WASHINGTON — In his first interview since resigning as secretary of education, Lauro Cavazos blamed Latino leaders for undermining his effectiveness by publicly criticizing him. But Latino leaders countered by saying that Cavazos was politically naive and did not understand that he needed Latino support to survive in the position.
The critical "political comments didn't help me when I tried to move an issue in the White House," the retired Texas educator said in a telephone interview from his home in Concord, Mass.
"I don't know why Hispanics came against me. I didn't want blind support, but I didn't need backbiting."
Cavazos said that, while he was secretary, he had several meetings with more than a dozen Latino leaders and told them, "Look, I don't mind your fussing with me and saying you disagree, but I don't want to read about it in the paper without your telling me about it."
"Some of the (newspaper) articles were devastating," Cavazos said, adding that his public comments were misunderstood or taken out of context.
He said that, despite the criticism, "I have done more for Hispanics than any other person in the history of this country."
Appointed by President Reagan shortly before the 1988 election and then reappointed by President Bush, Cavazos resigned Dec. 15 after more than a year of rumors that the White House intended to replace him because of his low-key management style, negative public image and ineffectiveness in promoting Bush's education agenda.
During his three years in office, Cavazos frequently was at odds with Latino leaders over the issues of school funding, parental involvement and the concept of giving parents a choice on where to send their children to school.
In speeches he delivered in Texas, Cavazos angered Latinos when he appeared to blame parents for the high dropout rate among Latino students and later seemed to attack bilingual education when he said a child who can't speak English the first day of school is not ready to learn.
Rafael Valdivieso, vice president of the Hispanic Policy Development Project, said Cavazos is confusing Latino legislators in Texas, who were extremely critical of his public statements, with Washington-based Latino leaders, such as Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, who "were far less critical because they felt they needed to support him."
Yzaguirre said that, although Cavazos had little support left among Latinos when he left office, "Hispanics were not asking for his resignation so he can't blame Hispanic leaders for his demise."
He said the Mexican-American secretary "didn't understand that you have to have a base of support, and it had to be the Hispanic community. When he alienated them . . . there was no hope."
Manuel Oliverez, president of National Image, a group that promotes Latino employment and education, said Cavazos "was not prepared for the dynamics of the power game in D.C."
He said he and other Latino leaders felt "slighted" when Cavazos repeatedly turned down invitations to speak at their national conferences. "We were extremely disappointed that the first Hispanic Cabinet officer would not address his constituency," Oliverez said.
Several Latino advocates said their relationship with Cavazos began to sour when he failed to place his support behind the plan for an executive order on Latino education.
Shortly after he was appointed, the leaders of a dozen Latino advocacy and education groups lobbied Cavazos and the White House to get the order signed by Bush. That first effort was rejected by the White House staff, Latinos said. Later, Cavazos pushed for the order and Bush signed it last September.
"Cavazos was noncommittal (at first) and that really irritated us to no end," said a Latino advocate who did not want to be named. "Here we finally had someone who supposedly was very sensitive (to Latino issues), and he showed very little interest."
But Cavazos said he did not "see eye to eye" with the Latino leaders' strategy on pursuing the order, and instead he decided to hold national hearings and report the findings to the President.
"The order had been discussed for some time in the Education Department," he said. "We took it to the (White House) Domestic Policy Council in good order and had quite a bit of discussion about it because it is unique to identify a group like that. But I don't care who gets credit for that. The important thing is that it gets the federal government to pay attention to Hispanic issues."
Although Cavazos said he is not ready to talk yet about his reasons for resigning, he did say: "As someone said, I had zero political sense and it's true. I don't care about politics. That's not my game. I went there to try to help kids get an education."
He left when he did, he said, because "you can only be effective for so long." According to sources at the Education Department, Cavazos went to the White House for a routine meeting with Chief of Staff John H. Sununu a few days before resigning. At the meeting, Sununu asked Cavazos to resign and offered him a month or two to wrap up loose ends. "Cavazos said, 'No I'll be leaving right away. . . ., ' " a source said.
In May, officials in Washington said the U.S. Justice Department was investigating Cavazos' travel while he was in office, including the possible improper use of "frequent flier" bonus points to pay for trips taken by his wife.
Cavazos, 64, said he recently resigned from his tenured position at Texas Tech University, where he had been president before becoming secretary.
Cavazos said he plans to teach, lecture and write a book "about my experiences and spell out some of the things I've been saying about education."