The Good Wife

How is Mary Alice Cisneros emerging from Henry’s shadow? By following in his footsteps.

May 2007By Comments

ON THE COLD AND WINDY SATURDAY in January when Mary Alice Cisneros announced her candidacy for a seat on the San Antonio City Council, two people hovered close by. The first was her husband, Henry Cisneros, the city’s former mayor, who had launched his political career 32 years earlier by winning the same city council seat. The second was her mother, Annie Coronado Perez, who had died the previous afternoon at the age of 93.

A large crowd was gathered at Mary Alice’s campaign headquarters, a gray-and-white frame house located only a few feet from the home on Houston Street in west San Antonio where the Cisneroses live. After a brief introduction from Henry, Mary Alice stood before the crowd, dressed in a sober black suit with white piping. At five feet two inches tall and slightly more than one hundred pounds, she looked as if she might be swallowed up by the large podium. She waited for the clatter of her many supporters to quiet and for the line of handheld video cameras in front of her to come to rest. “I thought about postponing this event,” she said. “Then I realized that would not honor my mother. This race has everything to do with my mother.”

That may have come as a surprise to those in the audience who assumed that the race had everything to do with her husband. Few politicians’ wives have had to live under as large a shadow as Mary Alice. In 1975, when he was 27 years old, Henry became the youngest councilman in San Antonio’s history. He was a charismatic speaker who commanded the kind of rapt media attention that now surrounds Barack Obama. Everyone was always watching Henry, first for his successes and then for his failures. At 40, when he was in his third term as San Antonio’s mayor, he seemed poised to easily become the first Latino governor of Texas, and possibly the first Latino president of the United States. In 1993 Bill Clinton named him Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but four years later he resigned under a cloud of scandal, struggling to deal with the fallout from his confessed affair with Linda Medlar, who had been his chief fund-raiser while he was mayor. The legal issue was whether he’d told the FBI the truth in the run-up to his confirmation hearings about the amount of financial payments he had made to Medlar. The fifteen-year federal investigation played out like a telenovela. For years San Antonio was turned on its ear. Ultimately, Henry paid a fine of $10,000, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor of lying to the feds, and was pardoned by Clinton. Today he is out of politics and in business, as founder and CEO of City View, a nationwide developer of working-class housing projects.

Through it all, Mary Alice was cast as a silent, sympathetic character, a faithful and devoutly religious wife who devoted her energies to her marriage and caring for her two daughters, Teresa and Mercedes, and her infant son, John Paul, who was born in 1987 with a two-chambered heart. On the day of her announcement, all three children were in California. Teresa, a lawyer, lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Sean Burton, also a lawyer and the chief operating officer of City View, and their two children. Mercedes, a teacher, is married to Brad Badger, an offensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders, and has one daughter. John Paul is a freshman at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, one of only 35 students accepted into an elite undergraduate program that guarantees him entry into USC’s medical school, provided he maintains at least a 3.3 grade point average. Having been saved by doctors during two open-heart operations, one at six and the other at eleven, John Paul now wants to be one.

With her nest empty for the first time in decades, her husband standing behind her, and her mother’s passing still fresh, everything Mary Alice said that day at her campaign headquarters seemed new. “I want to do on the city council what my mother did for this neighborhood,” she told the crowd. “I want to give back.” The spotlight had finally swung from Henry to her. “Several weeks ago I went to my mother’s bedside and told her of my decision to run for the city council,” she said, her voice and demeanor filled with the dignity of grief. “My mother gave me her blessing. I promised her I would use it well.” Then Mary Alice asked her supporters to observe a moment of silence. In the hushed, pregnant pause, many in the room lifted their eyes and sneaked a peak at the candidate.

There is no question of whether she will win her race (she has two opponents of the more-nuisance-than-threat variety). But the personal stakes are less certain: Spouses, especially wives, of powerful politicians become ripe targets when they decide to run for office themselves. In recent years, Hillary Clinton’s and Elizabeth Dole’s campaigns have given the armchair psychologists an arsenal of ammunition. Were they riding their husband’s coattails? Looking to outdo them? Trying to exact a kind of domestic revenge by turning the tables? And of course, as Hillary knows all too well, the criticisms grow exponentially nastier when a marriage’s dirty laundry has been aired. Mary Alice knows this too, but she has apparently decided that answering a few tough questions is a price she’s willing to pay for a chance to finally show the public that she has an identity and a political future of her own. She’s waited long enough.

A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE ANNOUNCEMENT, I accompanied Mary Alice on a drive through her neighborhood. For one hundred years, San Antonio’s West Side has served as the social and political epicenter for Mexican American culture in Texas. Very few of the trappings of modernity have penetrated. There are no skyscrapers or large corporate campuses, and taquerías greatly outnumber fast-food franchises. Once you cross the Commerce Street Bridge from downtown and pass the old Missouri Pacific railway station, you enter a bustling crossroads that Anglos call the Gateway to Mexico and newly arrived Mexicans call the Gateway to America.

It was in this storied barrio, at the corner of Sabinas and Perez, where Mary Alice was born, in 1949, one of nine children of Porfirio and Annie Perez. “Here’s the house I grew up in,” she said, as we drove past a white frame house trimmed with red bricks. Her parents sold groceries out of the house, eventually opening the Perez Grocery Store in the late forties. In time, the business moved into a small stucco building located next door. All nine children worked in the store, which became as famous for its role as a mom-and-pop bank and social service agency as it was for its pan dulce and barbacoa. As a young girl, Mary Alice remembers helping customers translate their immigration papers, cashing checks marked with an X for neighbors who could not read or write, as well as stacking groceries, waiting on customers, and working the cash register.

Annie Perez was known as a fierce advocate for poor families in the neighborhood. Her house backed up on the high side of Alazan Creek, which often threatened those living on the lower bank. “All nine of us have childhood memories of what happened when it rained,” said Mary Alice. “The neighbors on the other side of the creek were always flooded out. People lost everything—their furniture, their clothes. Some lost their lives.” In 1968 Annie circulated a petition and pressed city hall for the building of a drainage ditch and a bridge to solve the flooding problem—she eventually got both. Over time, she bought rental property in the area and expanded her business. Her reputation for shrewdness and fearlessness became legendary. Once, when she was in her eighties, a young man entered the store, pulled a gun, and demanded money. Annie told him to put the gun down and get out of her store. The young man did as he was told.

Henry grew up only a few streets away. He and Mary Alice met during a baseball game when he was 14 and she was 12. The way Henry has always told the story, he noticed Mary Alice because she struck out at bat. “I don’t remember it that way,” Mary Alice told me. “But I humor him.” They started dating two years later and were married on June 1, 1969, in a traditional Catholic ceremony, when she was 19 and he was 21. In only a few years, Henry was the most visible Mexican American leader in America.

Perhaps it was inevitable that his public life would take its toll at home. If there is a surprise, it’s that by all outward appearances, their reconciliation is real and that Mary Alice has a shot at a public life of her own. Every Sunday for the past three years, Rudy Rodriguez, a deacon at Mary Alice’s church, Sacred Heart Parish, has asked her a one-word question: “¿Cuándo?” He meant, When would she make the run for city council? For three years Mary Alice gave Rodriguez the same answer. “Not yet.” John Paul was still enrolled at Health Careers High School, a prestigious magnet school, and she did not feel free to run. Henry felt the timing wasn’t right either. He was on the road much of the time building City View.

But when John Paul graduated from high school last June, Mary Alice again broached the council race with Henry. “I had a discussion with him and then let it rest,” said Mary Alice, making it clear that he was reluctant. He told her what it would take—lots of time and work—and he warned her that she would have to face questions about his past. Later, they talked about the race again, and according to Mary Alice, they both decided the time was right.

IT’S INTERESTING TO WATCH HENRY, who once held the future of Texas politics in his hands, adjust to life on the sidelines. Like Bill Clinton, he’s still a sought-after speaker and a national player in the Democratic party. Private statewide polls show that his approval ratings in Texas are higher than any other Mexican American politician’s. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask if he’s going to run for governor. “I always say no,” Henry said. “But who knows.” For the meantime, though, the family’s political prospects rest squarely on the small shoulders of Mary Alice. Henry told me that when he was mayor, she always did his best constituent service. People would come to their house at all hours of the night, looking for help with their problems. “She never turned them away,” he said. “She is a better listener than I am. If she is working on a project, she stays focused and keeps at it until it’s solved.”

It’s a trait she likely gets from her mother. A good example is American Sunrise, which Mary Alice and Henry started in 2002 to revitalize the area around their house on Houston Street. In the past five years, the nonprofit corporation has acquired about twenty dilapidated houses in that one square mile, renovated them, and helped poor families find low-interest loans to buy them. Across the alley from the Cisneros home, in a brightly colored yellow-and-blue house, is an American Sunrise learning center, where 37 children come after school for tutoring.

Mary Alice has accepted some of the responsibility for securing funding for these projects, and the details of the work are very similar to what she did as a child in her mother’s store. American Sunrise purchased its first house in 2004 for $57,500. The house was in deplorable shape; seventeen day laborers were squatting in it, treating it as a campsite. Mary Alice helped supervise the renovation, which cost $42,000. Roberto and Patricia Herrera, who were living in a shack on Jesus Alley with their three children, were chosen from a group of several needy families as prospective home-owners. Roberto had a job as a surveyor for a local builder and was able to qualify for a loan arranged through American Sunrise. In 2005 the Herreras purchased the house for $77,000.

“Whenever I needed anything, Mary Alice was there,” said Patricia, standing in her kitchen surrounded by her new appliances. “She helped me by translating the loan application form from English to Spanish while I was filling it out. She even helped me move in.”

To Mary Alice, running for the city council is an extension of this work and a continuation of her mother’s legacy. In a certain sense, she has re-created her mother’s life. Her campaign office is the equivalent of her mother’s store. “Neither Henry’s parents nor mine ever left this neighborhood,” she said. “Because of them we have not lost respect for our community’s basic needs.”

One generation later, fewer families are making this choice. On the West Side, Mary Alice and Henry are an anomaly—educated, upper-middle-class Latinos who never left the barrio for more-affluent neighborhoods where the schools were better. In their large backyard, the Cisneroses have planted eight trees with small plaques bearing the names of their three children, their two sons-in-law, and their three grandchildren. Odds are, none of these children will ever live on the West Side. “There’s a downside to giving your children national educational opportunities and showing them the wider world,” Henry told me. “They seize those opportunities—and leave you behind.”

In early February, Mary Alice had her first fundraiser at Mi Tierra restaurant, a political institution on the edge of downtown. Politics has a way of lifting individuals out of themselves, and this particular evening had exactly that kind of enlarging effect on Mary Alice. For the occasion, she chose a red suit, bright as an apple. As she mingled with a noisy crowd of city and county politicians over a heavy table of standard San Antonio appetizers—chips, guacamole, queso, and fresh salsa—she exuded an easy, effusive charm. By now, Henry was well schooled in how to behave as a political spouse. “You may all call me biased,” he said, in his warm, throaty voice. “But I believe we have a special person running for District One. I know what that job is like, and believe me, Mary Alice is ready to serve.”

Up stepped Mary Alice to the microphone. Though she lacks Henry’s natural oratorical gifts, her tone was confident. “As you can see, there’s been a bit of a change in the Cisneros household,” she said, a laugh line that found its mark. Then she reminded everyone that the time that a council member has in office in San Antonio is short, no more than four years because of term limits, and told them she would focus on “three kinds of infrastructure.”

“First,” she told the crowd, “physical infrastructure—fixing streets, improving drainage, preserving parks.” She lifted a lithe arm and pointed to photos of the neighborhood projected on a screen behind her. Then she moved on to jobs, what she called “the infrastructure of opportunity.” Finally, she talked about progress, “the infrastructure of human capital.”

It was unmistakably a page straight out of the Henry Cisneros playbook. Mary Alice may get her compassion and attention to detail from her mother, but her political course was charted a long time ago by Henry—and she wasn’t the only Henry imitator in the room. His ideas, coupled with his ability to win Anglo votes, have been hugely inspirational to the generation of Latino politicians who have followed him, including former mayor Ed Garza and the Castro twins—Julian, a council member who ran for mayor and lost in 2005, and his brother, Joaquin, a state representative since 2003. How far Mary Alice goes by following in Henry’s footsteps, however, remains to be seen. “She’s strong and smart and has the advantage of her husband’s name,” Garza told me, speculating that in four years she could run for mayor and be easily elected. When I asked her about her future prospects, Mary Alice seemed a little dazed. “I’m taking this one step at a time,” she said.

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