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Candidate Chavez Withdraws From Confirmation Process

By Dana Milbank

and Thomas B. Edsall
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

President-elect Bush’s embattled choice for labor secretary, Linda Chavez, decrying Washington’s “game of search and destroy,” withdrew from the confirmation process Tuesday over revelations that she housed an illegal alien.

In a defiant departure, Chavez, a conservative commentator and former Reagan administration official, surrounded herself at Bush transition headquarters with immigrants and others who stepped forward to offer testimonials about Chavez’s acts of compassion.

Chavez said it was her choice to withdraw. But Bush officials dropped their support after allegations surfaced that she misled Bush’s questioners by omitting information about the illegal immigrant and may have sought to influence a former neighbor’s account of the relationship.

The Chavez episode illustrated the costs imposed by Bush’s truncated transition period and the difficulties he faces dealing with a closely divided Congress. While Bush drew praise for quickly assessing the gravity of the Chavez controversy and moving to put it behind him, he and his aides also were criticized even by some allies for appearing to have been blindsided by each new development.

Shortly after Chavez’s withdrawal, Bush issued a terse statement in which he did not repeat Chavez’s complaints about having been treated unfairly.

“Linda is a good person, with a great deal of compassion for people from all walks of life,” the president-elect said. “Her upbringing and her life’s work prepared her well for the issues facing the Labor Department. I am disappointed that Linda Chavez will not become our nation’s next secretary of labor.”

Chavez portrayed herself as the latest victim of “the politics of personal destruction” and lined up the testimonials to underscore her claim that she housed the illegal immigrant, Guatemalan Marta Mercado, as an act of charity, not as an employee, which would have put her in violation of federal law.

Chavez’s departure ended a brief controversy reminiscent of the nomination of Zoe Baird to be President Clinton’s attorney general. Baird withdrew after it became known that she had employed an illegal alien couple and failed to pay Social Security taxes. “I do believe that Zoe Baird was treated unfairly,” said Chavez, who had been critical of Baird during that controversy eight years ago.

Chavez, who had been targeted for defeat by organized labor after her nomination a week ago, said she “would have made a great secretary of labor” but had concluded since the illegal alien reports broke Sunday morning that she was “becoming a distraction.”

Attention turned immediately to a potential replacement. A transition source indicated that Bush had a nominee in mind and was unlikely to turn to those most often mentioned before her selection: former representative James M. Talent, a Missouri Republican, former Republican Party official Rich Bond, and Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash.

Among those mentioned as possible choices were Stephen Perry, an African American executive with Timken Co. in Ohio, who served in the administration of then-Ohio Gov. George Voinovich; Eloise Anderson, a welfare reform specialist who worked under Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson; and former Peace Corps director Elaine Chao.