Confirmation fight looms for conservative Chavez

Civil rights, labor and women's groups eye Bush nominee

January 05, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In her debut days in Washington nearly three decades ago, a young, politically ambitious Democrat named Linda Chavez worked for one of the Senate's most liberal members and was herself so left of center that she and her husband belonged to a group called the Young People's Socialist League.

But somewhere along her way to this week's nomination by President-elect George W. Bush to head the Labor Department, Chavez - inspired by Ronald Reagan and a growing sense that affirmative action and other nods to multicultural society did more harm than good - reversed allegiances.

And today, the 53-year-old syndicated newspaper columnist is thought by her fellow conservatives to be the real thing: an outspoken partisan whose nomination is delighting conservatives as much as it is infuriating civil rights, labor and women's groups.

"She embodies the term `movement conservative,'" says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. "She's of the conservative movement, perhaps more so than any other Cabinet selection. She's definitely one of them."

Chavez's Senate confirmation is likely to be as combative, if not more so, as that of former Sen. John Ashcroft, another conservative stalwart whose nomination is being fought by liberal advocates.

Those groups, caught by surprise by Chavez's nomination as was the nominee herself, according to friends, are analyzing her record to decide whether to formally oppose the nomination. Such groups have said that they are disturbed by Chavez's opposition to affirmative action, bilingual education, increases in the minimum wage and many forms of welfare.

Unions such as the AFL-CIO, calling her nomination "an insult to American working men and women," say they fear that Chavez would abandon one of the labor secretary's chief responsibilities: ensuring that federal contractors follow affirmative action policies in employing and promoting more than 20 million people.

Ralph G. Neas, president of the group People for the American Way, called her selection a "poke in the eye" to everyone concerned about civil rights issues.

"She has an awful record across the board on civil rights issues," Neas says. "It does compel us to do something."

Aside from her zigzag political trajectory, Chavez's story is one filled with paradoxes.

She is Hispanic, born in New Mexico to a father of Spanish descent and a blond, blue-eyed mother of English and Irish ancestry. But she speaks little Spanish and many Hispanic groups are among her sharpest critics.

Similarly, she cut her political teeth in the labor movement, working as a lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers. Yet she has become a nemesis to much of organized labor over her stands on issues of workers' rights and job protections.

She is a cool, poised and articulate spokeswoman for her causes. But she has sparked confrontation at nearly every turn, even as a graduate teaching assistant in the 1970s when she provoked a student walkout at UCLA by assigning Anglo authors as part of a course on Chicano literature.

"I do go against the grain," she once said in an interview.

One of those who has crossed swords with Chavez will sit in judgment of her at her confirmation hearings and will ultimately vote on her nomination. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a member of the labor committee that will conduct the hearing, defeated her in 1986 when Chavez, a relative newcomer to Maryland, and to the Republican Party, ran for the Senate.

The race grew particularly heated after Chavez attacked Mikulski as a "San Francisco-style liberal Democrat" and contrasted Mikulski's status as a single woman with the fact that she herself was the mother of three.

"Barbara Mikulski and I are both women, but that's where our similarities end," Chavez said during the campaign.

Asked this week if she had any hard feelings toward Chavez because of the 1986 contest, Mikulski said: "All I remember is winning."

Of Chavez's nomination, the senator said, "The three criteria that I will be looking at are competence, integrity and a commitment to the mission of the agency. The Department of Labor was established to protect, enhance and promote the well-being of working people. And I'll be interested to see if she'll support the very programs she's benefited from."

Chavez has acknowledged that her Hispanic heritage has helped her land jobs. Yet she has spent much of the past 20 years working, speaking and writing against affirmative action programs.

In 1983, still a Democrat, she became staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan after her writings on traditional values caught the eye of William J. Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities. While there, Chavez urged the reversal of a number of civil rights policies, including racial preferences as a remedy for discrimination.

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