Linda Chavez, whose nomination as President-elect George W. Bush's labor secretary was dogged by reports that an illegal alien had lived and worked in her home, withdrew her bid on Tuesday, complaining that "search and destroy" tactics had driven her out.
Chavez told a news conference she made her decision because the media furor over her case was distracting from Bush's preparations for his Jan. 20 inauguration.
"Unfortunately because of the way the stories have played over the last few days 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.
Bush issued a statement saying Chavez was a "good person" and, "I am disappointed that Linda Chavez will not become our nation's next secretary of labor."
Chavez, 53, a conservative commentator who was Bush's campaign adviser on immigration and who had already been criticized by labor groups, said it had been her decision to withdraw her name and Bush had not pressured her.
Chavez said she had taken the Guatemalan woman into her Bethesda, Maryland, home in 1991 out of a sense of compassion. The woman had come from an abusive relationship and had fled Guatemala at a time of great turmoil.
Chavez suspected from the beginning that the woman was in the country illegally, but said she was not inclined to ask a person who had been abused to produce documentation when she was asking for help.
"I've not led a perfect life, I'm not Mother Theresa. However I have tried to do right by people who are in need," she said, adding she would do the same again.
The turmoil over her nomination sent a bad signal to others contemplating entry to public life, Chavez complained. "So long as the game in Washington is a game of search-and-destroy, I think we will have very few people who are willing to do what I did, which was to put myself through this in order to serve."
BID TO PUT HUMAN FACE TO STORY
In a bid to put a "human face" to her story, Chavez brought along five immigrants to the press conference whom she said she had helped in the past. Each of them praised Chavez for what she had done for them, but the Guatemalan woman at the eye of the storm, was not there.
Controversy erupted over the labor nomination during the weekend when it was revealed that an illegal immigrant had lived in the Chavez home in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, and was given money by Chavez periodically.
Under U.S. law it is illegal to knowingly employ or harbor illegal immigrants and to fail to pay Social Security taxes on behalf of any employee.
Chavez opposes the minimum wage and "affirmative action" programs for minorities, arguing that they can succeed without special government help.
The policymaking executive council of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 68 U.S. unions, had just adopted a resolution calling for Chavez to withdraw before the news broke.
Asked at a news conference for his reaction to Chavez's withdrawal, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney quipped: "Our resolution was very effective."
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said if there was a "silver lining" to the events of recent days it was the opportunity to name a new labor secretary who would enforce the labor laws for the "benefit of all America's working families."
CONCERN OVER NEIGHBOR'S COMMENTS
Bush defended his choice of Chavez in recent days but a Republican source said a report in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the FBI was looking into a conversation Chavez had had with a former neighbor about the case had influenced her.
The newspaper said there was concern among investigators that the conversation may have been an attempt by Chavez to influence how the neighbor responded to questions by FBI agents doing a routine background check on the nominee.
The Chavez case recalled the fate of President Bill Clinton's first two nominees for attorney general eight years ago, who had to withdraw because they too had employed illegal immigrants.
The drama surrounding their nominations took place at the same time Mercado lived in the Chavez home, and Chavez at the time spoke out against Clinton's first nominee, Zoe Baird.
"I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she hired an illegal alien. That was what upset them more than the fact the she did not pay Social Security taxes," Chavez said on Dec. 21, 1993 on PBS's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
On Tuesday, however, Chavez said Baird's case was quite different from her own, and added: "I do believe Zoe Baird was treated unfairly."
Guatemalan Marta Mercado, now married to an American and living legally in Beltsville, Maryland, said in television interviews she stayed in Chavez's home from late 1991 to late 1993 and that Chavez knew she was in the country illegally. Chavez also periodically gave her money, Mercado said.
However, Mercado said she believed Chavez had given her shelter "out of kindness" and not because she was looking for someone to look after her two children and to do housework.
Mercado said she did some housework for the Chavez family, took English classes several days a week and did some work for neighbors, for which she was paid.
Asked whether Chavez paid her specifically for doing the housework, Mercado told ABC's "Good Morning America" program, "I was living in that house and I felt it was necessary, you know, to do things that must be done in the house.
"She was kind to give me some money," Mercado said. "I never asked her if it was pay," adding that she did not get the money regularly. "Sometimes it was one day and then two weeks later or three weeks later.... I don't know."