The Basement Tapes

If only Linda Chavez had spoken more than English only, she might still be George W. Bush's nominee for Secretary of Labor.

If only Chavez had spoken Spanish, for example, she might have understood immediately that her new pet charity back in the early '90s, Marta Mercado, was in the country illegally from Guatemala -- and that by housing Mercado in her basement, giving her odd jobs and occasionally throwing money at her, Chavez could be in violation of both INS and labor laws.

If only.

But Linda Chavez didn't want to speak Spanish, and she didn't want to understand Mercado's status in this country (how different is the pronunciation of legal from the English, anyway?). She wanted to have her clothes ironed and her house cleaned, and still become Secretary of Labor.

Her hypocrisy loses nothing in the translation.

"In folklore, there are many trampa -- caught in one's own trap -- stories," says cantadora and psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "where the antagonist admonishes or punishes others, but in the end is caught doing the same or worse. Once caught, the character tries to talk their way out of trouble but usually digs themselves deeper instead. When such 'spin' goes on in their story, when the character's stories conflict, when his or her stories keep changing, we say, 'Son muchos los diablos y poco la agua bendita' -- Look! There are too many devils loose and not enough holy water to go around!

"This means only God knows the real story and that a person digging pits for others to fall into ought to be careful how deep they dig...for they are likely to fall in themselves and disappear."

Minutes after Bush announced Chavez's nomination on January 2, critics started complaining -- particularly in Colorado, and especially among Hispanics. Although she was a Chicano activist in her University of Colorado days, Chavez took a right turn almost immediately after, and she's continued in that direction ever since -- first as staff director for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under President Ronald Reagan, then as a champion of the Official English movement, then as president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C., policy group.

But Chavez was not forced to bow out because of her archaic positions on labor (she opposes the minimum wage) or affirmative action (having benefited from it, she's against it) or discrimination laws (too restrictive for employers) or the English language (it rules!). And while Chavez's syndicated columns -- which appear in the Denver Post, as well as in numerous other papers that need to fill their conservative Hispanic female quota -- would have provided plenty of delicious fodder during her Senate confirmation hearings, she won't get the chance to eat her words. Her work on Official English cost her a speaking engagement at the University of Colorado a decade ago -- she showed up anyway, and waved the U.S. Constitution at students -- but it didn't cost her the Cabinet position.

On Tuesday afternoon -- two days after the Mercado story first broke, just one day after Bush said he was "confident" about his nominee, and hours after Republican leaders suggested quite the opposite -- Chavez withdrew her name from consideration. "I believe I would have made a great Secretary of Labor," she announced, "but I have decided that I am becoming a distraction."

And clearly becoming distracted, too, since Chavez's version of the story kept changing. In the early '90s, Mercado -- "a battered woman," Chavez says -- had been introduced to her by a friend. She gave Mercado a bed in the basement of her Maryland home, gave her some duties, gave her some money. At first Chavez told reporters that she didn't know Mercado was in the country illegally -- Chavez doesn't speak Spanish, remember? But on Tuesday, Chavez acknowledged that she'd indeed been aware of Mercado's status. And it's illegal to house an illegal alien, much less hire one.

Chavez announced her withdrawal against a backdrop of people she'd helped in the past, including three immigrants -- two Hispanic women and a Vietnamese -- who told the press of how Chavez had aided them when they first came to this country. Helping Mercado was another act of charity, she said. "Knowing everything that has happened over the last week, if that woman showed up at my door...I would do it in an instant, without hesitation," Chavez said.

But she still wasn't ready to take responsibility for violating the same laws that had torpedoed Cabinet nominations before -- including that of Zoe Baird, Clinton's short-lived pick for attorney general, whose two illegal-alien housekeepers became an issue eight years ago. That was back when Mercado was living at Chavez's home. "I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she hired an illegal alien," Chavez said during a 1993 PBS interview. (Mercado moved out of her home late that year.) "That was what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes."

Strong words for a future Secretary of Labor nominee.

And Chavez had more strong words on Tuesday. She alternately blamed the media (forgetting that she's a member of that august group), the FBI, a Democratic lawyer and "search-and-destroy" politics for her fall. (Why not just lump them into one vast left-wing conspiracy and be done with it?) She was blaming anyone but herself.

But she'd dug her own hole. The devil was in the details.

"It's an insult that she was presented as a representative of us," says Tony Garcia, a teacher of Chicano studies at Metro State College and artistic director of El Centro Su Teatro. "There's no new ideology that Linda Chavez is advancing -- any more than Ken Hamblin is," he adds, referring to another right-leaning Colorado export, the self-professed Black Avenger. "You can be much more successful as a conservative person of color than a progressive person of color. The system is going to be a lot happier with you if you're supporting it."

Garcia is the author of La Carpa Aztlan Presents "I Don't Speak English Only," Su Teatro's most successful production. "The whole thing started in 1988 or 1989, when Colorado became an Official English state," he remembers. "I thought the opposition was tepid, at best. What they were attacking was the whole concept of multiculturalism." So he wrote a play that takes place in the future, when any foreign language is illegal -- and the characters break the law by speaking Spanish.

Chavez wasn't the only inspiration behind the play. Parts quoting Pat Buchanan verbatim were often criticized as too stereotypical, since "nobody could be that racist," Garcia remembers critics saying.

Unlike Buchanan, however, Chavez devoted much of her career to attacking her own people. "It's self-loathing," Garcia says.

And it's an old, old story.

On Tuesday, it was Linda Chavez's turn to get swallowed up -- not by search-and-destroy politics, but by the very devils she'd let loose.

With Linda Chavez out, Colorado still has a chance to contribute a woman to the Bush Cabinet: Gale Norton's confirmation hearing is scheduled for January 18. And while Norton was a surprise choice to head the Department of the Interior (from Colorado's insular altitude, Ben Nighthorse Campbell had seemed destined to ride his Harley right into the White House), her background is unlikely to hold the sort of surprises that could scuttle her nomination before it reaches the Senate. No skeletons in her closet (although she was once a Libertarian), no Guatemalan in her Highlands Ranch basement: just a law office full of opinions and legal actions that give environmentalists fits.

Although many of those opinions are certain to get a thorough airing next Thursday, Norton's more recent work here at home may not. After her eight-year stint as Colorado attorney general ended in 1998, she signed on with the infamous firm of Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber: Her clients there included Black Hawk -- when the good folks of that burg aren't using all their gaming proceeds to fix up the same Victorian houses that got fixed up last year, they're scraping off more mountains so that ever bigger gambling establishments will generate ever more proceeds -- and the Colorado Civil Justice League. That's the outfit trying to introduce tort reform in Colorado, whether it needs it or not. (It doesn't.)

Wait -- Norton may have a stiff in the armoir after all: Jake Jabs is the league's president.


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