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Leadership Under Fire

Being a leader means standing up for what’s right–even if your enemies declare war, says Linda Chavez

By Jay Boyar | Sentinel Movie Critic

Winter 2003
Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. 

When President George W. Bush announced his choice for Secretary of Labor early in 2001, he must have been ready to face some controversy.

Even if Linda Chavez had not invited an undocumented immigrant woman into her home years earlier, then neglected to tell the president–acts that torpedoed her nomination before it even came to Congress–her nomination would have caused a row.

In fact, if she hadn’t already made a career as an outspoken critic of liberal policies, the president might never have noticed her at all. Her writings, including best-selling books Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation (Basic Books, 1991), and An Unlikely Conservative, the Transformation of an Ex-Liberal [Or How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in America] (Basic Books, 2002) tackle policies such as affirmative action and bilingual education head-on; and her civil rights group, the Center for Equal Opportunity, goes in the political trenches to fight those battles.

Raised in New Mexico by an Anglo mother and a father of Mexican and Spanish descent, she attributes some of her leadership abilities to a tough childhood. Chavez’s dad was an alcoholic, and she was often sent away to stay with relatives when her parents weren’t able to care for her. By age 12, she had also lost four siblings.

But dealing with these hardships "gave me what has been described as my cool, tough demeanor" and "enabled me to face crises in my public as well as my private life," she says.

Ironically, the blue-collar Latina began her political career as a champion of liberal causes.

While working her way through the University of Colorado, she helped start the school’s affirmative action program. Later, she took jobs at the Democratic National Committee, the American Federation of Teachers, and for a short time, the Carter Administration. She even wrote campaign prose for Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential run.

But along the way, she started questioning the policies she had espoused.

One such time occured when she applied for a graduate school fellowship for Hispanics from the Ford Foundation. During her interview, one of the questioners told her, surprised, "You speak English so well!"–despite the fact that Chavez was about to begin graduate work in English literature.

The committee also seemed to think her Graduate Record Exam scores were too high to qualify her as a bona fide minority worthy of their help.

"The attitude that minorities couldn’t measure up to [everyone else’s standards]–and if they did, they weren’t ‘authentic’–was … irritating," she recalls.

"I believe in the goals of the civil rights movement. But I’m against double standards; I want a colorblind equal opportunity that allows people to be judged on individual merit."

For taking that stand, Chavez has paid a price.

As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, she often butted heads with the hard-line proponents of racial preferences. One day, one of the more radical Hispanic leaders brandished a switchblade knife as the two argued over the direction of the program. Another time, she found a dead cat on her doorstep.

Later, as an instructor at UCLA, students stormed out of her Chicano literature course in protest. Other times, they smeared excrement on the front seat of her car, made bomb threats and ran sticks across her bedroom window at night.

In a 1992 cover story, Hispanic magazine referred to her as "the most hated Hispanic in America," in part because of her effort to pass a Constitutional amendment making English the official language of the U.S.–not to mention her other controversial views. She later used the line as the sub-title of last year’s autobiographical book.

"A lot of [Hispanic] leaders find me threatening," she says matter-of-factly, referring to the men and women at the helm of groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which champion many of the causes she opposes.

But the rift doesn’t faze her. Referring to another outspoken critic of affirmative action, author Richard Rodriguez, she says, "Richard and I are not unique among so-called ‘Hispanic leaders.’ There’s a division of opinion, and it’s healthy."

In fact, Chavez thrives on debate. "I prefer speaking to a group that disagrees with me over one that will applaud everything I say. I want a crowd that’s skeptical, even hostile. It’s challenging." Others fear public speaking, but not Chavez; she’s "confident, secure in my views. I’m not intimidated." In fact, she seems to encourage polemics. "I have to be a little edgy," she quips. "I don’t want to not be provocative or controversial. I can’t be bland."

These were among the qualities that helped her land a job as editor of the prize-winning journal of the American Federation of Teachers, American Educator, which in turn led to high-profile political appointments such as director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1983 and White House director of public liaison in 1986.

That year, she won the Republican nomination for Maryland’s U.S. senator, but she lost in the general election–a loss that pales in comparison to the nomination controversy of 2001.

Chavez, who unlike some conservatives is pro-immigration, remains unrepentant about the incident.

Although acknowledging "mistakes in the process"–she should have alerted Bush to the potential problem–she doesn’t regret helping the Guatemalan woman get her life in order, learn English and apply for legal immigration status.

"Knowing everything that has happened over the last week," she told the reporters gathered at the press conference announcing her withdrawl, "if that woman showed up at my door, if I was asked … to do that again, I would do it in an instant, without hesitation."

Other Leaders in the Cross Fires

Jorge Mas Santos: As the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, Jorge Mas Santos has some big shoes to fill; his father, Jorge Mas Canosa, was the co-founder and longtime chairman of the influential Cuban exile group. Mas Santos represents a new generation of leadership that is more moderate than its predecessors–a situation that has created some tension at the foundation and even led to twenty high-level defections. Recently, Mas Santos expressed interest in opening talks with Cuban government officials–a major policy change for CANF.

Anthony Romero: As the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Puerto Rican Anthony Romero leads one of the most controversial liberal political organizations in the United States. The ACLU, which bills itself as the "nation’s guardian of liberty," is always under attack for taking such positions as working to remove the words "Christmas holiday" from school calendars (it opposes any mixing of religion with public life) or defending the rights of violent criminals. Romero became the first openly gay man to lead the preeminent civil liberties organization in September 2001.

Tony Garza: U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza finds himself at the center of a cross fire between those in the Bush administration favoring the liberalization of immigration policy and those who oppose it. The Mexican American from Texas is also faced with Mexican frustration over American resistance to reforms.

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