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