When the producers of such TV shows as Good Morning America and CNNs Newsmaker Sunday went looking for a woman who was both conservative and a member of a minority to comment on the sexual harassment charge against Judge Clarence Thomas, they knew whom to call: Linda Chavez.
In the past eight years, Chavez has been the executive director of the Linda Chavez controversial U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a candidate for U.S. Senate and the head of a national organization that advocates English as the official language of the U.S.
More recently, she was banned from delivering the commencement address at the University of Northern Colorado by students angered by her views.
Chavez, 44, was born in Albuquerque, N.M., to working-class parents. Her father was a World War II hero of Spanish descent, while her mother was non-Hispanic. The family moved to the Spanish-speaking section of Denver when she was a child, although she doesnt speak Spanish herself.
This month, Chavez may be cranking up the controversy machine again with the publication of her Out of the Barrio, a book in which she painstakingly refutes the idea that, as the head of one organization has put it, Hispanics are "the poorest of the poor, the most segregated minority in schools, the lowest-paid group in America, and the least educated minority in this nation."
Such statements, Chavez told Investors Business Daily, are "intended to say (that) individuals and families do not have control over their destinies, that somebody else has to do it for you."
"The statement is just plain wrong," she added.
In Out of the Barrio, Chavez asserts that when such factors as foreign birth and ability to speak English are factored out, there is very little difference between the earnings of Hispanics and those of so-called Anglo Americans.
She says that much of the difference that does exist can be accounted for by Puerto Ricans — whom she says suffer disproportionately from ill-conceived government policies — and she notes that Hispanics as a whole are doing much better than blacks.
Carter Administration Job
Chavez is no born conservative. She voted liberal and Democratic through the 1970s and worked as a lobbyist for the liberal National Education Association, at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Carter administration and, for a brief period, for the Democratic National Committee.
What changed her views, she says, was her disagreement with the Democratic Party on defense issues, along with a growing disaffection with quota systems.
"I found quotas to be offensive," she said. Admitting that she has benefited from such programs because it was impossible not to, she said, "I found them to be a not too subtle way of saying I (as a Hispanic) was not up to it."
Chavez says she believes quotas are racist. "We need to make issues of race and color less relevant, not more," she said. "There shouldnt be bonus points for being of the right gender and color."
In 1983, after a six-year stint with the American Federation of Teachers, Chavez caught the eye of officials in the Reagan administration, which appointed her executive director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the height of bitter controversy between liberals and conservatives over what role the commission should play — and whether it should exist at all.
The commission had previously been almost solidly left-wing and a strong advocate of just the sort of quota systems Chavez finds so repugnant. Some of the commission members did not appreciate her stewardship. One, Mary Frances Berry, said: "She speaks with honeyed tongue. Shes like a viper that you have to watch carefully."
But Chavez left her mark on the commission, which to this day reflects a far different philosophy than it did before she arrived.
For the next two years, Chavez worked as director of public liaison at the Reagan White House, where she became the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Reagan administration.
In 1986, she resigned from the White House to run for the U.S. Senate from Maryland. She handily defeated nine Republican opponents in the primary, including one multimillionaire who plowed his own money into the race. But she couldnt defeat her Democratic opponent in a state with a 3-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans.
While Chavez acknowledges that being a female of Hispanic descent has been a boon in getting her recognition from conservatives, she says it is a double-edged sword in that it infuriates liberal Hispanics who feel she has betrayed them.
Chavez feels it was the same sort of attitude that led many liberals to oppose Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court — and sparked the desperate, 11th-hour attempt to derail him. As a Supreme Court justice, she argues, he will be a high-profile representative for something that many on the left may not want to see — black conservatism.
Chavez identifies with Justice Clarence Thomas: Both have been seen as traitors for not being liberals.
"Theres a sense (among those who feel that way) that were traitors," she said.
Many Hispanic leaders said they felt betrayed when Chavez accepted the presidency of U.S. English, a group whose goal is to make English the official language of the U.S.
But Chavez saw U.S. English as a help to Hispanics. She says that knowledge of the English language has been shown to be one of the most important factors in determining the earnings levels of those in minority or ethnic groups.
So-called bilingualism, she says — whereby students are often not taught to speak English but rather encouraged to remain Spanish-speaking only — "is really just a jobs program for some Hispanics." It is crippling to Hispanic children trying to assimilate into American culture, she claims.
But after just over a year on the job, she felt obligated to resign when a memo surfaced — it was written by the chairman of the group before she joined — that appeared to be anti-Hispanic.
Notwithstanding her quick resignation, students last year at the University of Northern Colorado used her association with the group as an excuse to demand that she not be allowed to give the commencement address, as had been planned.
The university went along with the demand, but Chavez showed up anyway — to distribute copies of the Constitution to graduating students, many of whom she felt were sorely in need of the wisdom of the documents words.
Currently, Chavez is a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute in New York and contributes frequently to a number of business publications and newspapers. As her TV appearances during the Thomas hearings showed, she is in heavy demand on the speaking and news-show circuits.
She speaks and writes not just on ethnic and womens issues, but on topics as disparate as airline safety, lesbian motherhood and taxes. As always, she is a woman who refuses to be pigeonholed.
Read Michael Fumentos additional work on racism and race relations.