A new year, a new president, a whole new attitude. This week, City Limits introduces you to some faces that will likely become very familiar over the next year–three of president-elect George W. Bush's cabinet picks: Mel Martinez, Linda Chavez and Tommy Thompson.
With Florida's Mel Martinez, Bush's pick for housing secretary, it's a little hard to tell what we'll be getting. This Orange County Chairman has none of the right-wing anti-government bona fides of some of Bush's other Cabinet appointees. (He has most recently appeared in the press for taking Elian Gonzalez to Disney World and serving as a Florida elector.) He also doesn't have much background in housing, but unlike many Republicans, he at least seems to understand why a federal housing department exists at all–with skyrocketing population growth, development has become a huge issue in Orange County. “He's sensitive to those types of issues, and believes that there is reason and purpose for providing government services,” said Mitchell Glasser, Director for Housing and Community Development for Orange County.
And his staffers may find him a breath of fresh air–something of an anti-Cuomo. Like the current secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Martinez has a reputation in Florida for being whipsmart and a very quick study. But unlike our present housing chief, who has a well-documented nasty streak, Martinez is also known for being affable, easy to get along with and non-ideological.
The worst thing that housing developers and advocates could find to say about Martinez is that he doesn't seem to know much about his new job. But sometimes, they point out, that's an asset in a new secretary. “He has very little housing experience,” pointed out one Florida developer. “But that's not bad, necessarily. Maybe he won't have an agenda, and won't meddle around in things.”
Martinez also has a contrarian streak, infuriating developers last year with an anti-sprawl measure in Orange County. This year, he's been heading up the governor's ad hoc Florida Growth Management Commission, which just last week stepped on some important toes with an early draft of its findings. The report recommends tough measures to shut down uncontrolled suburbanization, preserve agriculture and encourage urban redevelopment–and is sure to launch a political firestorm in Florida, where development is very big business.
Like Martinez, new Labor Secretary nominee Linda Chavez isn't exactly an obvious choice for the job. Not to be confused with Linda Chavez-Thompson, the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, this Linda Chavez hasn't done much labor-related work since a brief stint with the American Federation of Teachers 18 years ago. Instead, she ascended the ranks of right-wing punditry, writing a conservative column that mixed anti-bilingual education diatribes with topics like racial reparations and even some Badillo-esque musings on Mexicans: “Is it possible, however, that many recent, legal Mexican immigrants simply don't want to become Americans?” she wondered in a column entitled “Whose fault is it that Mexicans aren't becoming citizens?”
Most union types are waiting to see if the AFL-CIO will back an anti-Chavez campaign before they criticize “Linda Chavez-not-Thompson,” as one organizer ruefully dubbed her. Off the record, though, they're quivering. Her warm welcome from the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce doesn't bode well for the nation's new ergonomics standard; her staunch anti-feminism could spell trouble for the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Chavez, who is a strident English-Only supporter, will also have plenty of chances to make life harder for immigrants: Besides making it harder to lodge complaints about sweatshops and exploitative labor, she can cut back on second-language translations of OSHA complaint forms, applications for unemployment and worker's compensation.
Most Americans are by now well familiar with Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson's endlessly celebrated efforts to push as many people off public assistance as quickly as possible. Armed with extreme measures like a two-year lifetime limit on benefits and a requirement that mothers of three-month-olds conduct full-time job searches, Thompson slashed welfare rolls more than 80 percent since 1993, and his W-2 program became a guiding influence on the 1996 federal welfare reform law.
Now that Bush has tapped him to head the federal department of Health and Human Services, he'll probably do his best to encourage states to develop their own, equally radical plans. “The most important thing to be concerned about in Governor Thompson is the fact that he believes very strongly in the wisdom and efficacy of governors having control over everything,” said Peter Edelman, a former top HHS official who resigned in protest over the 1996 law.
Block grants, which allow states to spend federal dollars largely as they see fit, are likely to be Thompson's weapon of choice, say Edelman and other Thompson-watchers. In the past, the governor has called for Medicaid to be converted into block grants, just as welfare money already is. And there's strong support among Republicans in Congress to block-grant child welfare funding as well.
Block grants, though, can be stymied by Congress. Thompson's second bag of tricks will probably be to generously grant waivers, so that states can exempt themselves from federal laws. Thompson is certainly no stranger to waivers; he crafted W-2 by applying for hundred of exemptions from HHS.