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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Henry Cisneros

Moving Beyond the New Deal in Clinton's Second Term

November 10, 1996|Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for The Times

WASHINGTON — If President Bill Clinton's second term will be about squeezing Democratic ambitions for government activism into the corset of a Republican balanced budget, Henry G. Cisneros has been there already. The secretary of housing and urban development has presided over three rounds of budget cutting that have shrunk his department by 20%--from $25 billion a year to $20 billion.

If Clinton's second term will focus on seeking consensus with a Republican Congress, Cisneros has been there, too. He managed to turn back GOP demands to disband his department and reached agreement with Republican leaders on a series of major reforms in public housing programs.

And if Clinton's last years in office are devoted to elaborating a new kind of Democratic politics, Cisneros has some thoughts on the matter. The former mayor of San Antonio, one of the country's most successful Latino politicians, Cisneros bridges the gap between old-style, Democratic, ethnic coalition building and New Democratic policy wonking.

When Clinton planned his long march from the congressional defeat of 1994 to Tuesday's convincing reelection victory, Cisneros was in the room as one of the president's political advisors.

The 49-year-old Texan called HUD "the hardest one" among the domestic departments when he took the job in 1992. "I think it's going to be a heartbreaker," Cisneros said. But he turned the ugly duckling of federal bureaucracies, saddled with 1.4 million units of public housing, into a laboratory of reinvented government.

Cisneros talked of unleashing market forces by giving rent vouchers to public housing tenants. He presided over the dramatic demolition of thousands of decaying apartments in high-rise buildings. He worked on new programs to build better low-income housing, including in the suburbs where the new jobs are.

He spoke out inside the White House against parts of this year's welfare reform bill. But once Clinton decided to sign the bill, he supported the decision in public.

He campaigned for Clinton among the nation's growing Latino population, and was a avid promoter of the "Citizenship USA" program, which naturalized 1.2 million legal immigrants as U.S. citizens--in many cases, just in time to vote in the presidential election.

He has also contended with scandal. Cisneros is facing charges that he lied to the FBI about support payments he made to a former lover. He nearly resigned in 1995, when Atty. Gen. Janet Reno asked for an independent counsel to consider criminal charges.

Cisneros says he hasn't decided whether to stay for the second term. With legal bills mounting and two children in college, he has said he may not be able to afford to live on at a Cabinet officer's $144,000 salary [check]. "I'd love to stay. There's a lot we have underway. It would be wonderful to see the momentum we've built in the cities continue. But practical family considerations will have to come into this--financial considerations."

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Question: A lot of voters ask: Which Bill Clinton are we going to have as president in his second term? Is it going to be Bill Clinton the liberal, Bill Clinton the budget cutter, Bill Clinton the centrist?

Answer: The old labels really don't work in this era . . . . What we're living through is the end of the New Deal arrangement where the role of government generally took the form of big institutions, huge budgets, alphabet-soup organizations, centralized answers from Washington. For a variety of reasons, we've come to the end of both the effectiveness and people's tolerance for those kinds of solutions. It's a question of less resources; it's also a question of the way the country has changed . . . .

Rather than think in terms of Clinton as conservative or liberal or New Dealer or some new configuration, what he really will be doing over the next four years is preparing the country for the next century; preparing the country for a new relationship between the government and the people, the government and the private sector.

This is a new synthesis. It's not the New Deal bureaucratic structures, but neither is it the Republican dependence on the individual alone and a family alone, left without support. It is, I think, a role that puts people and communities in the lead with the federal government standing behind them as a partner, bringing critical resources but not leading the way.

Q: What does that mean in terms of specific goals that the next Administration should achieve?

A: I think the central themes of the President's second term will be [a] focus on jobs. I've heard him say over and over again that signing the welfare bill was not the end of the discussion; it was the beginning of the task . . . . What you will see in a second Clinton term is an all-out effort to create jobs and opportunity to substitute for welfare. That will occupy a lot of time and it will be the best urban strategy that we can possibly put together for America.

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