Wednesday, January 10, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Chavez created opening for her own downfall

In her news conference yesterday at which she said she was withdrawing as President-elect George W. Bush’s nominee to be labor secretary, Linda Chavez did an effective job of portraying herself as a compassionate conservative.

With her on stage were a parade of immigrants who said Chavez and her family generously helped them adjust in America. It was that tradition, Chavez said, that led her to help a Guatemalan, Marta Mercado, in the early 1990s.

Mercado lived with the Chavez family for a while, did odd jobs around the house and received occasional gifts of money and help in learning English and in job searching.

Thus far, it is a compelling story of compassion that may have put Chavez narrowly close to the edge of the law that forbids the employment of illegal (undocumented) aliens. And it was, of course, the wedge issue that Chavez’s opponents — including Big Labor — intended to use in their efforts to defeat her nomination as labor secretary.

There is a sorry element of "gotcha" in all this, payback for the successful efforts of Senate Republicans to derail the nomination of Zoe Baird in 1993 as President Clinton’s nominee for attorney general.

This part of the story simply fuels the impression that politics in Washington has become a nasty, brutish game where a win for your side and a hurt for the other is all that counts.

In that aspect, this is a continuing embarrassment for both sides of the controversy. Chavez deserved a hearing on the merits of her appointment as labor secretary.

Unfortunately, Chavez harmed her own cause in several respects. She apparently had left the impression with the Bush transition team that she did not know Mercado was an illegal alien. That’s the story they passed on to the media.

She now says she knew from the start that Mercado was "undocumented."

Further, Chavez’s own words came back to haunt her. At the time of the Baird controversy — admittedly somewhat different on the specific facts — Chavez was critical of Baird specifically for using an illegal alien for household help.

And finally, while her infraction might be a fine point, it goes to the heart of what a labor secretary is supposed to do. The first task in this post is defend and support the rights of employees.

If she doesn’t believe that the woman working for her, however casually, was an employee, how confident could we be that she would enforce the rights of employees everywhere?

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