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First lady calling Hispanic leaders about clemency controversy

By John King/CNN

September 6, 1999
Web posted at: 5:11 p.m. EDT (2111 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) - First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called New York Hispanic leaders Monday to calm their anger about her decision to break with her husband, President Bill Clinton, and oppose clemency for members of a Puerto Rican nationalist group.

In addition to criticizing Mrs. Clinton's decision, several New York Hispanic leaders complained over the weekend that she should have consulted them before making her decision or at least given them notice of her plans.

Aides to the first lady said her top Senate campaign strategist, veteran New York Democratic activist Harold Ickes, did contact numerous Hispanic leaders and others concerned about the issue on Saturday, but said he was unable to reach others.

Aides declined to list those the first lady planned to call, but two advisers said New York Congressman Jose Serrano and state Assemblyman Ruben Diaz were among those on the list. Both Serrano and Diaz complained to news media over the weekend about the first lady's decision and about her failure to consult them.

Mrs. Clinton initially supported the president's clemency offer, provided those affected would renounce violence, and agreed not to associate with members of the nationalist organization, known as FALN.

But on Saturday, she called on her husband to withdraw the offer, saying the failure of the 16 people who were offered clemency to quickly accept the conditions indicated they were not prepared to renounce violence.

The White House has set 5 p.m. EDT Friday as the deadline for the 16 to respond to the president's offer.

In her calls Monday, the first lady was defending her position but "reaching out to those who disagree and making it clear she respects their views and wants to continue to work with them," in the words of one political adviser.

This and other advisers said the first lady settled on her decision during the first family's vacation in New York, but did not want to announce it while vacationing with her husband.

They described the issue as unpredictable in terms of its long-term political impact. But they do acknowledge at least the short-term anger among the Puerto Rican community in New York, an important constituency to Mrs. Clinton, who may make a run for retiring New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's seat.

But, they said, her move could appeal to conservative voters who might give the first lady credit for establishing her independence from her husband.

"There was no 'right politics,'" said one top adviser to the first lady's Senate campaign. "You could argue it either way and she decided to do what she thought was the right thing."

This adviser said Mrs. Clinton had no involvement in her husband's decision to offer the clemency, and said she was immediately troubled by the offer. But the fact that New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, former President Jimmy Carter and White House Counsel Charles Ruff supported the offer of clemency persuaded the first lady that there must be some merit to it, this adviser said.

Noting that New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- the first lady's likely opponent in the Senate race -- took nine or 10 days to voice his opposition to clemency, this adviser said, "This is a very complicated issue and it took some time to digest and their silence ultimately convinced her this was a bad idea. It just didn't sit right."

Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign staff said it was inevitable she would disagree with her husband from time to time.

"Occasionally, she is going to disagree with him just like any good Democrat will occasionally disagree with the administration," said campaign spokesman Howard Woolfson.


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MORE STORIES:

Monday, September 6, 1999

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