MotherJones MA93: Cisneros' cross

San Antonio's ex-mayor has accepted one of the highest offices ever held by a Mexian-American. With regrets.

Billie Carr, the mother of Texas liberal politics, often says, "All politicians are alligators; they are all alligators." But I'm putting on the line twenty-five years' worth of membership in good standing as a skeptic, if not a cynic, to warn you to expect more from Henry Cisneros, now secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Clinton's cabinet. This one is a human being.

He's a tall, handsome Mexican-American with, at this point, a fairly tortured soul. Charisma, class, stage presence-- whatever you call it, Cisneros has it. On his bad days, he's an excellent public speaker; on his good days, he's electrifying. He is remarkably bright, but unlike many very bright people, he is patient with those who are not. He is an idealist tempered by fifteen years in the maw of big-city politics, and an academic tempered by real-world experience.

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For all that, Cisneros has just made what I think is a major mistake by taking the cabinet job. It's not that he'll disappear into the fog of the D.C. alphabet. No, you'll see Cisneros in every ghetto and barrio in the country and on MTV as well. But he could have set his own agenda as the first Chicano U.S. senator from Texas, and who knows what after that?

The choice Cisneros made tells a lot about what it means to be both a human being and a politician in our time.

Cisneros, forty-five, comes from the West Side of San Antonio, the nation's tenth-largest city. His family is middle-class Mexican, people with great faith in education and hard work. Cisneros went to Central High with, among others, Ernesto Cortes, who later created a powerful Chicano organization in San Antonio.

Cisneros went on to Texas A&M, which makes him a Texas oddity: Chicano Aggies are fairly rare--though we expect to see more of them as a result of Cisneros' term as regent, when he instituted an effective affirmative action program. On scholarship, he attended graduate school at A&M, where he got a master's degree in urban and regional planning, then received another master's from Harvard and a doctorate from George Washington University, both in public administration. He worked in the San Antonio city manager's office for a few years, got elected to the city council in 1975, and became mayor in 1981.

HUD watchers should note that while Cisneros was mayor, $200 million was spent on the West Side for streets, gutters, libraries, and parks. The West Side used to be a sewer, literally: its dirt streets flooded every time there was a heavy rain. Ernie Cortes' group held Cisneros to his promises. It is sometimes said that Cortes is Cisneros' "good angel," perched on his shoulder, urging him to do what's right. His "bad angel" is an improbably cherubic political consultant named George Shipley, known as Doctor Dirt, who keeps urging Cisneros to run for whatever higher office opens up.

Cisneros was good, very good indeed, at getting disparate groups in the city to work together on economic development projects, such as Sea World, though he may have overreached himself on his last venture, the state-of-the-art Alamodome.

The mayor of San Antonio is paid $50 plus expenses per council meeting, period. Cisneros made a living during those years by teaching and speaking at college campuses. He and his wife, Mary Alice (a smart political campaigner in her own right), and children lived in a small house on the West Side. After fifteen years of public service Cisneros needed to make money: he had one daughter preparing to go to college, with another not far behind, and a one-year-old son, John Paul (named after the pope), with a serious congenital heart defect.

When John Paul had been born, it was understood that he would have to undergo several major surgeries, and even so was likely to die at age five or six. Henry and Mary Alice were devastated. John Paul's only hope was for medical advances. (It's still a hope--John Paul is to undergo surgery again in May.) Henry C. (called so in San Antonio to distinguish him from the fighting congressman, Henry B. Gonzales) quit politics to make money. He'd also fallen in love.

The lady in question was Linda Medlar, a blonde, Anglo fundraiser, beautiful and smart. Cisneros admitted the affair, which was common gossip in San Antonio. He might have used the "none of your business" answer, which advisers urged on him, had the affair been only a fling with some bimbette. But here were two adults with a genuine attraction for one another. The affair reinforced all the sorry old stereotypes about macho Latinos, and caused real grief and pain to thousands of Chicanas who had hero-worshipped Henry C.

Meanwhile, Mary Alice, under the stress of John Paul's illness, had taken up with a fundamentalist faith healer, believed by many to be a Rasputin-like figure. Mary Alice would take the baby to the faith healer's church, and he would put hands on the child before the congregation while everyone prayed.

Even in the midst of all the uproar, Cisneros remained popular, and many wanted him to run for governor in 1990. He decided not to, and his mentor Ann Richards ran instead. When she won, using the slogan the "New Texas," Cisneros was as excited as if he had won himself, envisioning an end to the corrupt, racist politics that had marred the state for so long. When Richards promised in her inaugural address that no Texas baby born with health problems would die for lack of medical care, tears poured down Cisneros' face.

While Cisneros was salting away money running an asset management company, he continued to be a major political player. He and Medlar parted after the publicity about their affair, and she moved to Lubbock. But the Cisneros marriage was still rocky. In 1992, Cisneros campaigned for Clinton, wowing the press as usual. After the election, Clinton wanted Cisneros for the cabinet and Richards wanted him for the Senate seat left vacant by Lloyd Bentsen's appointment to Treasury. The two of them played tug-of-war across Cisneros' tortured conscience.

He was a natural for the Senate--a Chicano Aggie who works well with business interests. But the special election is to be held in May, just when John Paul has to undergo surgery again. If the boy were to die, Cisneros wasn't sure he could handle it while in the public eye- -wasn't sure he could handle it, period. Richards played hardball, telling him he'd have to want it more than anything in the world.

Cisneros kept saying that the HUD job was the one he is trained for and knows how to do. But won't the credit ultimately go to Bill Clinton? And didn't his hero Ann Richards need him?

It seesawed crazily back and forth. At one point, a Democratic political operative was told that the Republicans had film footage of Mary Alice and the baby with the faith healer and would use it against Cisneros if he ran for Senate. "Great!" crowed the op. "I'll have the first philandering mackerel-snapper in history to get the fundamentalist vote!"

All the crushing considerations of running for office finally tipped the scales--seeing the affair dredged up again in the face of his still-fragile marriage; needing to raise $5 million for the race and having to run again in two years; and most of all, John Paul. Against that was the chance to do a job he's been training for all his life, a chance to help the poor and oppressed of the great cities, a chance to make reparation for the harm he felt he had done to his name, to his family, and to his race by falling in love. Like a regular person.

No wonder so many politicians seem like alligators.