Impenitent Chavez quits

Ties to illegal immigrant are her undoing

Bush `saddened' Labor nominee will not serve

GOP support was eroding

Capital's `politics `of ... destruction' blamed, decried

January 10, 2001|By Susan Baer and David L. Greene | Susan Baer and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Linda Chavez, President-elect George W. Bush's choice to be labor secretary, withdrew from consideration yesterday after revelations that she provided housing and money to an illegal immigrant had begun to erode her support among Republicans.

Staging a somewhat defiant announcement at which she asked several immigrants she had helped in the past to testify to her kindness and compassion, Chavez, 53, decried the "politics of personal destruction." She said she was removing herself from consideration because her nomination had become a "distraction" to Bush.

Chavez's decision was made after the Bush camp made clear to her its displeasure that she had not been forthcoming from the start about a potential threat to her Senate confirmation.

"I believe I would have made a great secretary of labor," she said, speaking dispassionately, her husband and her advocates assembled behind her.

Speaking to reporters last night upon arriving in Washington for a two-day visit, Bush said he was "saddened" that Chavez "will not be in my Cabinet."

He added: "I absolutely believe she would have been a fine Cabinet secretary. I considered her a friend before, and I consider her a friend now."

As recently as Monday, Bush had expressed confidence in Chavez and her prospects for confirmation. The withdrawal, just a week after Bush had tapped the former Reagan official and syndicated columnist, was the first stumble in what has been a relatively smooth transition.

Chavez's confirmation prospects looked increasingly bleak after revelations Sunday that, from 1991 to 1993, she provided housing for an illegal Guatemalan immigrant, Marta Mercado, and that Chavez occasionally gave the woman money. Mercado said she did occasional housekeeping chores for Chavez during that time.

Under immigration law, it is illegal to knowingly house or employ someone who is not in the country legally, according to a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Chavez insisted that Mercado was not an employee, but rather a battered woman in need whom she had taken into her home as an act of kindness.

"I'm not Mother Teresa," Chavez said yesterday. "However, I have tried to do right by people who have been in need. 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."

Bush aides not only had become increasingly worried about Chavez's arrangement with Mercado, but also had begun to question her openness.

A source close to the transition team said that after the FBI conducted a further review of the facts this week - in light of the Mercado news that was first reported Sunday by ABC News - it became clear to Bush officials late Monday that Chavez "had not been totally forthcoming about all this."

Chavez admitted yesterday that she did not volunteer information about Mercado to Bush advisers and FBI agents in their first interviews of her as a prospective Cabinet nominee, which she conceded played a role in her undoing.

In fact, Bush said Monday that he first learned about the Mercado situation Sunday.

"Did I make a mistake? Absolutely," Chavez said, adding that she was remiss in not "coming forward with it at the first available opportunity."

What's more, Bush aides said, Chavez told them Sunday she had not known that Mercado was in the country illegally until after the woman had left her Bethesda house in 1993 to return to Guatemala.

But yesterday, at her announcement, Chavez offered a different account.

"I will be very frank with you," she said when asked when she first knew that Mercado was undocumented. "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."

Mercado had said in interviews this week that Chavez became aware of her illegal status months after she moved into her house.

The disclosure about Mercado added fuel to the opposition that her nomination had already been encountering on policy grounds. Liberal advocacy groups and labor unions were poised to fight the nomination because of the conservative columnist's opposition to such policies as affirmative action and the minimum wage.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI was looking into a conversation Chavez had had last month with a former neighbor, Margaret Zwisler, who employed the Guatemalan woman at Chavez's behest.

Those familiar with Zwisler's account said Chavez told her she did not plan to raise the subject of Mercado if she was nominated for a position in the Bush administration and had to undergo a background investigation, the newspaper reported.

But in the CNN interview last night, Chavez said that, in their conversation, she simply told Zwisler that "if the FBI came to talk to her, as I assumed they would, I told her to tell the truth."

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