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Henry Cisneros: The TT Interview

The former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary on what Bill White has to do to win the Latino vote, what Rick Perry should say about the Arizona immigration law and how Julián Castro's star can continue to rise.

Henry Cisneros addresses students at UT Austin, July 20, 2010.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Henry Cisneros' election as mayor of San Antonio. At the time, Cisneros was 33 — the city's youngest-ever mayor and the first Hispanic to lead a major U.S. city, so it was no surprise that many Texans saw a stellar political career in his future. Cisneros was re-elected with overwhelming margins three times but decided to not seek another term in 1989. He was subsequently invited by Bill Clinton in 1992 to join his cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, though he is better remembered during that period for disclosing that he previously had an extramarital affair with a campaign staffer, Linda Medlar. Cisneros was the target of a federal investigation after it was alleged he lied during his FBI background check about the amount of money he paid Medlar when the affair ended. Eventually he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a fine and avoided prison time and was pardoned by Clinton in 2001. In the last decade, Cisneros has moved into a different line of work: He is currently the executive chairman of CityView, a national investment and urban-development firm.

Cisneros was a keynote speaker this week during the Subiendo Academy’s leadership conference at the University of Texas, which was organized and hosted by the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He spoke with the Tribune about what gubernatorial candidate Bill White needs to do to court the Latino vote, whether Barack Obama can count on Hispanics in 2012, Rick Perry's best response to the Arizona immigration bill and what advice he would give current San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro — the city’s latest rising star — to ensure he stays on course.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview and an audio clip including the entire conversation.

TT: What do you think former Mayor White has to do to court the Latino vote?

Cisneros: I think he needs to speak directly to the concerns of Latinos, which, for the most part, are completely coincident with the concerns of the general population. Because our [Latino] population is younger and our population is under-educated and under-compensated, the issues related to education and to jobs are on the front burner for most Latino families. So, a serious effort to address education: public-school education, early-childhood education, after-school education, accession to college, college admissions, scholarships and graduate school, education for displaced workers, the whole range of things related to education and human capital. We are not doing well in Texas, and the governor has placed his priorities elsewhere. I think if Bill White speaks in a clear way about education, he will get the attention of most Latinos.

On the jobs front, we continue to be impacted by lower wages, by lack of preparation for some of the jobs that exist. So if we are able to speak to the hopefulness and the possibilities of the work area, that would be important — that would be another distinguishing factor. There are other issues, such as the Arizona law and immigration that come to the fore in this day and time that would be very important to address. He is doing that. I heard him at the National Council of La Raza last week, and he said, if he was governor and a law like Arizona came forward in Texas, he would veto it. That’s the clearest distinction between he and Gov. Perry that I’ve heard.

TT: Twice in the last two weeks [Gov. Perry] has made overtures of support to Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer. First he said he would not attend the border governor's convention if they relocated it after the Mexican governors said they would cancel because of the [immigration] law, and most recently he defended Attorney General Greg Abbott’s decision to file his amicus brief in support of the state fighting the U.S. Justice Department's suit against it. In that statement he linked immigration directly to crime; he didn’t link it to jobs or to education. He said we have to secure the borders. Do you think Gov. Perry is distancing himself from Latino Republicans?

Cisneros: I have no idea the role that Latino Republicans have played on this issue. I have not followed precisely where they are. I have many friends who are Latino Republicans who I know are opposed to this law. I don’t know where [Texas Secretary of State] Hope Andrade stands on this. I do know where a man like [Republican ad man] Lionel Sosa stands on this: He thinks it’s a bad law. I think Gov. Perry is attempting to play the middle — on the one hand say it’s not something we want to do in Texas on the other hand not overly offend those who favor it. There are symbolic things like not going to the governor’s conference that address that constituency. I am hopeful that he means what he says when he says that he thinks it’s a bad law. It would be more effective if he said it would not become law because he would veto it. He hasn’t said that.

Audio Interview: Henry Cisneros

TT: Do you think [President] Obama can still galvanize Latino voters in 2012?

Cisneros: It’s too early to be talking about reelection. We have an election to get through in 2010, and the lay of the land after that will be [that] more Republican or Democrats will have been affirmed. And there are a lot of issues that will play out in the next session of Congress. So I think today he’s obviously not as strong as he was in 2008 — the bloom is off the rose in some ways, the polls make that clear. But he is certainly in fighting position and one would have to say he has the advantage against anybody running against him. I see no primary challenge at this point and a fighting chance to win a second term.

TT: He has been under fire from some Hispanics who supported him originally for not addressing immigration reform.

Cisneros: As badly as we want immigration reform, it’s not the president’s call exclusively. The political temper of the country, the condition of the economy, the margins in the Congress, the divergent support for different elements of immigration reform — that creates the climate in which the president can’t work. I think the president has been very clear that he wants comprehensive immigration reform, but we can’t ask him to either commit political suicide or to push forward a law that’s going to be made into mincemeat and set our chances for comprehensive reform even further back. Picking the precise moment and the precise political condition is the right thing to do.

TT: Current San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro has been called a rising star, and it’s coming on 30 years where you were in that same position. You read your biography and the accolades and the achievements and the awards are fantastic, and there was talk that you would ascend to a certain position. Obviously there have been some controversies in your past that have been well-documented that might have sent you back a little bit. What advice do you have for Mayor Castro to keep him on that rising-star path?

Cisneros: I never personally evidenced any ambition for any other position. I was fortunate that President Clinton asked me to serve in the cabinet. It was in the same stream of what I had done as mayor because HUD is the department that deals with the nation’s cities and housing and urban development, fields I know and love. It was a natural [fit] for me, and it gave me a great opportunity to learn the country and further deepen my knowledge of that field. I would say to the mayor that the first job is to be the mayor for all the people of San Antonio, demonstrate that he can govern, demonstrate that he can deliver progress for San Antonio, which he is doing, and that’s the first pre-condition for what people view as the timbre of a potential statewide or even national candidate. So he’s off to a good start. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you have to work every single day and you have to convert your vision into organizational results and outcomes on the ground. At the same time, try to inspire people. Latinos rightfully take pride in a Latino candidate, a Latino office holder of high profile. If he can make progress and prove he can govern, and at the same time, inspire the base, that’s the formula.

TT: Do you have any specific advice on how he deals with his personal life so he does not become a target of people who want to expose anything they perceive as something a mayor shouldn’t do?

Cisneros: No, not really. I think we all understand what we need to do with our personal lives.

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