Profile: Linda Chavez

— -- Linda Chavez has been one of the most powerful Hispanic American voices in politics — and one of the most controversial.

During the Reagan administration she was the civil rights administrator and an outspoken critic of affirmative action and Spanish language classes.

A former Democrat and union member, Chavez’s tenure as director of the commission — which advises the president and Congress — alienated liberals in Congress and civil rights groups by reversing established agency positions.

But, it made her a darling of conservatives. Under her leadership, for example, the commission opposed the use of quotas to help women and minorities make up for past discrimination.

“Affirmative action creates problems with standards and increases racial friction,” Chavez, the product of a father with roots in Spain and a mother whose ancestors crossed over from England and Ireland, told USA Today in 1995. “And it’s simply not just.

She was an adviser to Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who financially backed Proposition 227, the successful California ballot initiative that requires the repeal of bilingual education in California.

After a failed 1986 Senate campaign in Maryland, she became the president of U.S. English, a private non-profit organization lobbying to make English the official national language. In late 1988 she resigned from U.S. English; her reasoning was that she could not work with its founder John Tanton, who, in Chavez’s estimation, had demonstrated an “anti-Hispanic” and “anti-Catholic” bias.

Opposition From Labor

She believes minority groups can succeed without special help from the government. As labor secretary, Chavez says she will “vigorously enforce” regulations to guarantee that federal contractors do not discriminate. And it’s that pledge, from an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, that alarms many of those who recall her stormy tenure as a former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called it “an insult to American working men and women to put an avowed opponent of the most basic workers’ rights” in charge of enforcing labor laws. “Taken together with the nominations of John Ashcroft and Gale Norton, the tapping of Chavez sounds a noisy alarm about President-elect Bush’s intended stewardship of civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and the environment,” Sweeney said in a statement.

Business groups praised her selection by President-elect George W. Bush.

“I’m very high on her public policy experience, her intellectual depth and her commitment to the kind of work force opportunity that I think will be necessary in the tight labor markets we’ll face in the 21st century,” said Jerry Jasinowski, the National Association of Manufacturers president.

“I think she’ll be a great spokesman on those kinds of issues,” he said.

Out of the Barrio Author

A syndicated columnist and author who was Bush’s campaign adviser on immigration, Chavez recalled her parents and the long hours they worked as a house painter and in restaurants and department stores when she was growing up.

“If I am confirmed as secretary of labor, I intend to keep faith with the men and the women who still work at jobs like those my parents held,” Chavez said after Bush introduced her to the media in Austin.

Chavez is president of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that researches race, ethnicity and assimilation issues and has done studies supporting its position against affirmative action programs. She is on the board of the American Civil Rights Union, which bills itself as a “constructive alternative” to the American Civil Liberties Union.

She is the author of Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, published in 1991.

She was editor of the American Federation of Teachers’ quarterly journal American Educator from 1977 to 1983, and also served as an assistant to AFT president Al Shanker and was assistant director of legislation for the teachers union.

Married and the mother of three sons, Chavez received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado.

Born in Albuquerque, N.M., Chavez was in the fourth grade when her family moved to Denver. She met her husband, Christopher Gersten, while attending the University of Colorado. Gersten, who is Jewish, heads the Institute for Religious Values.