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The Most Hated Conservative: A Conversation With Linda Chavez

A Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez

December 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 NATIONAL REVIEW. All rights reserved. 

Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, is author of the recently released An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal (Or How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in America). The book was written in part as a memoir after having to step aside as President Bush's first choice for secretary of labor, when controversy swirled around an illegal immigrant who lived with her family a decade earlier. Chavez recently talked to NRO about the book, the aborted Cabinet nomination, immigration, the Republican party, and more.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: President Bush told you from the get-go that you were going to be hard to get confirmed. Why didn't the Bush administration fight for your nomination? Do you wish they had?

Linda Chavez: With President Bush soaring in public-opinion polls today, it's tempting to look back at my nomination and say, Why didn't they fight harder? But January 2001 was a very different time. The president-elect was still viewed with suspicion by many Americans, having very narrowly won election. The Florida debacle had eaten up precious time to put together his Cabinet and they wanted to get on with governing. Of course, I didn't help matters by not telling them I had housed an illegal alien a decade earlier – which made my already contentious nomination even more difficult. The Bush transition team did what they had to do, and I certainly don't fault them. What's more, I think my stepping aside probably paved the way for other controversial nominees, like John Ashcroft, to make it through the process. The Democrats were out for blood, and my scalp helped appease their appetite.

Lopez: Who's your favorite Cabinet member?

Chavez: My favorite Cabinet member is Donald Rumsfeld. He has been a terrific leader in this time of trial. Although I don't know him well, he also was wonderfully supportive during my nomination ordeal, which I write about in my book. I am also very fond of Elaine Chao, an old friend who is doing a great job at the Labor Department, and of Gail Norton, another friend from Colorado, who is showing real leadership at Interior.

Lopez: Why are Republicans so bad on bilingual education?

Chavez: Republicans are basically scared of the bilingual-education issue. They seem to buy into all the radical-chic rhetoric that opposition to bilingual education is tantamount to being anti-Hispanic, when nothing could be further from the truth. If someone were trying to devise a more racist program they couldn't come up with anything worse than bilingual education, which deprives Hispanic youngsters of the single most important skill they need: the ability to speak, read, and write English well. Bilingual education – a misnomer, since it is basically Spanish-only education – has failed an entire generation of Hispanics. Thankfully, students in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts now have an alternative English-immersion program, which is working wonders to improve the achievement of Hispanic children.

Lopez: Do you think immigration is making America less Republican?

Chavez: Immigration certainly has the potential to alter the political-demographic landscape, especially the large Hispanic immigrant population. However, Hispanics could become a fertile recruiting ground for Republicans, provided they do it right. Hispanics tend to be more socially conservative and more likely to live in married, two-parent households with children under 18 than other groups, including non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics are not as heavily dependent on affirmative-action programs as blacks, and are significantly less likely to work for government. All of these factors bode well for Republican recruitment efforts. In the November election, a majority of non-Cuban Hispanics voted for Florida governor Jeb Bush (as did a majority of Cuban Americans). More than a third of Mexican Americans in Texas voted for Rick Perry for governor, despite the fact that he faced a Mexican-American Democrat, the first time ever that the Democrats ran a Mexican American at the top of the ticket. Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Richard Riordan won a majority of Latino votes in their mayoral reelection bids, and George W. Bush came close to doing so when he was reelected governor of Texas. Even Ronald Reagan won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1984 – so there is less reason for pessimism than some immigration restrictionists suggest.

Lopez: What book are you reading right now?

Chavez: I'm reading Sandra Cisneros's Caramello right now. Cisneros and I seem to have been hitting the same bookstores in our respective book tours and I picked it up along the way. It's very entertaining and I'm enjoying many of the similarities in my family's history with Cisneros's obviously autobiographical, multigenerational tale.

Lopez: Are you going to write another book?

Chavez: I hope to write several more books – some in the public-policy arena (one on the role of unions in politics, another on assimilation) and perhaps some fiction. I've worked out an opening scene for a novel that begins the day Col. Stephen Kearny marched into Santa Fe, New Mexico, on July 31, 1846. My great, great, great, great uncle Manuel Armijo, the last Mexican territorial governor, had already fled to Mexico – taking heavily laden bags of gold with him – when Col. Kearny issued a proclamation to New Mexicans, offering citizenship and protection to those who chose to join the Americans and punishment to those who resisted.

Lopez: What do you hope people learn from your story?

Chavez: I hope people learn from my book that principles are worth fighting for, even when the battle is sometimes lonely and dangerous.

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