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Linda Chavez Withdraws as Labor Secretary Nominee

Aired January 9, 2001 - 4:01 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: At any moment we are expecting to hear from Linda Chavez, and CNN White House correspondent John King is told that she will withdrawn her name as the Bush nominee to head the Department of Labor.

Earlier today, CNN learned that Chavez is being investigated by the FBI about statements she made about the Guatemalan immigrant who once lived in her home. That woman, Marta Mercado, told CNN this morning that Chavez was aware at least part of the time that Mercado was in the country illegally. Now, that conflicts with what Chavez has said, that she didn't learn of Mercado's legal status until after Mercado left her home.

Earlier today, we also learned that the FBI is investigating whether Chavez may have attempted to influence a neighbor's recollection of the Mercado story. And we've also learned that Republicans are examining new names as possible nominees for secretary of labor.

As we await Linda Chavez, let's go to Washington and CNN's Eileen O'Connor.

Eileen, tell us what the expectations are now.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm being told by a family member that Linda Chavez will come out here to make an announcement. The family members say they don't want to jump the story, but that she will come out here with some people that she has helped in the past. And they say that that's what she was trying to do this time, was help Marta Mercado, who they said was a battered woman, and they helped her, going through a severe depression: that she was brought to the home by mutual friends. And that -- and this source says that they did in fact know that she was an illegal immigrant from the very beginning.

But it was that fact -- and the Bush-Cheney transition team, who say that they did not know that she was illegal, and that Linda Chavez did not say that until after she was being questioned by the FBI. It was that, that made this, as one Republican source says, an almost impossible sell. This was already a controversial nomination. But now, it was almost an impossible sell.

There were troubling discrepancies, according to the FBI, according to sources that said that the FBI was troubled by several discrepancies between Linda Chavez's account and that of Marta Mercado and also that of some neighbors, who were around at the time. Some of the neighbors had actually employed Marta Mercado in their home.

The question was: Did Linda Chavez employ Marta Mercado? Did she know she was illegal? And also, did she try to influence either the neighbor's testimony to the FBI or Marta Mercado's testimony?

When I spoke to Ms. Mercado, she said that she tried to refresh her memory, but she denied that there was any -- any attempted influencing her testimony to the FBI. She encouraged her to talk to the FBI.

But it was those discrepancies that led, according to sources, the Bush-Cheney transition team, to pressure Ms. Chavez to withdraw her nomination. And now two sources, two Republican sources telling CNN that, telling John King, our senior White House correspondent, that she will in fact withdraw her nomination in a few minutes.

The family member, though, telling me that they are chalking it up to this town and what they call the politics of personal destruction -- Joie.

CHEN: Eileen, on that particular subject, we know that there had been some movement by the AFL-CIO, other labor groups to try to put pressure against this nomination. Do they figure that this has figured into the equation, or are they really looking at it as this particular issue about this one woman, it was enough to derail the nomination?

O'CONNOR: No, really, this nomination, as even Republicans and Democratic sources said, it was a troubling nomination from the beginning: It was a difficult nomination from the beginning. Linda Chavez is a conservative. She is obviously -- she's a Catholic, she's a woman, and she has very strong stands on workers' rights and immigrant rights, and stands that the AFL-CIO does not like.

They say she is very bad on defending workers' rights and that she has a history of not defending workers' rights, and that this was an illustration of that fact, that while she may have been housing an illegal immigrant, she also helped that woman get a job and was paid during that time. And they say that that is against immigration law, and that if she was going to be in charge of defending labor law, that this was certainly troubling.

But you know, Joie, the AFL-CIO held a meeting at 2 o'clock this afternoon on how to mobilize their forces against this nomination, and they said really this was not the issue they wanted to fight her on, on whether she had housed an illegal immigrant. They said they wanted to fight her on the issues and that that was really troubling them.

And as Republican sources say, it was the fact that she is so controversial a nomination, plus this fact that while it was a difficult nomination at the beginning, it became an almost impossible sell, according to one source -- Joie.

CHEN: Eileen, we're going to ask you to stand by here, and we are going to remind our viewers that we are expecting any minute now Linda Chavez to speak before reporters where Eileen is in Washington, the Bush-Cheney transition offices, at the press room there.

We want to turn now to CNN political analyst Charlie Cook. He is also in Washington.

Talk to us about this nomination and how it did get derailed. It's not that Linda Chavez apparently believes she did anything wrong, but apparently this is enough to drive things off course. Why?

CHARLIE COOK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that you -- when you're up for a nomination, you have to confess all, and you have to anticipate what might be a problem based on what has been a problem for past nominees. And she clearly had not been forthcoming with the Bush transition folks and seemed to be less than forthcoming to the FBI, and that's a very bad thing to happen.

You know, the Bush people had a lot of criticism that they were recycling old officials from past administrations, and the good thing about recycling high-visibility people is they've already been vetted. But Linda Chavez has never played on this level before, and she was kind of pushed through in a rush, and really wasn't properly vetted, or so that -- so that appears.

There were a lot of Republicans that were pushing for former Congressman Jim Talent from Missouri, who had just lost the governor's race and is a labor lawyer by training. They'd been pushing for him to be the labor secretary, but I think the appeal of going with a Hispanic woman was too great, and Bush decided to go with her. And we see -- see now what happens.

CHEN: And we note here that some of the sources are telling CNN that Congressman -- former Congressman Talent would up among the names under consideration again if Ms. Chavez does pull her name out of the hat here.

Now, there's also this notion that there had been the AFL-CIO pressure, that they had been building up something of a campaign to try to -- to derail her nomination. And yet, this is not what did it. Is that going to change the course of the discussions when whoever is the eventual nominee does come up?

COOK: Oh, it's hard to tell. I mean, the thing is you can argue this either way. You can say that the AFL-CIO, the labor movement went all-out for Al Gore and for Democrats. Therefore, they lost all leverage or any little leverage that they would have with a Republican president. So they have to take what's given to them.

But at the same time, I think that they saw, particularly given how forceful Chavez has articulated themes that were so, they perceived it to be, anti-organized labor, that they saw this nomination as a poke in the eye, and that some of the moderates that were named to other Cabinet positions, they had sort of wished that one of those had gone to labor rather than someone who had been -- who had become so vehemently anti-labor, they say, which was ironic for someone who had used to be with the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.

CHEN: And Charlie, we just want to remind our viewers of what they're seeing in the big screen there is the view of the podium at the Bush-Cheney transition headquarters. They're waiting for the labor secretary nominee of the Bush administration, Linda Chavez, to come out and speak with reporters. Again, the thinking now is that she will be withdrawing her nomination.

Is it possible that the Bush folks would have been able to fight it out on her behalf, Charlie? I mean, is it possible that they could have pushed this one through?

COOK: Well, after this morning, it started taking a turn for the worst. I thought as recently as yesterday afternoon, yesterday evening that this was survivable, that she had taken a tough hit, that one more hit would have gone over, would have pushed her over the side. But when you started having the story in this morning's "Wall Street Journal," for example, that she had called her former neighbor and had coached her on what to say to the FBI if she were questioned, and it started becoming clear that she had been a lot less than forthcoming with the Bush folks, I think that's what sort of tipped it -- tipped her over the side, that particularly trying to coach -- to coach a witness against the FBI, that's a -- that's pretty bad medicine. That will get you into serious trouble every time.

And so I think from this morning on she was untenable. It was just a question of how long was it going to be before she would be pushed over the side.

CHEN: I think there's going to be some suspicion about a controversial nominee like this and people who are going to ask the question, where does a story like to this come from? How did this surface? How did it surface at this particular moment?

COOK: Well, that's why -- one of the problems with being controversial is that there are a lot of people out to get you. And you can be sure that everything in her past had been gone over with a fine-tooth comb. And the fact is -- let's say she was up for EPA. In fact, as I remember, there was some nanny problem or alleged nanny problem for Christie Todd Whitman. But the thing about it is that's probably not a killer for her, because, No. 1, it has nothing to do with her job as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and two, she had never been like on the ramparts attacking.

Or let me back up and go a different direction. Because Linda Chavez had been so aggressive in her criticism of Zoe Baird when she was up for attorney general back in 1993, as Clinton's first name for nominee for attorney general, she -- she -- she was criticizing Zoe Baird on this very set of grounds. And so, that's why I think Linda Chavez had a glass jaw on this. When she was found guilty of a similar infraction, that that, particularly for a secretary of labor, that she was a goner.

CHEN: I have to ask you this question. It is a difficult one, and I know we only have a moment here before we have to take a break. But does the fact that Linda Chavez is Hispanic figure into this? COOK: Well, I think -- frankly, I think left-of-center groups might be more -- a little bit more hesitant about attacking her because she is a Hispanic woman. So I don't think -- no, I don't think that drew any more fire: although actually maybe there is an argument that because she used to work within the labor movement, because she was a former Democratic National Committee staffer, that there may have been more anger toward her than there might be toward someone else.

But no, I don't think that being a Hispanic woman had a lot to do with the fact that she drew so much opposition, but I think it did have a whole lot to do with her getting named to that particular position.

CHEN: Charlie, we ask you to stand by here. We are seeing some movement at Bush-Cheney transition headquarters. That is where CNN's Eileen O'Connor is standing by as well.

Eileen, we understand Ms. Chavez very quickly will be in?

O'CONNOR: Yes, she will, in about a minute and 45 seconds. They just gave us the two-minute warning.

I also wanted to talk about what Charlie was saying, is he's right in the sense that, you know, Democrats on Capitol Hill were saying they were going to find it difficult and they were not going to attack Ms. Chavez during the hearings on the fact that she had housed an illegal immigrant, because she had talked about that as an act of compassion. But they did say that they were going to talk to her about hypocrisy and the fact that she had been so critical of Zoe Baird, who was nominated for attorney general under the Clinton administration.

And she had said on "The MacNeil-Lehrer" report that basically it was because she hired an illegal immigrant that the American people were upset with this. And this was at the same time that she was housing Ms. Mercado and also that she was finding Ms. Mercado, or helping her find, some employment within the neighborhood. And so, that, they say, was what they were going to question her on.

CHEN: I wonder, Charlie, if you think that there really is that much public pressure, not political pressure, but public pressure on something like this when we live in a society where so many people have hired undocumented workers who work in their homes to take care of their kids, whatever.

COOK: No, I think that this is an argument, the nanny problem, that both sides are very -- are tired of and wish would go away. And I think it's because of this appearance of hypocrisy is why it's alive here.

O'CONNOR: Yes, go.

COOK: But basically, everybody...

CHEN: All right. COOK: OK.

CHEN: Linda Chavez coming to the microphones. Let's listen to what she has to say.

LINDA CHAVEZ, LABOR SECRETARY NOMINEE: Hi. I'm Linda Chavez. I guess you all know that. I guess everybody in America knows I'm Linda Chavez. Can't go anywhere these days.

My, what a difference a week makes. I saw all of you about a week ago, and as I'm sure many of you will recall, I began this adventure by invoking my parents and by talking about where I came from and how I grew up. I didn't have an easy life growing up. I faced a lot of adversity, particularly in my young childhood. I had -- often one or another of my parents was in the hospital. My father got into a number of car accidents and spent a great deal of time in the hospital; so did my mother. And in every one of those incidents there was always someone there to help me. Family members took me in. Friends helped. There was financial and other kinds of support for me when I was growing up and I needed it.

And I vowed to myself that, no matter what happened to me in my life, that I would be there for other people. And I've tried to do that. I have tried to live my life that way, throughout my life.

I've not led a perfect life. I don't think anybody has. 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.

CHAVEZ: But in order to try to put perspective some of the stories that have been out there over the last several days involving a Guatemalan woman whom I took into my home in the early 1990s, who came from a very abusive relationship, who fled Guatemala at a the time of turmoil in that country, who landed in the United States knowing no one and having no friends and having no place to live and no way to support herself, I was asked by a friend if I would, in fact, provide her a room in my home and try to help her so that she could get back on her feet and eventually return to her family in Guatemala. And I did that.

And I did that even at the time knowing that there was some risk to me in doing it. 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.

I'd like to introduce some people to you today who have some stories to tell. And I have never been one who has been very public about the things I do for other people, but I thought it was necessary in order to give some perspective to this story, to introduce some of these people to you today.

CHAVEZ: The first person I want to introduce to you today is Margarita Viadoris (ph). Margarita has known me, I guess, probably longer than any of the other people up here, other than my family. And Margarita if you'll step forward and say a few words.

MARGARITA VIADORIS: I've known Linda for about 23 years. And when I met her, you know, I hardly spoke any English. I was, you know, starting my life in this country, so she supported me in all the ways. She encouraged me to go to school. She encouraged me also to become a citizen. She also helped me to get my first job in the federal government.

Thanks to her, today I have a good life. My kids are in college. You know, I have a good job in the federal government.

I always will be, you know, grateful to Linda and Chris, both of them. They are a family who will help anybody, no matter who the person is in time of needs. No matter what they problem, you know, they're always there.

Up to now, she always have call me sometimes to make sure that my kids are doing well in school, that my family is fine.

VIADORIS (ph): You know she's always, you know, concerned about me and all the people that she knows. That's all I have to say.

CHAVEZ: Benson Bui (ph), if you would come forward, please?

BENSON BUI (ph): My name is Benson Bui (ph) from South Vietnam. I come into from 1979. I just say only three things. The first thing is that if I don't have Linda Chavez, so that mean I don't have everything today, because she help me when I come down here with my young brother. And she teach me everything for the customs of American people and help me go to school and to get opportunity today.

Myself and all my family right now and my children -- so I don't know what I say but I with hope in my heart right now. That's all I want to say. Thank you.

CHAVEZ: I'd also now like to ask Ada Iterino (ph) to come forward and to talk. And I don't know if you want to have Josh (ph) and Selenia (ph) say anything, but Ada (ph) come forward.

ADA ITERINO (ph): Hi. I'm Ada Iterino (ph), and I met Linda Chavez about 10 years ago. She's been very helpful in my life, especially with my children. She helped them to give them a better education. I'm very thankful for that, and also she encouraged me in a lot of things, especially in my motivations to go back to school, prepare myself, that there's a future, letting me know that there's a future for me and myself and for my children also. And I'm very thankful for that.

Now, this is my family. This is Joshua, this is Christen Selenia (ph).

Thank you. JOSHUA REYES (ph): Hi, my name is Joshua Reyes (ph). I'm from Queens. You know, since the first time I met Linda, I mean, I was, kind of, afraid, I was, kind of, nervous, you know, what things she would do. I mean, but, you know, the family that she has was very loving and, you know, I really appreciated what she done. The thing is that I call her sometimes my mother because the things that she done, you know, explaining the natures and that stuff, and I was really thankful, you know, to have a family like them in their life.

And, you know, I am grateful; you know, I'm honored and I'm grateful to say, you know, thank you so much, you know, for all the life that I've ever had.

Thank you so much.

CHRISTEN SELENIA RUIZ ALTERENA (ph): Hi, my name is Christen Selenia Ruiz Alterena (ph), and I just want to say that I love Linda very much. She has been doing a lot of things in my life. And I just want to say that she's like a second -- that she's like a second mother for me. And I hope that she has a good life in the future.

CHAVEZ: Thank you very much.

I don't know if we're going to be hearing from Dr. David Bowden (ph). Dr. Bowden (ph) and I have never met. He is on an airplane coming here from Florida. He called I guess it was yesterday or sent us an e-mail and said that he wanted to help.

I've never met Dr. Bowden (ph). But back when I was in the White House, he was engaged to a Mexican woman who had inadvertently during the process of her legalization gone home, I guess to visit her family. And was then informed that because she had left the country during this very critical period was not going to be allowed to return and had, in fact, jeopardized her citizenship. And we have a letter here available if you'd like to read it.

He wrote his congressman, David Bonior. He wrote his senator, Carl Levin. They said, "Sorry, we can't help." At some point, somebody got him to write to the president of the United States, and I don't know exactly how it happened, but that letter ended up on my desk. And I picked up the telephone and called him and said, "I will do what I can." And I called the INS on his behalf, I called the Department of Justice.

And the long and short of the story is that Dr. Bowden's (ph) fiance was, in fact, allowed to return, they were able to get married, they have been married now for about 16 years. And I, frankly, had totally forgotten about this story until I guess it was in August, August of 2000, I got a thank you letter from him.

Somehow he had come onto my Web site, found out where I was and wanted to write me to tell me what an impact I had had in his life. So if Dr. Bowden (ph) gets here, maybe he'll have a few words to say. And I certainly would love to meet him.

I am here today, in part with the folks around me, to try to put a human face on a story. But I'm am also here because I think that what has happened over the last few days is quite typical of what happens in Washington, D.C., and unfortunately is very typical of what has happened in politics in America today. And I believe that what has happened is part of what we've seen over the last several years of the politics of personal destruction, is the phrase.

I believe that I would have made a great secretary of labor. I believe that President Bush is going to make a great president. I worked very, very hard for his election, and I want his administration to succeed.

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.

I do this with some regret, because I think that it is a very, very bad signal to all of those good people out there who want to serve their government and want to serve the people of the United States. But 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.

I want to thank you.

I would be happy to take a question or two.

QUESTION: Ms. Chavez, did you decide yourself to withdraw your name...

CHAVEZ: Absolutely.

QUESTION: ... or were you asked by the campaign?

CHAVEZ: At no time was I ever asked by the campaign. What I decided was that this was a distraction, and that this administration needs to get about the business of forming a government and getting on with governing the United States.

QUESTION: Do you believe that Zoe Baird was the victim of the politics of personal destruction and a search-and-destroy mission?

CHAVEZ: In terms of Zoe Baird, the circumstances of Zoe Baird are quite different from the circumstances involving me.

I do believe that Zoe Baird was treated unfairly. I think the American people, as you may recall -- I've actually gone back and read the news stories on this and gone back to the contemporaneous stories -- the American people, largely because of talk on talk radio, began complaining about Ms. Baird and her chauffeur and her live-in maid. And that, I think, was what happened.

I have not, by the way, seen that kind of reaction in terms of the stories that have been out there about me. I have not seen a, kind of, grassroots furor. Quite the contrary, I think there has been a, kind of, grassroots support.

I don't know what Zoe Baird's circumstances were, but I can tell you that my relationship with Marta was quite different, I believe, than Zoe Baird's with her employees, and I can certainly assure you that the people around here can attest that my relationship with Marta was nothing unique, but that was a pattern that I have had throughout my entire adult life.

QUESTION: When did Marta Mercado tell you that she was actually here illegally?

CHAVEZ: She remembers that she told me after she'd been in my house about three months. I will be very frank with you. 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.

QUESTION: Did you also help her get a job with your next-door neighbor?

CHAVEZ: I helped her in every way that I could. I drove her places to look for work. I drove her to English classes. I taught her to use the bus. I did a lot of things for her that I would do for anybody in those circumstances.

QUESTION: Did you tell the Bush people that you had housed an illegal immigrant in your home during your vetting process?

CHAVEZ: I did come to tell them that. I did not volunteer it in our very first conversation.

As some of you may know, the vetting process for nominations in this current administration are quite different than the vetting in previous administrations. And I should know something about that; I've been vetted many times before.

Normally what happens when you have someone under consideration, even after you have selected them, is that you go through a vetting procedure and it is done before that person's name is public.

In this particular administration, because of the circumstances of the Florida election, this administration has not had that normal procedure, has not been able to do that. And so they are working at some disadvantage.

One more question, one more.


QUESTION: Do you think you made any mistake at all?

CHAVEZ: Absolutely. Did I make a mistake -- absolutely. I made the mistake of not thinking through that this might be misinterpreted and coming forward with it at the first available opportunity.

I will tell you that the time period that elapsed between the very first discussion with anyone about my nomination, after I was -- actually, before I was selected, was less than a week. I had a matter of a few days. And as I say, the normal vetting procedure -- when I've been through full field investigations in the past, the normal procedure last anywhere from two weeks to six weeks.

Thank you very much.

CHEN: Linda Chavez, the labor secretary nominee of the Bush administration now saying that she has asked the Bush transition team to withdraw her name for consideration as Mr. Bush's labor secretary because of the situation that has surfaced within the news in the last few days. However, she said she was rather concerned about what she described as the politics of personal destruction that led to her making this decision.

Let's return to our CNN political analyst Charlie Cook for your evaluation of what Linda Chavez said, and how she couched her explanation of her decision to withdraw.

COOK: Well, I think she handled herself very well, as well as anybody possibly could under the circumstances: that, you know, clearly, she had been a very generous and thoughtful person in the past. She had helped some people in the past. But it's also clear that she should have been more forthcoming at an earlier stage with the Bush people. And you just kind of wonder, if she had, whether they would have picked her anyway.

But I think she handled herself very, very well, went out with a lot of grace. And I think the points that she made about the search- and-destroy nature of Washington is very, very true. And it's happened on both sides. And she's simply the most recent victim of it.

CHEN: And the public has seen this in the past, I guess, and understood that.

Eileen O'Connor rejoins us. She is the in the room now, just after Ms. Chavez's comments, as the room breaks up there.

Eileen, were there any discoveries that you were all able to ascertain in the course of Ms. Chavez's comments?

O'CONNOR: No. We had already known, as she said, the one thing was that she knew from the very beginning, that she suspected, certainly, that Marta Mercado was illegal. And the Bush-Cheney transition team indicated that she had told them that she didn't know that Ms. Mercado was illegal. And it's those kinds of discrepancies -- that we were told by sources -- which had bothered the transition team and had bothered the FBI.

And also, we were not able to ask her -- one of the things that came out was potentially whether or not she had, in fact, tried to influence the testimony of neighbors or of people involved in this investigation. And that was also troubling to the FBI. We were not able to ask her that. But basically, most of what she said had already become very clear because of our talks with Marta Mercado, and because of talks with officials.

Now, Ms. Chavez, I thought it was very interesting that she brought so many people, other people that she had helped, some of whom we had, in fact, spoken to and had put in our reports previously. She said, Joie, she wanted to put a human face on this story. And that was really interesting because, for people outside of Washington and for people inside of Washington, she wanted to, I think, put a human face to emphasize what she calls this politics of personal destruction, and to also emphasize that she thought she was doing the right thing by helping this person.

And she, in fact, has ended up being harmed by that. She also made the point, Joie, that if she had to do it all over again and someone came to her for help, even after this week, she would still help them.

CHEN: Charlie, quickly, before we have to go here -- Charlie Cook, again -- I thought it was interesting the comment she made about Zoe Baird. She was asked about that Clinton nominee, who obviously -- whose nomination was for attorney general -- she said that Zoe Baird was treated unfairly, too. Interesting to you?

COOK: Well, it was. I mean, I -- obviously, I feel badly for her at this point. But another side of me wanted to say: Well, weren't you a part of that same search-and-destroy effort? -- and that hopefully, this kind of thing will come to an end, because it really -- this isn't what should -- fights over who is going to be in the Cabinet ought to be about.

But she is absolutely right about the search-and-destroy nature. And certainly the Clintons were on the receiving end -- the Clinton administration -- the receiving end back in 1993. And now one of Governor Bush's -- president-elect Bush's people is on the receiving end right now. What comes around -- what goes around comes around.

CHEN: All right. And we want to read here a statement from the president-elect, Mr. Bush, regarding Linda Chavez and her decision.

His statement is: "Linda is a good person with a great deal of compassion for people from all walks of life. Her upbringing and her life's work prepared her well for the issues facing the Labor Department. I am disappointed," writes president-elect Bush, "that Linda Chavez will not become our nation's next secretary of labor" -- again, withdrawing her nomination this afternoon.

CNN's coverage of the situation involving Linda Chavez, as well as other news, will continue after a break. Stay with us.



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