Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Lifting one of the first clouds to form as he builds his administration, President-elect George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary-designee Linda Chavez withdrew her name from consideration for the cabinet post Tuesday.
The embattled Chavez took her name off of Bush’s cabinet list one week after being nominated and three days after being tarred with revelations she allowed an illegal immigrant to live in her home in the early Nineties and occasionally paid her for services.
At a news conference, Chavez — who characterized herself as being a victim of the “politics of personal destruction” — said she was withdrawing her nomination because the controversy was proving to be a distraction for the incoming Bush administration.
“I want his administration to succeed,” said Chavez, a conservative columnist who worked for two years in the Reagan administration as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Chavez defended housing Guatemalan immigrant Marta Mercado and said she always suspected Mercado was in the country illegally, until her suspicions were confirmed three months into Mercado’s stay.
“I don’t check Green Cards when I see a woman who is battered and has no place to live and no way to get back on her feet,” Chavez told a press conference in Washington.
Even before the controversy over whether she broke U.S. immigration laws, Chavez’s nomination drew criticism, largely from organized labor, for her opposition to the federal minimum wage and affirmative action.
Chavez’s workplace ideologies raised questions from labor about whether she could uphold U.S. labor laws, like those outlawing garment sweatshops, where federal wages aren’t paid and illegal immigrants are often employed.
“She did the right thing,” said Ann Hoffman, legislative director for UNITE, of Chavez withdrawing her name. “Her views on labor laws were much more critical to her ability to uphold these laws than this [illegal immigrant] incident, although I think it reflected her lack of seriousness toward our labor laws.”
The Chavez nomination isn’t the only controversy swirling around the President-elect as he works to put his administration together days before his Jan. 20 inauguration. Bush’s nominees for attorney general and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, staunch abortion critic and former Sen. John Ashcroft and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who has admitted to once employing an illegal immigrant couple, are also facing scrutiny.
Although Bush has yet to name a U.S. Trade Representative, there’s been concern among industry lobbyists as to discussions in the new administration about downgrading the USTR from its current cabinet-level rank to a purely functionary status. Bush’s transition spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters Tuesday that “no decisions have been made about the USTR” and he also reminded reporters that “George W. Bush is a real fighter for free trade” and his selection for USTR will reflect that.
The change in USTR’s stature would be in keeping with what’s been seen as Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney’s strategy of relying on a close-knit group of advisers for policy decisions.
Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel, said removing the USTR from a cabinet post would be “unfortunate, in terms of visibility and prestige of the position internationally. The USTR interacts with trade ministers who are themselves cabinet positions. We want somebody of equivalent stature.”
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said she would like the USTR to stay a cabinet position for the same reasons.
“You don’t have to read into it dire consequences if, USTR is demoted,” she said. “I don’t think it would necessarily signal any intent on behalf of the new administration to not be aggressive on trade.”

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