Politician, college professor, cabinet member, and network executive, Henry G. Cisneros (born 1947) was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1981, the first Hispanic mayor in Texas, and became by the mid-1980s the nation's most prominent and publicly visible Hispanic leader.
Born in 1947, Henry Cisneros was the eldest of five children of Mexican-American George and Mexican-born Elvira Cisneros. Henry was raised in what was later described as a model home environment for an upwardly mobile ethnic family. His father, a civil servant at a nearby military base, and his mother were keenly ambitious for their children, prescribing piano lessons, Scout memberships, visits to the opera and symphony, and limited television viewing only after their homework and family responsibilities had been fulfilled.
The Cisneros family switched from Spanish to English use in the home when the children were born because the language of the schools was English and home use of the language of instruction would certainly help them to do better. It paid off. All five children became college graduates, including two Ph.Ds. Future mayor Henry Cisneros, who received a B.A. degree from Texas A&M University, an M.A. from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in public administration from George Washington University in 1975, was selected as a White House Fellow and later worked for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare when it was under Elliott Richardson.
Entry Into Politics
In 1974 doctoral candidate Cisneros returned to San Antonio, where he was employed as an assistant professor at the University of Texas branch campus. Always interested in public policy and politics, Cisneros won a seat on the city council in 1975 and was reelected in 1977 and 1979. Although sensitive to the special needs of the Hispanic community, Cisneros studiously avoided an association with one of the city's most controversial advocacy groups, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), which specialized in Saul Alinsky style 1960s confrontation politics with the city fathers, planners, and future employers. It was not only a matter of style but a deep conviction on Cisneros's part that confrontation tactics could be counterproductive to the city's economic health. He also had a strong belief in the socially redeeming power of economic growth.
Elected mayor in 1981 at the age of 33 by a landslide 63 percent of the vote, which included solid Hispanic support and a sizable Anglo vote, Cisneros went on to enlarge his election majority in 1983 to an astonishing 94 percent of the vote and to 73 percent in 1985. Clearly his style and programs had won over the hearts and minds of residents of all colors and creeds. Downtown development, job expansion, and new factories and businesses were the hallmarks of the Cisneros administrations. The mayor boasted that he spent 85 percent of his time recruiting and luring high technology industry to his city. An unabashed booster, he was a firm believer in the benefits of economic expansion and business growth. No growth, he warned, translates into fewer opportunities and stunted mobility for the citizens.
He described himself as a "technocrat" and seemed to be in tune with the temper of the times in helping to re-start the economic engines and rekindle economic growth. He stressed the need for economic expansion and not the expansion of welfare as a solution to social problems. As one observer noted: "A Martin Luther King he is not." The mayor backed up his boosterism with substance. When once told by a potential industrial re-locator that the city's University of Texas branch lacked programs in key engineering fields, Cisneros got together a committee that persuaded the state educational authorities to remedy that need.
Scandal Tarnishes Reputation
Cisneros married his high school sweetheart, Mary Alice Perez, in 1969 and was the father of two daughters and a son. In 1988 his public announcement of an extramarital affair with Linda Medlar led to his resignation as mayor and the near destruction of his marriage. He reunited with his wife primarily because his infant son had been born the previous year with a defective heart. Although Cisneros supposedly ended the affair with Medlar, he continued making support payments to her after he left office and founded Cisneros Assets Management Company. In 1993 Cisneros was appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by President Bill Clinton. As HUD secretary Cisneros worked hard to reverse decades of Federal housing policy that promoted racism and to make the department's programs more efficient. Despite his efforts, though, the Medlar controversy would not go away. Upon accepting his position with HUD, Cisneros had ended his payments to Medlar. In 1994 the former mistress sued Cisneros, citing that she had been promised $4,000 a month until her daughter graduated from college. For his part, Cisneros claimed that his $148,000 annual salary as HUD secretary was much less than he received as a private sector consultant and speaker, and made continued payments a financial impossibility. The core of Cisneros's problems, however, centered around his claim to the FBI of having provided $60,000 to Medlar between 1990 and 1992 while Medlar's records showed payments of $213,000.
The scandal worsened in late 1994 as tapes of conversations between Cisneros and Medlar surfaced in the press. From 1992 to 1993, Medlar had secretly taped her conversations with Cisneros. She sold the tapes to the tabloid TV news show Inside Edition. The fall-out from this unwanted publicity led to a further FBI investigation of Cisneros's financial reports used during his cabinet background check. In 1995 Attorney General Janet Reno appointed a special counsel to ascertain whether or not Cisneros had lied to the FBI. National Public Radio (NPR) reported Cisneros response as "I regret any mistakes that I may have made but affirm once again that I have at no point violated the public's trust." That same year Cisneros settled the Medlar suit for $49,000
Resignation From HUD
Throughout his ordeal, Cisneros continued to receive the support of the Clinton administration, but decided in 1996 not to remain in his post during the president's second term in office. The Associated Press reported Cisneros's reasoning as financial. "Really, I came to do this for four years. I prayed I could stretch the finances that far," he said. "This is about as far as I can stretch it." At the time of Cisneros's departure from HUD in 1997, the investigation into his financial records was still ongoing.
In January of 1997 Cisneros was named president and chief operating officer of Univision Communications, the parent company of the dominant Hispanic network in the United States.
Further Reading on Henry G. Cisneros
For his early life, see Richard Erickson, "Cisneros: Media Creation or Right Man," Advertising Age (June 1981), and biographical file from the mayor's office. For his later life and public career, see Nicholas Leman, "First Hispanic," Esquire (December 1984); Irwin Ross, "Mayor Cisneros of San Antonio," Readers Digest (December 1984); and U.S. News and World Report (December 10, 1984; May 20, 1985). A full-length biography Cisneros: Portrait of a New American by Kemper Diehl and Jan Jarboe, was published in 1985.
For more information on Cisneros's resignation from HUD, see Lubbock Online (http://lubbockonline.com/news/112296/cisneros.htm). In-depth coverage of Cisneros's move to Univision Communications can be found in an article by Tony Cantu at http://www.hisp.com/apr97/cisneros.html . (July 1997).