrounding her nomination was becoming "a distraction," top officials in the Bush camp made no secret of the fact that they had pushed her into it.

Normally, a political nominee who is forced to withdraw simply issues a printed statement to the news media, expressing regret. But Chavez, 53, who has made her reputation as a television commentator, instead held a news conference to which she had invited five immigrants who -- like Mercado -- she had assisted in the past. All five of them testified that without Chavez's help, they would never have become American citizens.

"I love Linda very much," said Celena Iturrino, an adolescent girl whose mother benefited from Chavez's charity. "She's like a second mother to me."

In Mercado's case, Chavez said, she invited the woman to live in her home for about two years because she had fled an "abusive relationship" and needed somewhere to live. She acknowledged she knew that Mercado had entered the United States illegally, but added: "If that woman showed up at my door . . . again, I would do that without hesitation."

Bush, who will take the oath of office Jan. 20, gave no indication when he would announce a new nominee for labor secretary. Among those previously under consideration for the job were former Rep. Jim Talent, R-Mo., Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., former RNC Chairman Rich Bond, and Elaine L. Chao, former deputy transportation secretary and wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

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