Why Chavez fell

Robert Novak

1/11/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- The unexpected ferocity of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's successful assault on Linda Chavez as secretary of Labor may be explained less by ideology than the threat to big labor posed by her background as a union official and bureaucrat. Indeed, leaked information that Chavez a decade ago took an illegal immigrant into her household can be traced indirectly to Washington's labor-Democratic establishment. Bush transition officials identified the leaker as Chavez's neighbor in suburban Maryland, Margaret Zwisler (who had hired the immigrant to do chores at Chavez's request). But Mrs. Zwisler is no simple housewife. She is a member of the high-powered Democratic law firm of Howrey & Simon. Her associate is W. Neil Eggleston, a former Clinton White House associate counsel and later President Clinton's personal lawyer who was a principal architect in the administration's protection of the corrupt Laborers' union. Zwisler was represented by Eggleston in regard to the allegations about the illegal immigrant (though it is not clear why she needed a lawyer), and here was the source of Chavez's problems. Zwisler told the FBI that Chavez last month tried to coach her on the case. Chavez disputed this account, but it was enough to sink her nomination and give the AFL-CIO a stunning victory. Eggleston is known as a friend of reporters but did not return my phone calls. Zwisler answered this column's call, saying: "You're with the press. I'm not talking to you." The power structure of organized labor has been threatened by President-elect Bush's two most controversial nominees. Liberal opposition to confirming Chavez and John Ashcroft as attorney general is tied in large part to their stands against racial preferences. But inside the labor movement, the real fear has been that they might activate dormant suits within the Justice and Labor departments and orchestrate civil or even criminal action against high-ranking union officials. Otherwise, the force of Sweeney's assault on Chavez could not be explained. Actually, she had some support inside the building trades unions. James Hoffa's huge Teamsters union, estranged from Sweeney, was neutral about her. But she posed a clear and present danger to Sweeney. As both a former official of the American Federation of Teachers and government official, she was considered a particular threat to unearth scandals and demolish long-standing cozy arrangements. Such an arrangement was the Clinton administration's unusual "reform" of the mob-ridden Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA). Eggleston was placed in the strategic (and financially lucrative) post of LIUNA appellate officer at the same time that he was serving as the president's lawyer in executive privilege cases. He was an integral part of the process that cleared Arthur Coia, the union's notorious president and a fervent political supporter of Clinton (before Coia finally was forced into retirement in December 1999). The assault on Chavez as a foe of racial preferences immediately after her nomination did not seem enough to defeat her. The same charges had failed once before. Her mentor during her Democratic days, the late AFT President Albert Shanker, in July 1983 defended her confirmation as U.S. Civil Rights Commission staff director. Her rejection, Shanker testified, would "signal to the American people that the United States Senate believes adherence to racial quotas to be the ultimate criterion by which to judge all candidates for civil rights positions." It was essential to Bush's anti-quota policy that what liberal Al Shanker said nearly two decades ago would prevail today. Certainly, organized labor could not base their opposition on the reality that Chavez would be too tough in fighting union transgressions. But helped along with friends in the Democratic establishment, the information about a poor Guatemalan woman destroyed her. To be sure, Chavez was so eager to serve in a job that would be the crowning achievement of her life that she did not handle the immigrant question with candor. But denying a Cabinet confirmation on these obscure grounds is ridiculous. Having given Chavez insufficient support to endure, the president-elect may not be able to find an alternative with sufficient knowledge of the labor movement and the Labor Department to root out the deep-seated corruption. John Sweeney and his cohorts dodged a bullet.