Henry Cisneros Long Ago Admitted to His Mistakes, Yet He Hasn't Reconciled With Himself. His Supporters Wonder if He Ever Will.

Dana Calvo is a Times staff writer who covers Spanish-language media. She was assigned to the 2000 presidential campaign

Henry Gabriel Cisneros walks briskly across a 200-acre lot that was once a wooded area infested with rattlesnakes and a few aspiring arsonists. On this blustery afternoon in San Antonio, the wind howls across the freshly razed plain as he heads for a large white tent. Time has not softened his unmistakable oval face and elongated nose. But, at 54, his skin has taken on an ashy hue, and a new wave of gray strands has made its debut in his thinning black hair--helped along, no doubt, by federal prosecutors and the FBI.

Inside the tent, 300 real estate agents stand around buffet tables, primed to see Cisneros. They want to hear how American City Vista, Cisneros' new low-income housing development company, intends to save this section of south San Antonio.

It's an exciting project, yet it doesn't account for the anticipation buzzing through this crowd. No, for that you've got to look to Cisneros himself, to the man who rose to national prominence as the mayor of this city and who has returned to Texas after nine years in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. The locals are eager to lay eyes again on the hometown boy who has come back to his roots.

Cisneros ducks into the tent and takes the microphone. He explains that the 600 homes in this new development will be shaded by maple trees, bordered by jogging paths and wired with high-speed Internet lines. "We'll fix it here in south San Antonio, and we'll make it right," he says, sounding an awful lot like a man launching a campaign. He finishes to a standing ovation. Smiles all around. Henry Cisneros, it seems, is back.

Or is he?

When Cisneros returned to San Antonio last year, leaving his lucrative job as chief operating officer at Univision, the country's largest Spanish-language television network, Democrats around the country salivated at the prospect of his returning to political life. Cisneros, they thought, had finally overcome the "other woman" scandal whose seeds--planted when he was San Antonio mayor--sprouted ignominiously in Washington when Cisneros accepted a Clinton administration Cabinet post in 1992. FBI agents conducting a background check after his nomination had asked Cisneros how much financial support he was providing to her. He lied. From there, the investigation grew, and Cisneros left the capital after one term.

That was four years ago--eons on the political calendar. American politics today requires complete shamelessness. Elected officials breezily put their mistakes behind them and move ahead.

But not Cisneros, and that's the point. In 2001, Cisneros is the man who would not be king. He says he returned to San Antonio not as a Democrat running for office, but because he liked the security of his hometown, a city where Latinos still hang portraits of him in their living rooms, where he is known simply as Henry. He also says he returned because his ailing parents drew him back, and he mentions the death of his father-in-law last year.

But Cisneros came home to heal. He remains hunkered down, a Roman Catholic trying to forgive himself for behavior he believes has wrought permanent damage on his family, and others. Cisneros isn't now--and maybe never will be--ready to put himself or his family through the public strip search required of a national candidate.

*

WE ARE SITTING IN THE SUNNY CONFERENCE ROOM OF AMERICAN CITY Vista, an office that occupies one floor of a three-story brick building in downtown San Antonio. Cisneros, dressed in a starched white shirt and dark suit pants, crosses his lanky legs at the ankles. They move like grasshopper limbs.

We have spoken at length about his past and politics, and the conversation has turned to Bill Clinton--his friend and former boss. Cisneros volunteers a story from the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had just "won a round of some kind" against Clinton in his 1998 investigation into the president's affair with the White House intern. Cisneros was working in Los Angeles at the time, and he watched on television as Clinton reacted publicly to Starr's findings. "I didn't think the president's response to the press was as humble as it ought to be--as self-effacing as it ought to be," Cisneros recalls. He thought he should offer some advice, to tell Clinton "that he should just chill a bit and not be so in-your-face." He wanted to remind Clinton to take a moment to regroup.

That night, the White House operator connected him to Clinton. "He was on the line," Cisneros says, "and I was about to utter my words, and he said 'HENRY!' " Cisneros booms, imitating Clinton. " 'I think we got this son of a bitch where we want him! Don't you?' " Cisneros didn't think so. In fact, he was "blown away" by Clinton's moxie.

Cisneros tells the tale with great delight, as if there is nothing wrong with revealing such intimacies about his friend. And there isn't, because the story isn't really about the former president. It's about Cisneros, and the absence of his own combative spirit. It's a glaring absence.

Bill Richardson, who served as U.N. ambassador and then energy secretary under Clinton, says of his good friend Cisneros: "If I have one criticism of Henry, it's that he is cautious. His destiny is to become the first Latino governor or possibly president, and I believe that his caution is the only reservation for that achievement. He needs to assume that he is back on track for a subsequent political career--for an Act II. And I believe he is."

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who lost her seat to George W. Bush in 1994, drove the issue home at an event last winter. "When they write your obituary, you don't want the top positions to be mayor of San Antonio and secretary of housing," Cisneros recalls her saying.

Cisneros was once a precocious man of formidable potential. His political career started in 1975 at age 27, when he became the youngest city councilman in San Antonio history. Six years later, he made his first run at the mayor's office. In speeches to white crowds, he ticked off his degrees from Harvard and George Washington University, promising to lure business to San Antonio. In speeches to Latinos on the city's west side, he promised to send his wealthy opponent "back to the country club."

It was 1981, and Cisneros won 63% of the vote to become the first Latino mayor of a large U.S. city. In 1984, Walter Mondale interviewed him as a possible vice presidential running mate. Cisneros was reelected mayor three times.

"It was extraordinary to those of us who followed politics," says Jim Oberwetter, who ran George Bush senior's 1992 presidential reelection campaign in Texas. "He had achieved greatly within the Republican community." Polls showed Cisneros had made significant inroads elsewhere in Texas, even in Republican strongholds. That meant he possessed a rare quality--the magic of a national candidate.

"He had all the attributes needed to appeal to Dallas Republicans--he had a list of accomplishments to point to from being mayor," Oberwetter continues. "He was a good family man, which appeals to the Republicans."

In reality, Cisneros' marriage to his high school sweetheart, Mary Alice, was threadbare. As mayor and an assistant professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, he clocked 16-hour days. The elected post paid only $60 a week, and the teaching job couldn't support his family. Cisneros traveled anywhere in the country where speaking fees were offered. Friends say the opportunities for relationships outside his marriage were plentiful. His charisma inspired a line of men's toiletries, "Henry C," that rolled out in 1986.

In 1987 he fell for Linda Medlar, a political fund-raiser who was also married. Mary Alice was pregnant with the Cisneroses' third child. On June 10, 1987, doctors delivered a boy, whom they named John Paul in honor of the pope's visit to San Antonio. The elated young mayor went out to talk to reporters, but when he walked back into the hospital, he learned that the chances of his son living past childhood were slim.

Doctors believed John Paul's body would quickly outgrow his heart's ability to bring him oxygen. By age 6, they said, his lips would turn blue often, and he wouldn't be able to keep up with the other kids. The tips of his fingers would become clubby, and some of his appendages would simply stop growing. By age 8, he would probably be dying.

"Part of the reason I could not do what other people might have done in that circumstance--get divorced, remarry--was this situation," Cisneros says as we sit in his office. "I just couldn't. I couldn't let Mary Alice deal with that by herself."

But 16 months later, on Oct. 14, 1988, his hand was forced when thousands of readers of the San Antonio-Express News awoke to a front-page column about the affair. In response, Cisneros told reporters gathered on his front lawn: "I guess human beings just aren't made of plastic and wiring and metal. They're made of flesh and blood and feelings."

He said he would serve out the remainder of his term but would not run for reelection. Cisneros left his devoutly Roman Catholic wife and, according to court documents, he lived periodically with Medlar, who reclaimed her maiden name of Jones after her husband filed for divorce.

But by the time Mary Alice filed divorce papers in late 1991, claiming acts of cruelty and adultery, Cisneros was determined to reconcile. He would not fail at marriage. The high school sweethearts got back together. Jones was quickly ostracized by the community, but Cisneros privately agreed to continue sending her financial support, to assuage his own conscience as much as anything. He had no idea that in 1990, she had begun taping--and editing--their phone calls. It's unclear if she wanted the tapes as insurance that he would continue the payments, or if she planned all along to make them public.

In 1992 Cisneros worked on "Adelante Con Clinton," a Latino voter outreach project that helped propel Clinton to office. When Clinton asked him to become secretary of housing, Cisneros feared his financial agreement with Jones would be exposed, so he alerted the president-elect to the arrangement. Then he did something that altered his political career--he lied to the FBI agents. For reasons that he still doesn't explain, Cisneros told investigators he paid her less than $10,000 a year. And then he cut off communication with her.

In July 1994, she sued him for reneging on a deal to send her $4,000 a month. She also sold the tapes of the phone conversations to the syndicated television show "Inside Edition" for $15,000. Naively, she thought that investigators would only look at Cisneros. Instead, they also followed the money trail into her own investments.

During the next few years, authorities unearthed lies on her home mortgage application, in which Jones relied on money and signatures from her sister and brother-in-law to close the deal. She was convicted of money laundering, bank fraud and making false statements. Initially sentenced to 42 months, her lawyer got it trimmed to 18 months in federal prison.

David Guinn Jr., a former assistant federal public defender who represented her, says Jones now lives with her mother in Lubbock, Texas, and they depend on a stipend from her siblings. Cisneros no longer sends her money. She fights chronic depression, Guinn says, and did not want to comment for this article.

For Cisneros, the FBI investigation had ripped back the curtain on the confession booth. His San Antonio indiscretion had now been revisited, this time as the subject of a full-blown federal investigation. By 1995, Cisneros was inundated with bills that would eventually total $4 million. He owed tuition for one daughter at law school and another at college. John Paul, whose heart was repaired by a Philadelphia surgeon, still incurred significant medical costs.

Financially, Cisneros needed out of Washington. "The president would have been perfectly happy to have him stay," says former White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. "But Henry felt he really did need to deal with [the investigation] and try to resolve it so it wouldn't destroy him."

In January 1997, at nearly 1:30 on the morning of Clinton's second inauguration, Cisneros' final act was to help Clinton rehearse his inaugural address. At noon he and Mary Alice sat behind Clinton as he delivered it. The president then walked inside for the traditional inaugural lunch, and Cisneros and Mary Alice went to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Not long after, they moved to Bel-Air Crest, a gated community in Los Angeles, and he assumed the title of chief operating officer at Univision, a Spanish-language network that reaches more than 80% of all Latino households in the country. His job at the network was to represent the face of Univision, to sell its brand, even though the network caters to recently arrived immigrants.

The network boomed while he was there. Soon Univision had the fifth-largest viewership of any U.S. television network, English or Spanish. The surge solved Cisneros' financial woes. During his first year, he pulled down $400,000 in salary, not including bonuses and Univision stock options, from which he derives the majority of his personal wealth today. When Cisneros arrived at Univision, a share of its stock was valued at $18.50. On the day he left last year, it was $122. Cisneros traded in $10.8 million in company stock last year, and he still owns stock options worth more than $6 million.

By September 1999, Cisneros was a wealthy man with a court date. He appeared before a U.S. district judge in Washington and pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of lying to the FBI. He was fined $10,000.

For all his financial success at Univision, Cisneros seemed miscast as a television executive. Sometimes the clash was painful to behold. At the last Univision annual meeting he attended, advertisers sat in gilded chairs at round tables. Up on the enormous stage, Cisneros stood with the network's stars, including Alicia Machado, a former Miss Venezuela. Just for good measure, Spanish mega-crooner Julio Iglesias was up there, too, looking tanned and rested. There wasn't a wonk in sight, except Cisneros-- the former politician rented out to a media corporation so he could pay legal bills stemming from an affair 13 years earlier.

*

MARY ALICE CISNEROS IS IMMACULATELY GROOMED AT A BIRDLIKE 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds, with black hair and small pieces of gold and diamond jewelry on her wrists and fingers. When she recalls a conversation she's had with her husband of 32 years, she cranes her neck, looks up to his imaginary face and pretends she's speaking to him. But when they're together, he consistently cuts her off in mid-sentence if she begins to speak about anything other than their family.

She has considered herself a public figure in San Antonio since childhood, when she and her eight siblings worked at her father's bakery and grocery store. In front of their house on West Houston Street, she points out her relatives' homes that are within shouting distance. "I liked L.A.--all the glamour and the art--but this is home."

Henry's family is close by, as well. His uncle Ruben Mungu'a, 81, runs the print shop that created all of Cisneros' mayoral propaganda. As a "good way" to recover from open-heart surgery he had last November, Mungu'a showed up at the shop for a five-day workweek in early February. He is feisty and optimistic--convinced that his nephew should run for the U.S. Senate in several years.

"Now's not the time. He's got to pay his bills. He's got to work a new generation of voters who don't know him, since he's been away. He's got to build up a new image," Mungu'a says. Then he broaches the subject of politicians and peccadilloes. "Little Baby Jesus--that's Lyndon B. Johnson--had his own affairs, and, of course, he came in to replace JFK. Eisenhower was also accused of doing certain things when it was cold in Europe. Finally, little Billy comes along. The people have all forgotten this. So, Henry's thing is not going to pull support from him. That period of his life is totally resolved."

But Cisneros knows better. Unlike so many politicians who seek redemption and live off the energy of a new political race, Cisneros can feel the Republicans ready to whack him, and it makes him cringe. Susan Weddington, chair of the Texas Republican Party, would have no qualms about taking the first swing. "His potential to be resuscitated as a candidate would require complete memory loss of the electorate. His indiscretion was embarrassing to Texans, especially to Hispanic Texas. I believe that kind of memory loss is highly unlikely."

It is partisan talk, but it is exactly this kind of contact sport that Cisneros says he's not willing to play--at least not now. Instead, he wants order and discipline. He doesn't smoke, and he rarely drinks even a glass of wine with dinner. In his wallet he carries two neatly typed lists, one of nonfiction books and one of the great novels. "I keep a list because when I go to the bookstore I know what to buy," he says. "I'm trying to read important books that give a person depth."

When Cisneros grudgingly agrees to talk about the possibility of his running for office, he takes his time. He uncrosses his legs, tilts his head and runs his fingers along the edge of the conference table. Then, in measured statements, he talks about his aversion to both the campaign and the possible bad consequences. It's clear. He no longer views the political game as he once did.

Mark McKinnon, a media consultant who took on his first Republican client last year when George W. Bush asked him to be his media director, describes Cisneros as someone who is "as smooth and deft and agile as anyone who's ever been in this business."

"And there's an enormous redemptive well open to him, whenever he wants to tap into it," McKin-non says. "I think he's much harder on himself than anyone else."

In Cisneros, Democrats see a handsome, vigorous Latino with national name recognition and a limitless future. Democrats have pushed him to run for the U.S. Senate in 2002, or for Texas governor, a post held until this year by Bush. Instead, Cisneros remains in a cramped fetal position, and while he does, his party is struggling, especially in Texas. Terry McAuliffe, a political fund-raiser and head of the Democratic National Committee, appealed to Cisneros last August at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. "Texas is a big seat for us," McAuliffe says. "Winning that governorship for us is critical, more than ever. When you really want to win, you get a big player, and Henry's as big as you get."

Less than 20 years ago, every statewide seat in Texas belonged to a Democrat. Republicans now hold all the statewide titles in Texas. That includes, for example, every spot on the Supreme Court, the court of criminal appeals, and on down to the railroad commission. More important, it also means that both U.S. senators and the governor are Republicans.

With Cisneros out, things look daunting for the party of inclusion in a large, increasingly Latino state. This winter, Democrats began circling the wagons for A.R. "Tony" Sanchez Jr., a Latino oil magnate who has never held public office. Although a Democrat, he pulled in more than $100,000 in hard money for Bush last year because he believed in the governor.

None of this is to say, however, that Cisneros doesn't still enjoy the parlor game of politics. He keeps the public intrigued by denying he's running, while refusing to say if he ever will. He jokes that the door is closed, but not locked. He also dips a helping hand into select races. Last year, for instance, he and L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina met secretly with L.A.'s two Latino mayoral candidates in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade one of them to drop out. ("I know it's popular to say that that's an older paradigm of ethnic politics, and that it shouldn't be that way," he acknowledges of the message he and Molina carried.)

Cisneros also campaigned for former Vice President Al Gore, kicking off "Rally in the Valley" in the Rio Grande Valley, and he raised funds for the San Antonio mayoral campaign of Ed Garza, a 32-year-old city councilman who won last month. But that's as far as he goes. Instead of political life, he's thrown himself into American City Vista, a hybrid of politics and commerce intended to revitalize neighborhoods. It's known as "infill," where large clusters of Craftsmen and Victorian homes are built on swaths of abandoned or blighted city land.

His first project is Lago Vista. American City Vista is also overseeing similar developments in Southern California, both in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

In April, on Good Friday, we meet at the impressive Sylmar development, which is ringed by mountains and sits next to the Angeles National Forest. It's unseasonably hot on this afternoon, and hang gliders float silently above us. We are in a car, with Mary Alice in the back seat talking to their daughter by cell phone about a recipe for Easter dinner. Cisneros tells me it will be difficult for anyone to make Jell-O mold like Mary Alice does.

The homes he has invested in here are larger and more indulgent than the Lago Vista homes in south San Antonio. Cisneros spreads his arms and asks: "Where else in L.A. could you get a 2,138-square-foot home for $260,000 with this view?"

*

IF THERE IS ANY EVIDENCE THAT Cisneros can't seem to get the legal glop of this past decade off of his hands, one only needs to look at the events of this year's inaugural weekend.

Among the dozens of people Clinton pardoned on his final day in office were Cisneros and Jones. Cisneros learned about the pardon the day before, when his attorney reached him moments before he was about to deliver a speech to 1,000 people in Silicon Valley. The attorney said the White House had called to see if it was "OK" to put him on the pardon list.

"I heard nothing more until noon the next day. We started getting telephone calls from the press that I was on the list," Cisneros says, explaining that he had been meeting with Tony Sanchez in Laredo when the news broke. The next week, he spoke with Clinton by phone about the surprise pardon.

"He just felt the independent counsel statute had been abused and that, as much as possible, the wrongs created by it needed to be wiped away. He has always felt that the greatest reason they came after me was to get to him," Cisneros says. "I don't think that's completely true. I think I made mistakes and gave them reason to come after me, but he has felt that way."

In the weeks that followed, the list of recipients became an example of what many people dislike most about Clinton--the bending of laws to suit his own needs. The shakiest pardons were for Marc Rich, a fugitive financier whose wife donated significant sums of money to the Clinton library and the Democratic Party, and for Carlos Vignali, whose father donated heavily to California Democrats. For Cisneros, the association with this latest political scandal was bruising.

"It just reopened old wounds and raised questions with people about the seriousness of the offenses and why they needed to be included in a pardon list," he says.

Asked if he's forgiven himself for the pain he caused, Cisneros looks out the window.

"I suppose not."

It gnaws at him, though--the fear that he will never get out from under his own issues and run for office again.

As time goes on, it will become increasingly difficult for him to justify staying away so long, and if he forgets that fact, Ann Richards and others will remind him. "There are a lot of other things I'd like to do and, hopefully, by the time it's time to write an obituary, they'll be other accomplishments under my belt, not necessarily related to holding office, because I think there are many, many ways to contribute substantially in our society, even more than holding office for 6 to 12 years," he says. His words are emphatic, but his tone isn't entirely convincing.

"There's a lot of water under the bridge for me," he says slowly. "And some of these things I have to sort out for myself."

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