Henry Cisneros: 1947—: San Antonio Mayor and Cabinet Secretary Biography
Henry Cisneros has often been compared with his immediate supervisor for much of the 1990s—U.S. president Bill Clinton. Both men were intelligent, politically skilled, well-educated, and committed not only to the ideal of change but to the nuts-and-bolts challenges of implementing it. And both were irreversibly diverted from their goals by revelations of extramarital sexual relationships. Nevertheless, as Clinton's political career came to an end at the dawn of the 21st century, no one was closing the book on that of Cisneros. He had already rebounded from adversity more than once during a spectacular career that included eight years as mayor of San Antonio, Texas—as the first Hispanic American to lead a major U.S. city.
Cisneros was born in San Antonio on June 11, 1947, in a middle-class neighborhood on the city's predominantly Mexican west side. He was the oldest of five children of a Mexican-American father, a civilian administrator at a U.S. Army base, and a Mexican-expatriate mother, the daughter of a renowned dissident journalist and intellectual. Cisneros's parents spoke Spanish at home but switched to English when their children were born. It was Cisneros's mother, especially, who instilled educational ambitions in her five children, all of whom graduated from college and two of whom earned Ph.D. degrees. One of those two was Henry, who was a academic star from the beginning.
He breezed through Catholic schools in San Antonio and then enrolled in Texas A&M University, graduating in 1968 with a degree in English. Along the way he won a scholarship to a national student current-events conference, where he began to see the problems of his largely poor and oligarchically run hometown in a new light. Seized with a strong interest in public policy, Cisneros switched to the study of urban planning and administration, earning a master's degree from Harvard University. He had already made inroads into politics, living in Washington, D.C., with his wife and young daughter and working for the National League of Cities. In 1971 Cisneros was honored as a White House Fellow, and by 1975 he had completed his Ph.D. in public administration at George Washington University.
Clearly Cisneros could have pursued a successful career in academia (he turned down a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or in the federal government, but he chose to return to San Antonio to apply the lessons he had learned to the place in which he had grown up. Taking a teaching job at the University of Texas at San Antonio, he ran for city council and became the city's youngest council representative in history when he was elected in 1975 at age 27. Impressing observers immediately with the hands-on energy that would become the hallmark of his political career, Cisneros deftly steered a middle course between the city's conservative Anglo-American power structure and the west side's first stirrings of Latino activism. When he announced his candidacy for mayor in 1980, it was as an independent.
With substantial support from white voters as well as Hispanics, Cisneros was elected mayor in 1981 by a nearly two-to-one margin. Cisneros was an unqualified success as mayor of San Antonio; Texas Monthly in 1999 named him its Texas Mayor of the Century, pointing to such achievements as a downtown riverfront redevelopment that drew tourists from far and wide and contending that he had "changed San Antonio's image from a poor and somewhat sleepy town to a culturally and economically vibrant model for the future of urban America." San Antonio's glittering downtown did not come at the expense of its residential neighborhoods; over $200 million was devoted to infrastructure improvements on the west side alone. Cisneros was reelected three times by overwhelming margins, once (in 1983) with 93 percent of the vote.
In 1988, even though his name had been floated several times as a possible contender for national office, Cisneros stunned the political world by announcing his retirement. His reasons were twofold. The official reason given for his withdrawal from politics was a desire to devote more time to the care of his son John Paul, who had been born the previous year with four life-threatening birth defects. Facing huge medical bills, Cisneros also hoped to make more money in private industry. Another motivation, however, was the imminent disclosure of an ongoing extramarital affair between Cisneros and his chief campaign fundraiser, Linda Medlar.
Cisneros founded a financial-management firm in 1989, and his cooperation with his wife in caring for John Paul (who recovered to flourish in school after several major surgeries) brought the two back together. Despite the bad publicity he had faced, Cisneros still retained enough popularity to stimulate talk of a comeback among political observers. With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, Cisneros was mentioned as a possible replacement for various Texas officials who had ascended to jobs in the new Democratic administration. But Clinton had bigger plans for the ambitious young reformer: he named Cisneros as his new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Taking office in 1993, Cisneros immediately stirred up new activity in that hidebound government department that had long been associated primarily with grim urban low-income housing projects. He attacked the problems of low-income ghettoization and homelessness with a $70 million plan that would provide housing vouchers enabling low-income Americans to rent living space in the communities of their choice—an idea that brought Cisneros criticism in affluent circles in his native Texas and elsewhere. More generally, Cisneros proved an able advocate for HUD's very existence; the agency was under perennial attack from conservative budget-cutters.
The following year, however, the Medlar affair resur-faced. Medlar filed a breach-of-contract suit against Cisneros, claiming that he had agreed to support her until her daughter's college graduation but had then discontinued the monthly payments after joining the Clinton administration. Medlar argued that she had been silenced in order to permit the rehabilitation of Cisneros's political career. "There is a side to Henry that is very narcissistic, that is very much concerned with what is good for Henry Cisneros," she told People. Cisneros admitted that he had made the payments to Medlar, saying that he had discontinued them only after being forced to take a pay cut upon returning to public life.
Cisneros had divulged payments of $60,000 during the FBI background check that preceded his appointment as HUD secretary, but Medlar claimed to have received over $200,000—raising the possibility that Cisneros had lied to the FBI. Attorney General Janet Reno launched a probe of Cisneros that ballooned into a five-year investigation costing an estimated $15 million. In 1996 Cisneros took himself out of the running for the HUD post in Clinton's second term. Three years later he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge, paying a $10,000 fine and avoiding a prison sentence. Cisneros received one of the pardons dispensed by Clinton in the last days of his presidency; although the investigation dragged on into the presidency of George W. Bush, his legal liabilities seemed finally to be coming to an end.
After leaving the Clinton administration, Cisneros served from 1997 to 2000 as president and CEO of the Spanish-language Univision television network. Before long, however, he had returned to his reformer's ways, returning to San Antonio to head a firm that developed affordable housing there and in other American cities. "Home ownership is the way people step into the American dream," Cisneros told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It creates access to the levers of wealth." Still a charismatic speaker much in demand at civic and professional gatherings, Cisneros continued to ponder solutions to the sharp inequities of circumstance that bedeviled American cities even during the 1990s economic boom. It seemed not inconceivable that he would one day return to political office and attempt to implement his ideas once again.
Gillies, John, Señor Alcalde: A Biography of Henry Cisneros, Dillon, 1988.
Broadcasting and Cable, August 14, 2000, p. 49.
Houston Chronicle, February 12, 2002, p. A23.
Insight on the News, September 18, 1995, p. 10; October 4, 1999, p. 6; December 13, 1999, p. 14; February 5, 2001, p. 6.
Newsweek, December 22, 1997, p. 70.
People, April 3, 1995, p. 81.
San Diego Union-Tribune, November 21, 2001, p. B4.
Texas Monthly, Marc h 1993, p. 100; November 1994, p. 5; December 1999, p. 136; July 2000, p. 47; September 2001, p. 184.
U.S. News & World Report, April 7, 1986, p. 32; September 7, 1998, p. 33.
Variety, June 2, 1997, p. 23.
American Decades CD-ROM, Gale, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001 (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., 17 vols., Gale, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001 (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
—James M. Manheim
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