George W. Bush's first choice, Linda Chavez, withdrew from consideration Tuesday afternoon at a highly unusual press conference in which she introduced immigrants she had helped over the years. Citing recent allegations of harboring and employing Marta Mercato, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, Chavez announced she'd become "a distraction" and asked Bush to take her out of the running for the Cabinet post.
Flanked by the immigrants and family members, Chavez stood in the Bush-Cheney transition pressroom without a single member of Bush's support staff and struck a defiant note. Citing her own difficult beginnings and the support of friends and neighbors, Chavez insisted she was only "trying to do right" when she took Mercato in and helped her adjust to life in the United States.
"If this woman showed up at my door again, I would take her in again in an instant," Chavez said. She then called forward the individuals and families she'd helped in the past, in an attempt, as she said, "to put a human face on this story." Surrounding their sponsor, the immigrants spoke glowingly of Chavez as the reason they'd succeeded in America.
And for a moment, it looked as if all the wire reports had been off base. This was not the press conference of a woman about to step down this was more like a campaign appearance. But Chavez took the podium again, thanked her friends, and raged against the system in Washington. "This situation is typical of what happens in America today and what happens in politics in general." She then called herself a victim of the "politics of personal destruction."
Chavez didn't let the press off the hook before she left the podium. "All of you have made a great deal more of this story than need be," she said pointedly, glaring at her audience. One corps member felt brave enough to bring up the subject of Zoe Baird, a Clinton nominee for attorney general, who lost that bid because of her own dubious hiring practices and who was also criticized at the time by Chavez. The departing nominee brushed off the analogy, but others point out that Chavez's outrage at Baird's hiring of an illegal immigrant seems at least mildly hypocritical at this point.
The Bush camp kept well out of the fray before and during the announcement, only releasing a brief statement after Chavez stepped offstage. "Linda is a good person with a great deal of compassion. I am disappointed that Linda Chavez will not become our nation's secretary of labor," read the statement from the President-elect. Asked if Bush had asked for her resignation, Chavez answered quickly. "At no time was I ever asked by the campaign to withdraw my name."