By Michael Laris
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Linda Chavez, backed by 50,000 watts, was beaming forth the day's headlines to Washington's drive-time listeners: hurricanes, Cindy Sheehan, the vice president's knees.
From her elegant pine-log retreat in a part of Loudoun County first cleared by Native Americans for their buffalo, she whetted the conservative commuter's appetite with a promise of an Ann Coulter appearance later in the WMET-AM radio show.
She sipped Diet Coke with Lime and grabbed a few seconds to voice an autumn product endorsement for a gutter guard.
Then the columnist and former Reagan administration official who presides over a constellation of right-leaning political groups went local, hitting on a theme fellow Republican Jerry W. Kilgore has grabbed as part of his campaign to be the commonwealth's next governor: illegal immigration.
The guest was Tom Fitton, president of a group called Judicial Watch, and the topic was the Washington area's most gabbed-about would-be gathering spot for the day laborers who keep the region's construction zones and other workplaces humming.
Such destinations dot the region, supplying companies hungry for cheap labor to handle tough jobs, but the proposed site, in Herndon, has provoked an unusually fierce fight. The Fairfax County town of 22,000 has become a symbol beyond its size.
Fitton told Chavez and her listeners -- who, if her e-mail is a good indication, tend to be male, in their forties and slightly right of center, she says -- that efforts such as a proposal to pay for a new laborer site with government money were "encouraging illegals to reside here." That's bad public policy, and bad for American workers, he said. "Legal immigrants are hurt by this sort of competition as well," Fitton said.
But Chavez, whose Mexican American heritage has played a significant role in her public life, bristled some at her guest's assertions.
She did it politely because, after a career feeding the public debate with razor-sharp jibes, she says she's trying to offer a conservative forum with a tone that's more NPR and less Rush Limbaugh. She's doesn't want "screaming, ego-based" commentary, she says. Once, filling in as a host on "Crossfire" in the 1980s, "I can remember having one of the producers yelling in my ear: 'Go for the jugular! Go for the jugular!' " she said.
And she did it gingerly, perhaps because of her own historical experience with the issue. She housed an illegal Guatemalan immigrant, Marta Mercado, in her home in the early 1990s. Once that arrangement was made pubic, it sank her nomination to be President George W. Bush's secretary of labor.
"We have a need for labor. We have very low unemployment in Northern Virginia," she told Fitton and her listeners. "It's not as if we had huge numbers of unemployed people that would be taking these jobs."
The real problem, she said, is a broken federal immigration policy.
The broadcast ended not with the promised session with Coulter but with a scramble to fill airtime with a last-minute substitute.
Off the air, with her Shih Tzu Dante and gray-black standard poodle Avon Barksdale (named for the drug lord in her favorite TV show, HBO's "The Wire") milling before her, Chavez dissected what she said is the dangerous territory being traversed by some of her GOP brethren who have seized upon immigration.
California Republicans' support for Proposition 187, which sought to deny public benefits to undocumented workers, wound up tarnishing the party and "diminished the viability of Republican candidates," Chavez said.
"I don't want to see that happen on a national level. It's really important that Republicans not assume the mantle of the anti-immigrant party," Chavez said.
On Herndon, she said, she agrees with Kilgore that government money should not be used for a center that would serve an illegal population.
Still, she said, "I would hate to see that issue be used just for political purposes. It's frankly not a state issue as much as it's a local issue. The town of Herndon is going to make its own decision on that. It has. The federal government has to deal with policing the border, number one, and coming up with a rational immigration policy, number two."
So, has Kilgore -- who has amplified the Herndon controversy into a statewide issue by repeating on the stump that government leaders should not spend taxpayer money to encourage illegal immigration -- been manipulating this for political gain?
"No. I don't think he is. But I think he has to be careful," Chavez said.
Indeed, some who say they applaud Kilgore's position have strayed into nasty territory. As part of a statement opposing the Herndon center at a meeting of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors this month, Herndon resident Robert Miller, 78, said he recently tallied the ethnicity of faces at a public school. He said he would not have sent his three now-grown children there.
"I think there were only 25 of them who are Anglos," Miller said. That would create "a poor educational milieu for my daughters."
Chavez said Congress should create a program for the 8 million to 12 million people living in the United States illegally. They should be made to pay a serious fine for breaking the law, go through a background check and be allowed to get back to work, she said.