Gonzales Leaves Conflicted Legacy Among Latinos
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Just ahead, a graphic artist decides to turn his frustration about Philadelphia's ongoing murder epidemic into an anti-violence poster campaign. We'll tell you how city officials reacted.
But first, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned yesterday.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Former U.S. Attorney General): Public service is honorable and noble. And I am profoundly grateful to President Bush for his friendship and for the many opportunities he has given me to serve the American people.
MARTIN: Gonzales was the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, the son of immigrants who worked his way through Harvard Law School. But his up-from-humble-beginnings biography was no shield from the criticism that has dogged him for months. He's been criticized by civil libertarians for his role in shaping the administration's wiretapping and torture policies, and by members of Congress who believe he has not been truthful about his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys.
Here to talk about Alberto Gonzales' tenure and legacy are Juan Carlos Benitez. He sits on the board of the Latino Coalition, a think tank and advocacy group comprised of Latino business leaders across the country. He leads the coalition's immigration initiative, and he was kind enough to join me in the studio. Also joining us is Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, one of the country's largest Hispanic civil rights organizations. He joins us on the phone from Germany.
Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.
Mr. JUAN CARLOS BENITEZ (Board of Directors, Latino Coalition): Nice to here.
Mr. BRENT WILKES (National Executive Director, League of United Latino American Citizens): It's good to be on.
MARTIN: And, Mr. Benitez, I want to start with you. Your organization has supported Alberto Gonzales throughout - through thick and thin, I think, it's fair to say. Why?
Mr. BENITEZ: And we continue to do so. We - basically, because we think he has been a great Hispanic leader, and he's a great example to our people of what can be achieved, I think, not only for Hispanics but for all immigrants into our nation. The son of Mexican immigrants in the United States, lived in a house that had - built by his father on a dirt road and was able to get himself through college, went to Harvard Law School, went over and became a partner of one of the largest law firms in the United States, became council to the governor of Texas, secretary of state, justice of the state of Texas. And then found to be counsel to the president of the United States, later to be the first ethnic minority to hold the title of chief law enforcement officer of the United States.
MARTIN: So you don't think he should have resigned? You would like to have seen him stay?
Mr. BENITEZ: I would have definitely liked to see him stay.
MARTIN: Mr. Wilkes, you've taken a more critical view - your organization has. What's your take?
Mr. WILKES: Well, I think that, you know, we did support the attorney general when he first was being nominated into the nominations process. But - and he is tremendous role model, that's for certain. I think the difference is that we had hoped that he would really expand the ability of the Justice Department to respond to the issues and concerns of the Hispanic community. And that's where we were disappointed, that throughout his tenure, it seemed like he had larger issues on focus on and did not really respond to the concerns that Latinos had. And there's plenty of civil rights concerns that we're concerned about. And...
MARTIN: So - I'm sorry. Is your main issue that you feel he ignored the issues of particular concern to Latinos rather than that of other groups, that he politicized the office, or that political considerations trumped - or political ideology - trumped qualification and issues of justice in his - under his watch?
Mr. WILKES: Well, I think in a particular issue of the firing of the justices, we were concerned about that because it does impact minority voting power when you start emphasizing that there are tons of voter fraud occurring and you want to ramp up documentation requirements to vote. And it turns out that that's more of a political consideration than - that there's actual voter fraud going on, and they're putting under political pressure to pursue cases that really didn't exist. That's a big concern, because you're trying to, in essence, discourage minorities from voting when you're trying to ramp up voting requirements.
So that was a very much alarming thing that has happened under Gonzales, because we would have hoped that he would have say no, understand the political considerations here, but I'm Latino myself and I'm not going to sign on to anything that would possibly (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Well, let's hear Mr. Benitez on that. What about that? One of the allegations against Mr. Gonzales is that whether he personally - or he did this himself or he allowed to happen that U.S. attorneys were replaced either because they did not take stances that were politically convenient for Republicans, that they did not take tough enough stances on illegal immigration. Or that in one case, there was a U.S. attorney who was alleged to have taken a politically motivated case in - of voter registration case, which is the kind of thing that impacts Latinos, as well as African-Americans. What do you say to that?
Mr. BENITEZ: I'll go into parts in that question. I think, first, I'll disagree, I think that as the - as I mentioned before, the son of immigrants, he brought a different understanding into the Justice Department and a different point of view on immigration and the need for hard work and the challenges that immigrants face in our nation. I actually think that the time he dedicated and gave to need and interact with Hispanic organizations, well, definitely was above and beyond what any prior attorney general had done before him. I think he did a genuine effort to reach out to the community.
On the case of the U.S. attorneys, I have my own personal point of view on that entire issue. First, those people serve on the pleasure of the president. Their appointments are originally for four years. The people that were there before them were fired specifically because they were appointed by a Democratic president, and none of the eight or nine of them complain about that at all.
MARTIN: But the customary is that to change - when administrations change, all U.S. attorneys submit their resignations. That's considered customary. In this case, it is the allegation is that these people were singled out because they did not take positions that were politically advantageous to one political party.
Mr. BENITEZ: I actually think that that was the allegations. And one of my big concerns is that when you file charges or allege accusations against the chief laws enforcement officers of the United States over our nation, you should have a solid case before you go forward and make those allegations, because the allegation itself tends to bring cloud to the entire organization to our system, which is what's happened here. But what we found ourselves with is the allegations are brought up. Investigations have been sent. Thousands of e-mails have been forward to the - by the Justice Department. A huge number of people have been able to testify, and none of the allegations seem to be true. The entire - they haven't...
MARTIN: Wait. I don't know how you can say that. I mean, the allegations are being made by members of both political parties, including the president's own party. Some of the - Mr. Gonzales toughest critics have been members of his own party.
Mr. BENITEZ: The original allegation was that there were - that the reason that they fired these people were - they committed a crime when they did that. The only way you commit a crime by firing those persons that serve at the will of the president were if it was done to interrupt an existing or ongoing investigation. That was never...
MARTIN: No, I think, the question about Mr. Gonzales is that he has been less than truthful in his discussions with the Congress. I think that's the specific complaint that they have about him.
But let me - let's go on to another point of view, Mr. Benitez. Do you think that Mr. Gonzales' ethnicity has played some role in the way he has been viewed or treated by Congress, or by the people who are criticizing him?
Mr. BENITEZ: I actually - what I think is that the lack of support by the -what should be their natural base of support of Alberto Gonzales affected and emboldened the people that opposed him. From the beginning, we all knew that the ultra left and the ultra right were not fans of Alberto Gonzales, and you would have expected the Hispanic organizations would have come there and supported and defended him. And the fact is that even Jack Cafferty came up on TV and called him the president's water boy and then proceeded to call him, and I quote, "if you look up the word weasel in the dictionary, you'll see Alberto Gonzales' face." And outside of the Latino coalition, no other Hispanic group organization even lifted a word.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the legacy of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And I'm joined by Brent Wilkes from the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, and Juan Carlos Benitez from The Latino Coalition.
Mr. Wilkes, what about that point? What about the criticism that some conservative Latinos and African-Americans make that these ethnic organizations say they're supporting ethnic leaders and people of, you know, their ethnic background, but in reality it's really only people of a certain political perspective?
Mr. WILKES: Well, I think that you did see our organization, the League of United Latin American Citizens, were supporting Alberto Gonzales through the nominations process. He's already been the president's chief counsel. When he was the president's chief counsel, there was a lot of interaction between our organizations and him. He did come and speak to our groups and was very responsive if we needed something, legally speaking, from the White House, we could go to him and get a response. I think when he became attorney general, we noticed that he seemed much more distanced from us and was much less responsive.
And we had cases that came forward - for example, a case in Texas in which a young Hispanic boy was beat up by two white boys and they were issuing racial insults. And they beat him to within an inch of his life. He almost died. And we thought that was a classic hate crime case that the attorney general should have gotten involved in. We came to him and asked for his help, but the response was let's let the local police handle that. And we just thought there'd be a bit more aggressive nature on those types of issues.
If, for example, with this whole immigration debate, there's been a lot of negative things being said about Latinos, a lot more hate crimes are occurring. And we could have used the attorney general using his bully pulpit to try to speak out against that and try to really to say that this is unacceptable for Hispanics to be targeted because of their ethnic heritage, because that can be a real concern that's developed because of this whole immigration debate. And we just haven't felt that from him as attorney general.
So to continue supporting someone just because they're Latino and not because they're actually doing things for Latinos, I think there's a big distinction you have to draw there. And we just felt that he wasn't responding to the issues that our community was concerned about. And it's not that we've attacked him, but when he did need our help, I think it's fair to say that we didn't there come to defend him in his latest controversy.
MARTIN: Okay. Mr. Benitez, I have one more question for you before we have to go. And that is that a number of the Spanish-language papers have called - the prominent Spanish-language papers have opposed Mr. Gonzales and asked for him to resign, in part, because they say his stands on torture and wiretapping, which they say are reminiscent of policies of Latin-American dictators in the 1970s. And they say on that basis alone, that feel that he doesn't deserve the country's support. What do you say to that?
Mr. BENITEZ: I'll say a couple of things. One is...
MARTIN: Briefly, if you would.
Mr. BENITEZ: When a lot of these policies were originally implemented, he was counsel to the president. Attorney General Ashcroft was the attorney general at that time. But then at that point, they alleged it was Alberto Gonzales who made the decision. Then he becomes the attorney general. And now, it's no longer the counsel to the president who makes the decision, it's him. I completely disagree with those newspapers and their stand on him. I think if you meet the man and you see where he stands and you listen to him, you would see that his heart is with the Latino community.
MARTIN: All right. Thank you. We'll have to leave it there. Juan Carlos Benitez is a board member and director of the immigration initiative at the Latino Coalition. He joined me here in the studio. And Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens joined us on the phone from Germany. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for this - for coming in and talking to us.
Mr. BENITEZ: It is my pleasure.
Mr. WILKES: Thanks for having us.