Current 25: The Cisneros Effect 

1996-2000

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As 1999 wound down, Texas Monthly declared former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros “Mayor of the Century,” crediting the first Mexican-American to lead a major U.S. city for helping Alamo City ring in a new era of economic vitality.

While that picture is true (Cisneros was and still is widely popular), it ignores the scandal that plagued Cisneros from his final days as mayor in 1989 to his time in the national political arena and likely handicapped what appeared to be a strong future on the national political stage. Not until the election of Mayor Julián Castro in 2009, himself cut from the Cisneros cloth, would San Antonio see another young, local Hispanic politician quickly score such a glowing national profile.

Before the news of Cisneros’ affair with a chief campaign fundraiser broke, the San Antonio Light published a column referencing a theoretical politician engulfed in a love affair. The column teasingly referred to a situation everyone in town already knew but that no one in the press was addressing directly, said Dwight Silverman, one of the Current’s first staff writers, who today is a tech columnist and blog editor at the Houston Chronicle. “Linda O’Connell (one of the Current’s original owners) said ‘Screw it, let’s do it,’” Silverman said.

Soon after he announced in the late ’80s that he wouldn’t seek a fifth term as mayor, Cisneros started making rounds to all the media outlets, having them agree to off-the-record conversations about the affair in exchange for pledges not to publish anything about it, Silverman said. The Current wouldn’t agree to those terms, and eventually Silverman scored an interview in a private room at the convention center with Cisneros, in which the mayor admitted to the affair — on the record.

“At one point he got so emotional he had to excuse himself, he started to cry,” Silverman said. Silverman wrote the copy, O’Connell edited it into the Current’s public airing of the affair. Later, Silverman’s straighter news version was sold to the Chronicle.

Cisneros, who many still considered a leading Hispanic figure in American politics, made his way to the national stage by the early ’90s, appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the first Clinton administration. But the affair still dogged him, leading to a Justice Department investigation in which Cisneros was indicted on multiple counts of conspiracy and lying to the FBI. Around the same time Texas Monthly crowned him “Mayor of the Century,” Cisneros cut a deal, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor count of lying to the FBI and paid a $10,000 fine.

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