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  Chavez Withdraws As Labor Nominee

By Ron Fournier
AP Political Writer
Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2001; 5:23 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON –– Linda Chavez withdrew Tuesday as President-elect Bush's nominee to be secretary of labor, saying that "search and destroy" politics had made her a distraction to the incoming administration over the haven she gave an illegal immigrant from Guatemala in the early 1990s.

While Bush praised her and expressed disappointment, Republican officials close to Bush had prodded her to withdraw.

Chavez appeared with other immigrants who said she had helped them as she did the Guatemalan, Marta Mercado, in 1991 and 1992, taking her into her home and giving her money but never, she said, as an employee.

She said what happened to her nomination is typical of "the politics of personal destruction" in Washington.

"I have decided that I am becoming a distraction, and therefore I have asked President Bush to withdraw my name for secretary of labor," she said. She said she thinks she would have been a great one.

Bush, in a statement, called her "a good person with a great deal of compassion" and said he was disappointed she would not be in his Cabinet.

Chavez stepped aside under pressure from Bush's political team, according to three Republican officials involved in the case. They said Bush aides had begun to doubt her credibility regarding a key question in the case.

While Chavez had told Bush transition officials earlier that she was not aware Mercado was in the United States illegally until after the woman had left her suburban house, she conceded in withdrawing that "I think I always knew."

Chavez and Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer said she was not asked to withdraw, despite accounts of pressure provided by other GOP officials.

There was no immediate word on a replacement.

Other prospects who had been on the Bush list for the labor department included Missouri Rep. Jim Talent, defeated nominee for governor of Missouri; Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington; and Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

"My, what a different a week makes," she began, prefacing her withdrawal with a description of the help she got from others during a difficult childhood. She said that she vowed then she would always be there for other people, and said that while "I am not Mother Teresa ... I have tried to do right by people who have been in need."

She said the Guatemalan woman who stayed with her was battered and in trouble, and that she would take her in again, "in an instant, without hesitation" despite what has happened as a result.

Chavez said she was trying "to put a human face" on the story by appearing with two Hispanic woman, one with two children, and a Vietnamese man, all of whom said she had helped them when they needed it.

She also said that her relationship with the Guatemalan woman was not comparable to the situation involving Zoe Baird, who withdrew as President Clinton's first nominee for attorney general in 1993 because she had employed illegal aliens as household help, and had not paid social security taxes on their wages.

While Chavez had told Bush officials earlier that she was not aware Mercado was in the United States illegally until after the woman had left her house, she conceded in withdrawing that "I think I always knew."

The Republican officials who said Chavez had been urged to withdraw said also that she was reluctant to do so. When she did, Chavez said it sent a bad signal about the process of taking a government position.

Chavez stepped aside just one week after Bush nominated her. Since the issue arose on Sunday, Bush had said publicly that he hadn't changed his mind and believed she would be "a fine secretary of labor."

But by Tuesday, the president-elect's high command got word to the nominee that she should withdraw. It was a quick step to cut political losses and avoid the distraction of a Cabinet dispute with an evenly divided Senate.

Democrats are in charge temporarily, until the inauguration on Jan. 20, and were prepared to stir the Chavez case in preliminary confirmation hearings next week.

With his nominees to be attorney general, John Ashcroft, and for secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, drawing interest group and Democratic opposition over their views, a Chavez uproar over her past conduct would have been a significant distraction.

Chavez, 53, has been a foe of affirmative action programs, an opponent of minimum wage increases, and a fiery conservative commentator – whose targets included Baird in 1993. Chavez said at the time that the illegal alien aspect of that case was more troubling than the tax issue.

Clinton stuck with Baird for nearly a month before she quit, and then faced the same problem on his second nominee for attorney general.

Baird had told the Clinton transition team of her household help situation, which came to be called "nannygate." Chavez apparently had not disclosed her arrangement with the alien from Guatemala, saying she gave the woman refuge and money at times, but had not employed her as a household worker. The president-elect was asked on Monday when he first learned of the Chavez problem, and replied "Last night."

Chavez headed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan administration, stirring controversy in that role.

She has since been a conservative columnist and television commentator, and founded the Center for Equal opportunity, a conservative think tank in Washington.

In a sign of trouble on Capitol Hill for Chavez, Republican support in the Senate appeared to soften as the immigrant controversy grew.

"If she knew exactly what was going on and if she violated the law, it should be an issue and should be considered," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "It's a serious issue."

Other Republicans said they haven't decided whether or not they would support Chavez' nomination, including Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Jim Jeffords of Vermont, the top Republican on the committee that will consider her nomination.

Mercado said she told Chavez she was an illegal alien while living with her in the early 1990s, though Chavez has said she didn't find out until after Mercado returned to Guatemala.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, peppered with questions about the contradicting statements, said the Bush transition team was awaiting the outcome of an FBI investigation on Chavez.

Mercado said she did chores for Chavez, who gave her money on occasion as an act of charity. Chavez "knew I was not legal in this country," Mercado said Monday. "She knew I didn't have my green card." She added that Chavez offered once or twice to help her gain legal status.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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