News Column

Pondering the Presidency

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As governor, Bill Richardson lives in a house on a hill in a small town that calls itself the city different, and for the past four years Mr. Richardson has been proving to New Mexicans he's a different kind of Democrat.

He cut personal income taxes, lured new industries with business tax breaks, relaxed gun laws, targeted sex criminals and drunk drivers – and paid for it all with a glut of state revenue from high oil and gas prices. Yes, as Democrats go, Mr. Richardson has been different for New Mexico.

But recently he did something that makes him the same as just about every other prominent Democrat these days – he announced he was exploring a presidential candidacy.

"Everybody talks about these issues, I've actually done it," he said in his online video announcement.

As Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) rides the wow-factor from his arrival on the national scene in 2004, and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) varnishes her credentials through a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Richardson has been carefully carving his own path to a nomination for decades.

If voters were sorting résumés for this nationwide job interview, there's no question Mr. Richardson's would be near the top.

Looking for a conciliatory voice to represent the United States at the United Nations? He's been the ambassador there. Concerned about energy consumption? Mr. Richardson ran the Department of Energy for two and a half years. Looking for someone to bring the federal budget back in balance? As a governor, he's done that for five years.


Mr. Richardson's personal story makes him all things to all people. He is the first Hispanic – his mother is Mexican and father is American – to run for president as a Democrat. Born in Pasadena, California, he was raised in Mexico City, then educated in Concord, Massachusetts – he was the first non-white student at the exclusive Middlesex Prep – and Tufts University in Boston, where his father was a football legacy.

Mr. Richardson credits a speech from Sen. Hubert Humphrey with inspiring his career of public service. But where would this service begin? After staffing Humphrey's Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Richardson looked around – and saw New Mexico as a land of opportunity.


After giving a longtime incumbent a tough race in 1978, Mr. Richardson came to Congress in 1980 when a growing New Mexico received a third congressional district, one with a large Hispanic population.

He backed the balanced budget amendment, voted against Democrat gun safety legislation, and was a moderate voice on immigration. But it was luck and timing that pushed his career to the next level. In 1994, he was in North Korea when that country shot down an American helicopter that it alleged was trespassing. One pilot died, and Mr. Richardson negotiated the other's release.

The success led President Clinton to call on Mr. Richardson the next year for help in a similar situation in Iraq.

"They basically said, 'You're on your own on this,'" he says of the Clinton White House. "'... As long as you stay under the radar, as long as you don't screw up, we're not going to say anything, but if you screw up or this gets out, we're going to say we know nothing about it.'"

Mr. Richardson succeeded there, too, being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, and positioning himself nicely for an appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1997. The next year he got his own cabinet agency – energy – but his tenure proved disastrous.

Congress raked Mr. Richardson over the coals for repeated security lapses, nuclear secrets leaking to China, and identifying an innocent scientist to the press as the spy.

"I don't apologize for anything I did. I made some mistakes. That's part of my record and everyone's going to have to judge it," Mr. Richardson says.

The scandal took him out of consideration to be Al Gore's running mate in 2000, so Mr. Richardson turned back to the place that gave him his political start. In 2002, 55 percent of New Mexicans voted him into the governor's mansion. He was re-elected four years later by an even greater margin, 69 percent.


After two years in office, Mr. Richardson wore out his honeymoon. When he bought a new state airplane for $5.5 million, Republicans jumped all over him, airing a radio ad with a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" theme. The effort mocked the governor's high-priced plane ("It's for state business," he responds), his penchant for speeding ("There's so much we need to do"), and hiring an executive chef ("The governor hosts world leaders," a spokesman says).

Still, Mr. Richardson's re-elected margin included 40 percent of the Republican vote. His most loyal allies have been the business community.

"Some days I have left meetings with him scratching my head thinking, 'I've just left with a meeting with one of the top Republican advocates of the state,'" says Terri Cole, president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

But Mr. Richardson's cozy relationship with business has hurt him with labor. "I grimace each time I see 'moderate.' I want him to not take labor for granted," says Christina Trujillo, president of the state teachers union, the state's largest labor organization.

"You can do both," Mr. Richardson says. "You can be pro business, pro tax cuts, pro growth, pro jobs and pro labor."


Looking at the presidential primary field, it's hard to find a Democrat to the right of Bill Richardson. Observers say for a primary, he'll need to adjust that image.

"It's a little more difficult for moderate Democrats. It's tough," says Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-California). "The voters who come out are very energized by the war. They're so angry."

Mr. Richardson initially supported the Iraq war in 2003. "If he knew then what he knows now, he would have not supported the war," says campaign manager David Contarino.

But in the end, Mr. Richardson's independent streak is exactly what may help him look electable. Republican political consultant Whitney Cheshire said labeling Richardson a "moderate" is the campaign's way of covering the governor's inconsistencies. "He's totally running to the right," she says. "It's all Republican buzz words."

Mr. Richardson's oft-repeated line that he's a "tax-cutting governor" is true, but some of his most touted tax cuts increased other taxes. By getting rid of the state's tax on grocery food items, he simply raised taxes on non-food items, like toothpaste and paper towels. And while he trimmed some state jobs, he quietly doubled the size of his own staff, and added so many cabinet positions he enlarged the state marble cabinet table.

While some say he'd make a top-notch secretary of state or even vice-president, Mr. Richardson is running for neither.

"He's running for the job he's most qualified for," Mr. Contarino says. "He's running to win. The best thing in all those [primary] states the governor has going for him is the personal touch."

But Mr. Richardson has something else going for him – a first ever, early western caucus. The Nevada caucuses will be Jan. 19, 2008, sandwiched between the Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr. Richardson's the only Westerner in the Democratic field.

"That's his shot," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "There are certain 'must-do's' for each candidate. One of Richardson's is doing well in Nevada. I don't see how he stays in without that."

But it will be expensive, and Mr. Richardson's record-setting fundraising in small-state New Mexico ($13.6 million for his 2006 gubernatorial re-election) pales in comparison to New Yorker Hillary Clinton's cash-raising power ($39.6 million for her 2006 Senate re-election).

"The only chance he has is if people start looking for something else." Ms. Sanchez says.

Richardson's challenge is to simply stay in the presidential race long enough to be in contention when those changes take place. Campaign money will always follow the momentum, so the test becomes candidate stamina, and Richardson has proven he has nothing but energy, which is why he holds the world record for hands shaken in a single day with 13,392. He'll need to shake more than 100-times that many to win over the Democrats in the critical first four states of the 2008 nomination campaign.


Neil Simon covered New Mexico politics for five years and produced the documentary film "Inside Bill Richardson." He lives in Washington, D.C. and can be found online at

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