WASHINGTON — A decade ago, he was hailed as the perfect politician for the '80s--an energetic, young Latino with Harvard credentials, populist appeal and movie-idol looks. His future was never in doubt. He would be mayor, senator, vice president and--maybe, in time--President of the United States.
But Henry G. Cisneros--now designated to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development--has never gotten further in elected office than his four terms as mayor of San Antonio.
As it turned out, the rising star of the '80s was sidetracked by what will surely go down in history as the political plague of that decade: An embarrassing, highly publicized extramarital affair. In 1988, Cisneros decided not to run for a fifth term and openly confessed to being in love with a woman who was not his wife. But perhaps because Cisneros' star shone so brightly, it was not extinguished by scandal.
Cisneros was nominated as HUD secretary Thursday by President-elect Bill Clinton, who also announced the nominations of Jesse Brown, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, to head the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and Hershel Gober, director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans' Affairs, to be Brown's top deputy.
Cisneros' Cabinet nomination is one step in a slow process of political rehabilitation that has been under way ever since his remarkable public confession four years ago. It is an opportunity for him to reclaim at least some of the promise that he once offered for his many well-wishers in the Latino community and elsewhere.
But, even though it is a positive move for Cisneros, the nomination is sensitive for the President-elect because the nominee's personal problems echo questions raised about Clinton during the campaign.
Although some of Cisneros' youthful purpose may have been squandered, he is still viewed by those who know him as the same intelligent, thoughtful guru of urban policy that first caught national attention more than a decade ago. As a result, his nomination to Cabinet rank in the new Democratic Administration is being hailed as a positive development by mayors and municipal leaders.
Donald Fraser, the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, describes Cisneros in glowing terms seldom used to characterize a politician: "He is a person of extraordinary talent, boundless perspective, probing insight, tireless energy and acute social awareness and sensitivity. He represents the best and brightest leadership that can be brought into the formulation of national policies to shape America's future."
At age 45, Cisneros comes to the federal government with a strong academic background, invaluable experience with the problems plaguing U.S. cities and a network of close friends and associates in city halls across the nation.
He is a graduate of Texas A&M who received graduate degrees from Harvard and George Washington University in urban policy, finance and government. He served at age 23 as a fellow in the White House under President Richard M. Nixon.
Elected mayor at age 33 after serving on the City Council, he built a record of achievement in San Antonio that was applauded by Latinos and Anglos alike. In the city's Latino West Side, he was credited with many needed improvements ranging from literacy programs to road repairs.
His reputation among other municipal leaders was sealed in 1986, when he was elected as president of the National League of Cities. It was in that capacity that he caught the attention of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who briefly considered Cisneros as his 1988 running mate before he selected Geraldine A. Ferraro.
But despite the broad praise, Cisneros was not without his mayoral failures, none of which looms larger than his attempt to revitalize a poor area of town by creating a shopping area that would entice more visitors to San Antonio, already a popular tourist destination. The Vista Verde project received more than $20 million in federal support. Today, it is boarded up and the developer is bankrupt.
Cisneros also was the driving force behind a decision to build a domed football arena, which he promoted as a way to secure a professional National Football League franchise. The arena is almost complete, but San Antonio has no franchise and prospects of landing one appear dim.
Friends say the tension between family and public life, combined with the difficulties caused by the birth of a son with a life-threatening heart defect, caused Cisneros to stray from his wife, Mary Alice. His long-rumored affair with Linda Medlar, a political fund-raiser, hit the local newspapers in October, 1988.
Surprisingly, the news did little to dampen Cisneros' popularity in San Antonio or throughout Texas. His favorable ratings remained steady in the polls. His wife stood by him, and Cisneros made a point of introducing her Thursday after his nomination was announced.