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Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2001 / 20 Teves, 5761

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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As it happened -- MY RELATIONSHIP with a battered Guatemalan woman -- who was also an illegal alien -- ended my chance to become secretary of labor.

I don't remember precisely when Marta Mercado moved into my home or how long she lived there a decade ago. She is one of dozens of people in need I have helped over the years, just as I was helped by family and friends during times of crisis in my childhood. Some of those I've aided stood with me on Tuesday when I asked that my nomination be withdrawn.

I don't recall how much money I gave Marta during the time she lived with me, though I do remember giving her money in several hundred-dollar increments to spend or send home to her daughters in Guatemala.

I also remember her being helpful around the house, picking up after my teen-age sons with whom she shared the lower level of my home. I remember making telephone calls to find English classes for her, driving her to the local mall where she tried to find work, teaching her how to use the bus, encouraging her to return to Guatemala and giving her money for her ticket.

I remember once Marta got lost returning from English classes and called from a phone booth for help, but she couldn't explain where she was. The entire family scoured the community until we found her, scared and cold.

The most vivid recollection I have of Marta, however, involves an incident in which she returned home bruised and beaten after several days away. Marta had a key to the house, and came and went as she pleased, although I was usually there when she left or returned, since I worked from home at the time. We would often exchange pleasantries or talk for a few minutes about her daughters in Guatemala or her own schoolwork. But on this particular day, she tried to conceal her face as she brushed past me.

Nonetheless, I noticed that her eyes were blackened, and her lips swollen and cut. I asked what had happened and whether she needed to go to the hospital. Tearfully, she told me in faltering English that she had been assaulted. I persuaded her that we had to call the police and that she should report the incident. I placed the call and sat with her in the living room while the officer interviewed her. I also spoke with a battered-women's counselor on her behalf.

I regret many things about the way in which I handled the events of the last few weeks. I should have disclosed my relationship with Marta to the Bush transition officials before I was nominated. When I did talk to them about Marta for the first time on Jan. 6, however, I told them I knew she was in the country illegally while she was living with me.

In mid-December, to refresh my memory, I spoke to a neighbor who employed Marta when she lived in my home -- an act that has now been portrayed in the most sinister light, even used to accuse me of a possible felony. I should have told the Bush staff earlier about my conversation with my neighbor -- a phone call that lasted only a few minutes and took place when I was one of several candidates being discussed for the job.

My neighbor did most of the talking during our brief exchange, in which she discussed several foreign-born domestics who worked for her, their legal status and whether she paid taxes on their wages. I stressed that she should truthfully answer questions from the FBI during the course of any background checks if I were to be nominated, something about which she needed little instruction, since she is a prominent Washington attorney.

But one thing I do not regret is taking Marta into my home at the request of one of my friends who knew of her plight. I would do it again today. And if there is any consolation in having lost out on the chance to become secretary of labor, it is knowing how well Marta is now doing. The battered woman who came to live with me a decade ago -- an illegal alien, separated from her children, penniless and speaking little English -- is now a confident, middle-class, suburban housewife married to an American citizen.

I have not led a perfect life -- a standard that increasingly seems expected of candidates for high-level government appointment. No aspect of a nominee's personal life, no matter how intimate and irrelevant to the job in question, goes unexamined. No incident in one's life, regardless of how long ago, goes unexplored. And if a Cabinet nominee fails to disclose -- or recall -- a matter as trivial as a traffic fine or a visit to a marriage counselor decades earlier, the failure will be interpreted in the worst possible light.

The greatest danger, of course, is to those whose political views make them the special targets of powerful interest groups. In my case, the AFL-CIO decided to oppose my nomination as soon as my name appeared as a potential candidate for labor secretary. AFL-CIO staff and other interest groups began poring through my voluminous writings over two decades as an editor, columnist and commentator in search of "damaging" quotes. They then distributed material taken out of context and used it to imply that I held positions or opinions that I did not, as any fair reading of my words would reveal.

During my days as secretary of labor-designate, I spent most of my time preparing to answer attacks on my record. I was fully prepared to defend every word I had written, every policy position I had taken in a long, public life. Democrats and interest groups openly warned that they would try to "Bork" my nomination, referring to their successful efforts to defeat Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork on the basis of his long "paper trail" on controversial issues. I never got that chance.

Instead, my opponents went on a search and destroy mission, willing to use anything in my past, even acts of kindness, to derail my nomination.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate