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Linda Chavez Has Eye on White House

Times Staff Writer

Linda Chavez sighed deeply under the weight of her latest controversy and, perhaps, the greatest irony of her professional career.

Here she was, the consummate planner who in an uncharacteristically hasty move had resigned as president of U.S. English, a group Latinos deplore, and the best thing her Latino critics had to say about her was that she may have made the right move for the wrong reasons and that she’d waited too long to make it anyway.

Quit Two Weeks Ago

“Some people just hate me,” she said, not totally serious but not completely joking either.

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It was less than two weeks ago that Chavez quit her post with U.S. English, a group that wants to make English the official language of the nation, after expressing outrage that a 1986 memorandum by the group’s chairman raised the specter of a United States taken over by poor immigrants speaking foreign languages.

“I felt very shocked at the memo,” Chavez said in an interview. “I was angry. I found the sentiments very offensive and told everyone in earshot that I did.”

Is this the same cool, composed Chavez who, as the one-time executive director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, calmly and deftly steered it onto a hard rightward course? The same woman who for the last 14 months crisscrossed the country doing TV and radio battle over whether English should be the nation’s official language?

Chavez acknowledges that, for her, the resignation on Oct. 17 was a different way of doing things.

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“I tend to take actions that are well thought out,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve left a position like this, quitting without knowing what I would do next.”

What she was doing the other day was shifting her office equipment from the downtown quarters of U.S. English to her new base at home in suburban Maryland.

Not Sure of Plans

She had exchanged her usual power outfit for Levi’s, black boots and a pink T-shirt. “I’m inundated with just trying to figure out what to do next,” she said. “It’s been a tough time.”

Chavez disputes her image as ice queen who’s always in control. “At the commission, people used to be fascinated that I stayed up nights working,” she said. “Sometimes things happen and you don’t have control over them. This is one of those times.”

A Democrat-turned Republican, she likened herself to Michael Dukakis, the presidential nominee who is known for his serious demeanor and organized thought processes. “He and I both have sentences that parse well,” she joked.

The daughter of a Latino father and a mother of British-Irish ancestry, Chavez continued the comparison, this time turning more serious. “Michael Dukakis and I are the only two people in America who have to prove our passions,” she said.

Not Spontaneous

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And so it is. Although, she says she quit U.S. English on principle, her critics express doubts that she acted in a completely spontaneous fashion.

“It’s interesting that it took her 14 months to find out what we’ve told her all along,” said Martha Jimenez, a policy analyst for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which opposes U.S. English’s efforts. “The motivation for a lot of the leaders has been intolerance and xenophobia. Their intent is to create laws that will discriminate against people.”

Jimenez cites the 1986 memo, written by Dr. John Tanton, a Michigan eye surgeon, as proof of her argument.

Tanton, who resigned his chairmanship of U.S. English amid the furor over the document, wrote a series of questions and statements dealing with immigration and its consequences--focusing on California, “and by extension,” the rest of the nation.

Apartheid in California?

Noting that “to govern is to populate,” Tanton asked, “will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?”

At another point, he asked, “Is apartheid in California’s future?” and went on to say that “non-Hispanic whites and Asians” will own property, have good jobs and education. On the other hand, he said, “the blacks and Hispanics will have the poor jobs, will lack education, own little property, speak another language and will be mainly Catholic. Will there be strength in this diversity? Or will this prove a social and political San Andreas Fault?”

In an interview Tanton denied that he is racist, asserting that he wrote the memorandum because he believed it was important “to work out the impact” of immigration on the future of the country.

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Chavez rejects suggestions that she knew of the memo’s existence before she was asked about it by a reporter two weeks ago. “If I had seen that memo before I took the job,” she said, “I would not have taken it.”

She said she talked to Tanton “and told him what I thought about it. I felt I was out there hanging in the wind. As head of the organization, I had to explain it and I didn’t think there was any explanation.”

‘No Way to Go On’

So, she told the six-member board that “I didn’t think there would be any way for me to continue” with the organization.

Meanwhile, she continues to deliver commentary during appearances on radio and television and to make speeches, including numerous ones on behalf of Vice President George Bush and other GOP candidates. Chavez, who has served as public liaison director at the White House in the Reagan Administration, said if Bush wins the presidency, she would like a position in the area of foreign policy or defense.

Since she left U.S. English, many people have said they expected her to stop promoting English as the official U.S. language. Not so, said Chavez, who was heavily criticized for taking the position in the first place. “It would be incorrect to assume that because I stepped down from the organization that I have changed my views about a common language.”

At U.S. English, officials are taking the changes philosophically.

“Linda’s career has been fairly fast-moving,” said Tom Olson, a spokesman. “I don’t know how long we would have had her anyway. The board was aware when she came on that she wasn’t committing to a retirement plan.”

New Head Named

Kathryn Bricker has been appointed executive director of the organization, and Stanley Diamond, a U.S. English activist from San Francisco, is acting chairman, Olson said, adding that the two will share Chavez’s duties.

Olson said the memo and Chavez’s quitting have not harmed the 350,000-member group’s efforts. He said 14 states, including California, have laws making English their official language, and he expressed confidence that others would enact such statutes during the Nov. 8 elections.

What the episode will do to Chavez is in dispute. She is not worried, saying that of the numerous telephone calls she has received, “most people are supportive.”

But Jimenez asserts that “people will be less willing to look at her as a spokesperson for Hispanic people.”


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