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Hispanic Heritage

Henry G. Cisneros

Birth: 1947
Nationality: American, Mexican
Occupation: politician

Henry Cisneros is one of the brightest political stars to emerge from the ranks of Mexican Americans, serving four terms as the first Hispanic mayor of a major United States city, his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. With his personal magnetism, intellectual ability, and political acumen, he was once called a "natural resource" by former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Elliot Richardson. From his simple roots in a middle-class neighborhood to his appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under U.S. President Bill Clinton, Cisneros is best known for his attempts to help the urban poor through fair housing policy and inner-city revitalization. Although his professional accomplishments have sometimes been overshadowed by a turbulent personal life, Cisneros is credited with changing the political complexion of the nation's tenth-largest city at a time when virtually every position of power was occupied by an Anglo American.

Descended on his father's side from early Spanish settlers in the American Southwest, Henry Gabriel Cisneros was born June 11, 1947, in a San Antonio neighborhood that bordered the city's west side barrio. His father, George Cisneros, was a civilian administrator for the U.S. Army. His mother, Elvira Munguia Cisneros, was the daughter of Romulo Munguia, a Mexican printer, journalist, and intellectual who fled his native country in 1926 during the oppressive regime of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. With his two sisters and two brothers, Cisneros was the product of a supportive extended family, motivated primarily by his mother, who envisioned a special destiny for each of her children.

Cisneros received a Catholic education, first at the Church of the Little Flower, where he skipped the third grade, and then at Central Catholic High School. He enrolled at Texas A & M University in 1964, and switched his major from aeronautical engineering to city management in his sophomore year. In 1967 Cisneros was selected to attend a student conference on U.S. Affairs at West Point, where he first learned that U.S. cities were in serious trouble. Relating what he heard to the problems in his hometown, the event was a personal and professional turning point for him. Graduating from A & M with a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1968, he went on to earn a master's in urban and regional planning. That summer, he was hired as an analyst by the San Antonio branch of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Model Cities program for urban revitalization. In 1970, one year after marrying his high school sweetheart, Mary Alice Perez, Cisneros moved to Washington, D.C. There he landed a full-time job as an administrative assistant to the executive vice president of the National League of Cities. He became a White House fellow in 1971, the year his first daughter, Theresa Angelica, was born.

From 1972 to 1974, the Cisneroses lived in Boston with the help of a $10,000 Ford Foundation grant, and Cisneros earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. He worked as a teaching assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and received a doctorate from George Washington University. Turning down a full time teaching position at MIT, Cisneros returned to the San Antonio political scene to assume a faculty position in the division of environmental studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Began Political Career

When Cisneros arrived back home, he found that the stagnant political scene in San Antonio was experiencing strong undercurrents of ethnic discontent. For two decades, the Anglo-dominated Good Government League (GGL) had run the city, and the Mexican American community believed that they had been neglected for too long by their leaders. Displaying an early talent for working within the system, Cisneros ran as a candidate of the GGL. After a whirlwind campaign, Cisneros, at age 27, was elected the youngest city councilman in the city's history in 1975, the same year his second daughter, Mercedes Christina, was born. Reelected twice, Cisneros quickly assumed the hands-on leadership that he had promised in his campaigns. In order to learn all he could about life in the city, Cisneros collected garbage with the garbage collectors, rode in police patrol cars, went to fires on fire trucks, and interviewed prisoners in jail.

During this time Cisneros strategically aligned himself with Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), a powerful grass-roots Hispanic advocacy group founded in 1973. He later found himself at odds with this group over local water supply issues when he tried to appease both environmentalists and developers. This middle-of-the-road stance would cause problems throughout his career. In Señor Alcalde ("Mr. Mayor"), John Gillies wrote: "He tried to avoid a political label, such as Democrat or Republican, because he wanted to consider the needs of all of San Antonio's groupings.... He formed a bridge between conservatives and liberals, which was often a no-win situation. Conservatives often criticized him for supporting government programs, and liberals accused him of being too "big business'-oriented."

First Hispanic Mayor

By 1980, Cisneros was ready to make his move on City Hall, announcing himself as an independent candidate for mayor in 1981. An extremely persuasive and enthusiastic speaker, his infectious energy and hopeful visions of the future united the rich old guard of San Antonio and the increasingly vocal Mexican American middle class. His campaign attracted the national media, who pegged the tall, handsome, and impeccably groomed Cisneros as the symbol of a growing Hispanic population. On April 4, 1981, Cisneros became the first Hispanic mayor of a major U.S. city--and the first Mexican American to be elected mayor of San Antonio since 1842--with 62 percent of the vote. He went on to be reelected to three more terms, including winning an unprecedented 93 percent of the vote in the 1983 election.

Cisneros's eight years as mayor ushered in a new era in local politics, one in which he shrewdly combined economic development efforts with ethnic sensibilities. His pro-development stance made him a favorite of business leaders, but he never forgot his roots. Throughout his term, he and his family lived in the same small west side house that once belonged to his grandfather. His philosophy of "trickle down economics" often alienated him from Hispanic activists who advocated more direct solutions. His diplomatic skills shone brightest, however, when getting diverse groups to work together on economic development projects. While Cisneros was mayor, $200 million was spent on the city's Hispanic west side for streets, gutters, libraries, and parks. He was the single most important force behind the city's Alamodome, a massive downtown sports and convention arena that ignited controversy among city leaders because of its cost to taxpayers. One of the political highlights of his mayoral term occurred in 1984, when he was interviewed by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale as a possible vice presidential running mate. Mondale, however, chose Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro.

In 1987, at what most observers agree was the peak of his political career, Cisneros chose to leave public life. Several factors contributed to Cisneros's decision. His son, John Paul Anthony, was born in 1987 with asplenia syndrome, a birth defect in which there is no spleen and a heart with two right atria. In addition, his daughters were rapidly approaching college age. As one of the lowest paid mayors in the country, Cisneros had supplemented his income by teaching and lecturing, but the prospects of huge medical bills and college tuition were daunting. After 15 years of public service, Cisneros quit politics to make money and spend more time with an ailing son whose doctors had given no more than six years to live and whose life would be filled with major surgeries. When John Paul reached his sixth birthday in 1993, Cisneros told Sophfronia Scott Gregory in Time of his son's ongoing fight for life, "Nothing in my life has prepared me for this."

Probably the biggest single factor behind his stunning announcement to leave politics, however, was his disclosure of a two-year affair with former campaign aide Linda Medlar. Political observers decreed that it would destroy Cisneros's image as a Catholic family man and signal the end of his career. Rather than subject his marriage and family to continued stress and scrutiny, Cisneros chose to leave public life and reconcile with his wife. In 1989, he founded Cisneros Asset Management Company, a national fixed-income asset management firm for tax-exempt institutions. He was still a major political player, serving as a board member of the Rockefeller Foundation, trustee of The American Assembly, chair of the National Civic League, and deputy chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. And in spite of the scandal that forced him out of public office, Cisneros remained popular, with occasional rumors of a bid for either the governor's office or state senator.

Appointed Secretary of HUD

On December 17, 1992--his extramarital affair long over and his once-shaky marriage back on track--Cisneros was indeed back in the political game when President-elect Bill Clinton named him secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Cisneros then sold his interests in his management company, Cisneros Benefit Group Inc., U.S. Long Distance, and Cisneros Metro Service.

Cisneros took charge of HUD in January 1993, filled with optimism and ambitious plans to do everything possible to reform the problem-plagued $28 billion department. By May, he told Thomas G. Donlan of Barron's, "As exciting as the opportunity is to work at HUD, there are days when I wonder whether the President really did me the honor that it is all cooked up to be." Compounding the problem was an unprecedented number of homeless in the cities, a situation that Cisneros pledged to make his number one priority. His efforts, however, were often thwarted by a slow-moving bureaucracy. He described his frustration to Jill Smolowe in Time, "I can't believe how gridlocked the system is ... how irrelevant it is to things that are happening out in the country." He renewed his attack on public-housing segregation and mortgage discrimination. " Fair housing, " he told Guy Gugliotta of the Washington Post, "is so vital that we cannot accomplish any of the other goals without it." He even dismissed members of a local public-housing authority for allowing African American tenants to be harassed out of a Texas public-housing project. He unveiled a plan for HUD to provide $70 million in rental vouchers to help people in housing projects move into surrounding middle class and affluent suburbs, a controversial plan that brought opposition from critics and tenants alike. Author James Bovard, writing in American Spectator, stated: "Fair housing programs have moved far from their original goal of reconciling disparities between blacks and whites. They now amount to a project to dictate where welfare recipients live in every county, city, and cranny across the nation."

Cisneros was at the helm of HUD for just a year and a half when Linda Medlar resurfaced in July 1994 with a breach of contract lawsuit against Cisneros. She claimed that he violated a promise to financially support her until her daughter's graduation from college. Cisneros had, in fact, made payments totaling $213,000 over the four years following the end of their affair, discontinuing them when he could no longer afford them on his cabinet salary of $148,400. Medlar also produced 40 hours of taped phone conversations suggesting that Cisneros may have misrepresented the amount of payments to the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the confirmation process for his nomination to the cabinet. In March of 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno recommended a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate Cisneros. After offering to submit his resignation to President Clinton--who rejected it with a public statement that described Cisneros as "a good man and an effective public servant"--Cisneros decided to stay in his position, adding in a statement in the San Antonio Express-News, "I regret any mistakes that I have made but affirm once again that I have at no point violated the public's trust."

Described as high-strung, driven, and often impatient, Cisneros has maintained a rigorous jogging regimen for years, shuns red meat, coffee, and alcohol, and takes seven vitamins a day. In July 1994 his son underwent a successful operation to correct his congenital heart defect. Dedicated to saving HUD, he presented a plan in 1995 to trim the department's budget by $13 billion over five years. He told the San Antonio Express-News: "There are efforts under way to eliminate important national efforts which provide shelter and assistance to millions of low-income Americans. I intend to stay and fight for our nation's commitment to people who need help and to reform HUD." He continued, "This may be the last opportunity I have to be in public life...I just want to do everything I can to make the biggest difference I can."

Of his uncertain political future, Lynnell Burkett of the San Antonio Express-News noted that "something irreplaceable has been lost. Lost is the integration of character and competence in an energetic, charismatic person who desires public service. Whatever Cisneros is in the future, it is less than he might have been." Cisneros's past contributions to urban renewal and revitalization, his efforts to help the poor and disenfranchised, and his commitment to improving cities are all a matter of unchangeable record. In his 1993 book, Interwoven Destinies, Cisneros wrote: "The strength of the nation's economy, the contact points for international economics, the health of our democracy, and the vitality of our humanistic endeavors--all are dependent on whether America's cities work."

WORKS

SELECTED PUBLISHED WORKS

  • The Entrepreneurial City, New York, Ballinger, 1986.
  • Interwoven Destinies, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

FURTHER READINGS

Books

  •  
  • Diehl, Kemper, and Jan Jarboe, Cisneros Portrait of a New American, San Antonio, Corona Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Gillies, John, Señor Alcalde: A Biography of Henry Cisneros, Minneapolis, Dillon Press, Inc., 1988.
  • Roberts, Naurice, Henry Cisneros: Mexican-American Mayor, Chicago, Children's Press, 1986.

Periodicals

  • American City & County, April, 1993, p. 14.
  • American Spectator, September, 1994, pp. 26-32.
  • Barron's, May 24, 1993, p. 10; September 12, 1994, p. 30.
  • Christian Century, June 1-8, 1994, p. 569.
  • Mother Jones, March/April, 1993, pp. 11-12.
  • National Review, March 7, 1994, pp. 57-59.
  • New Republic, March 14, 1994, pp. 12-16.
  • New York Times, March 15, 1995.
  • People, May 9, 1994, p. 98.
  • San Antonio Express-News, November 29, 1994; January 6, 1995, p. 5B; February 24 , 1995, p. 19A; March 1, 1995, p. 11A; March 14, 1995, p. 6A; March 15, 1995, p. 3A; March 19, 1995, p. 1A; March 21, 1995, p. 1A, p. 4B; March 22, 1995, p. 14A; March 23, 1995, p. 2A; March 26, 1995, p. 2L; April 3, 1995, p. 2A.
  • Time, June 21, 1993, p. 17; December 6, 1993, p. 28-31.
  • U.S. News & World Report, July 5, 1993, pp. 40-41; February 21, 1994, pp. 30-31; July 18, 1994, pp. 28-29. Washington Monthly, July/August, 1994, p. 6.
  • Washington Post, November 4, 1993.

SOURCE CITATION

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Gale, 1996.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale 2007.

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