San Antonio's mayor is simply 'Henry' to everyone

NOTHING about the smallish, neatly kept gray house at 2002 West Houston Street catches the eye. Like some others in this aging, lower-middle-class Mexican neighborhood, it has a waist-high chain link fence around the yard (dogs? children?) and wrought-iron bars on the windows.

Henry Cisneros's grandfather lived here. Now Mr. Cisneros and his family live here. His wife's parents, who own a corner grocery store, live a block away.

As mayor of this city - now the 10th largest in the nation - Mr. Cisneros is by most accounts the most popular Hispanic in American politics.

He is, according to the Austin political pollster who advises him, ''the most popular politician in Texas in either party.

''It's like one of the Kennedys,'' this pollster, George Shipley, says. ''This guy has got it.''

Mayor Cisneros is simply ''Henry'' to virtually everyone from leading lawyers to the local bookstore staff.

Tall, lanky, and strikingly youthful-looking, with a long face and high eyebrows, the mayor is a relaxed and personable fellow. But his polished and articulate manner evokes more his Ivy League graduate work in urban studies and White House fellowship than San Antonio's West Side barrios.

He brings those two worlds together in a way that has carved him a national profile and spread his sphere of influence across Hispanic America.

Mr. Cisneros became the first Mexican-American mayor of a major US city in 1981. (Federico Pena of Denver followed last year.) Since then, he has fast built a reputation as a thinking man's mayor.

So fast, in fact, that his career is a favorite topic of Texas speculation. Is he a possible Reagan Cabinet appointee, a Mondale Cabinet appointee, a vice-presidential nominee, Texas' first Hispanic governor, a United States senator?

The mayor, predictably, scoffs. ''I can't think of another position where I'd be so completely engaged and challenged and fulfilled as I am at this moment in my life. . . . Operating on all pistons,'' he says. ''That I like.''

Besides, he adds, ''This is what I'm trained for.''

Institutionally speaking, the mayor of San Antonio is little more than chairman of the City Council, one vote among 11. He can't even hire his own secretary without council consent. This mayor's power seems to be rooted instead in the sheer force of his intellect and civic vigor.

''Henry's bright,'' says Jane Macon, a prominent lawyer here. ''Being an original thinker, I think, really separates him.''

He is a Democrat heading a mostly Hispanic city that has become a national center for Hispanic political activism. Especially since serving on the Kissinger Commission on Central America last fall, he has attained a national profile as a Hispanic voice.

He is also a savvy and enterprising booster, whom the head of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce calls ''perhaps the best thing that has happened to this city since it was formed.''

Cisneros has built a pro-growth consensus on an ethnic diversity in San Antonio that once meant tension between Latino barrios and the Anglo elite. He was reelected last year with 94 percent of the vote.

Currently he has more than 500 of the city's leading citizens working without pay on some 150 ''specific, concrete'' goals for the city's economic climate, from widening expressways to creating a national-class symphony.

''All of them believe they're working on something personally important to the mayor of San Antonio,'' says businessman Narciso Cano, a former Cisneros associate.

Cisneros is very much in the popular current mold of mayor-as-entrepreneur. And this mayor, who earned a doctorate in urban studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hopes to show by example how cities populated mostly with ethnic minorities - ''which is virtually every major city in the country now'' - can deal with the question of bringing people from poverty, in ghettos or barrios, into the economic mainstream.

''That is what we are trying to do here.''

Unlike other mayors all over the country these days, Cisneros does not see his city as a future Silicon Valley. He has looked for more realistic options.

One is for San Antonio to become a world-class center for biotechnology. He has focused public energy on this notion for the past year or so, and last month , a 1,500-acre, biosciences research park was donated to the city.

Likewise, this month he began promoting a major ''teleport'' for receiving satellite and microwave transmissions that could make San Antonio the communications hub of Texas.

Cisneros spends much of his energy on projects like these. The other side of the Cisneros agenda is for government to make sure the poor get their share of the pie through ''a whole host of things that are interventionist.

''Just creating a prosperous economy is not sufficient,'' he says. ''I'm a Democrat, and I'm a believer in the intrinsic ability of people to improve themselves if the environment is created. As such I really believe that people ought to be encouraged to be self-sufficient, ought to be encouraged to be self-reliant, but government has a lot more to do than most Republicans believe with creating the proper support system.''

Cisneros says he would like to spend the next 10 years as mayor, making good on his plans for the city. Friends and associates speculate that he will wait for the mid-1990s before any departure for higher office.

''I'm not even thinking of another elective office,'' the mayor insists. ''I think I can be involved in state and national things, and have some marginal kind of input, sitting right here doing a good job at this.

Like Mayor Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, Cisneros sees himself as mayor first, a member of his ethnic community second.

The mayor's most vocal critics are Mexican-Americans, especially those on the political left, who feel that Cisneros is more establishment than he is Hispanic.

''Maybe he'll become the John F. Kennedy of this generation someday,'' says San Antonio Councilman Bernardo Eureste. ''But not for the Chicano.''

Mr. Eureste, whose district is in one of the poorest sections of the west side, sees activists like Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers as the true Chicano leaders. ''I think the Mexican-American community is protective of people who make it. . . . We have high respect for a highly polished politician like Henry Cisneros.'' But eventually, Eureste says, the community will realize that Cisneros is not making his stand on Hispanic issues.

The mayor doesn't see any Hispanic politicians getting carried too far from their constituencies because community groups are so active in pressing their agenda.

''And it's not what the liberal community thinks ought to be the Hispanic agenda. . . . For years and years people believed the Hispanic agenda was more social programs and social justice. In fact, it was less glamorous issues like streets and drainage.

''The community taught us that.''

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