Gov. Bill Richardson (D)
Elected: 2002, term expires Jan. 2011, 2nd term.
Born: Nov. 15, 1947, Pasadena, CA .
Home: Santa Fe.
Education: Tufts U., B.A. 1970, Fletcher Schl. of Law and Diplomacy, M.A. 1971.
Family: Married (Barbara).
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1982-97.
Professional Career: Congressional rel., U.S. Dept. of State, 1973-75; Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Subcmte., 1975-78; Exec. Dir., NM Dem. Party, 1978; Pres., Richardson Trade Group, 1978-82; U.S. Ambassador to U.N., 1997-98; Secy., U.S. Dept. of Energy, 1998-2000.
Democrat Bill Richardson was elected governor of New Mexico in 2002. Richardson is a unique politician—a Hispanic with an Anglo name, a newcomer when he was first elected in New Mexico (where many families go back 300 years), and an adept politician who has also been an international negotiator. He was born in California and grew up in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City. His father was a banker from Boston who became head of Citibank in Mexico City, and his mother was a native of Mexico. The family lived securely behind high walls but young Bill liked to sneak out to play baseball with the neighborhood kids. Richardson was sent East for prep school at Middlesex in Concord, Mass., and then on to his father’s alma mater, Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where he stood out as a baseball player. For many years, he claimed that he was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers. But after the Albuquerque Journal investigated the story, he conceded that it was not true. In any case, an elbow injury in his junior year ended his pitching career, and after raising his grades, he went on to the distinguished Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts and earned a master’s degree. This was the era of campus unrest over the Vietnam War, but Richardson did not take part in protests, and he received a medical draft deferment. After graduation, he went to Washington, where his first job was working for the Wednesday Group, a faction of moderate Republicans. He worked for the State Department’s congressional relations office, served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s staff on human rights, and did a stint on Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s staff.
|Bill Richardson (D)||384,806||(69%)|
|John Dendahl (R)||174,364||(31%)|
|Bill Richardson (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (55%), 1994 House (64%), 1992 House (67%), 1990 House (74%), 1988 House (73%), 1986 House (71%), 1984 House (61%), 1982 House (64%)
In 1975, Richardson visited New Mexico for the first time. He met with state Democratic leaders and told them he was interested in moving to the state and running for Congress. Most were nonplussed, although in 1978, the outgoing governor’s state party chairman hired him to be his executive director. But the winner of the 1978 Democratic primary for governor, Bruce King, got Richardson fired within a month. Richardson managed to get a job with the Bernalillo County Democratic Party in Albuquerque, and then hung out his shingle as a consultant after the election. In February 1980, he filed to run against Republican Rep. Manuel Lujan. This was a Republican year, and Lujan had deep roots in Albuquerque and had been in office since 1968. But Richardson held him to a 51%-49% victory. New Mexico got a third congressional district after the 1980 census, and the Legislature drew a new, heavily Hispanic 3rd District in northern New Mexico. Richardson, based in Santa Fe, had won much of this territory in the 1980 race, and he ran for the new seat. He had substantial competition in the Democratic primary, from Lt. Gov. Roberto Mondragon and Tom Udall, who is now a senator. Richardson was accused of exaggerating the importance of some of his Washington jobs, but he won 36% of the vote to Mondragon’s 31%. He won the general election 64%-35%. At age 35, after just four years in New Mexico, he had a safe seat in the House.
In the House, Richardson landed a spot on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee in his first term. He established a moderate voting record, favoring abortion rights, opposing gun control, favoring the death penalty, and voting to criminalize flag burning. He voted against the Persian Gulf War resolution, but called his stance a mistake in his 2005 autobiography. He lobbied hard for ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. In the 1990s, he spent more time on foreign policy issues. In 1994, he traveled to Haiti and met with Gen. Raoul Cedras; in a five-hour conversation, he unsuccessfully sought to get Cedras to cede power. The same year, he was traveling to North Korea when two U.S. helicopter pilots were shot down; Pyongyang claimed that they had violated the country’s airspace. He was able to negotiate the release of the surviving pilot. In 1995, he met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to seek the release of two Americans who had crossed into Iraq. In 1996, he met with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and obtained the release of three dissidents. He took to calling himself the Undersecretary of Thugs and described his negotiating technique. “I listen a lot. I try not to impose my views. It’s important to listen, but it’s important to be forceful, too.”
In recognition of his talents on the foreign stage, President Bill Clinton nominated Richardson as U.N. ambassador. It was an opportunity to be a major player in policy. He negotiated agreements between the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and opposition forces, and secured the release of Red Cross workers held hostage in Sudan. The only embarrassing thing about his service was the fact, later disclosed, that at the request of a White House staffer and without asking why, he offered a job to Monica Lewinsky; she rejected it as insufficiently grand. When Energy Secretary Federico Pena resigned in 1998, Clinton was eager to replace him with a Hispanic and gave the post to Richardson. This was not really a promotion. The department is made up of several unrelated agencies, and some of them had deep troubles at the time. One of those was Los Alamos National Laboratory, from which, it seemed, secret documents about the assembly of nuclear weapons had made their way to China. Richardson was much criticized in Congress for security failures at the national laboratories, and his connection to the Wen Ho Lee security case was a political liability. He was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2000—the Democrats would have loved to run a Hispanic—but his name soon fell off the list.
After Democrat Al Gore’s defeat, Richardson returned to Santa Fe to run for governor. He had considered running before, especially in 1994, but ultimately didn’t. The governor elected that year, Republican Gary Johnson, had been re-elected in 1998 and was ineligible to run again. Richardson announced his candidacy in January 2002 and pledged to shake 600 hands a day. On September 16, he broke Theodore Roosevelt’s record of 8,513, set on New Year’s Day 1908, by shaking 13,392 hands at the New Mexico State Fair and at a tailgate party at the University of New Mexico. His campaign flew in a representative of Guinness World Records to document the feat. He faced opposition from two Democrats, but at the state Democratic convention in March, Richardson won 1,288 of 1,705 votes, and the others failed to even qualify for the ballot. With his energy and his national contacts, Richardson raised and spent large sums, eventually $6.8 million, more than twice as much as both parties’ candidates spent in 1998.
The Republican nominee was state Rep. John Sanchez, a roofing contractor from Albuquerque’s North Valley, who by 206 votes in 2000 defeated the man who was New Mexico House speaker for 30 years. Sanchez called for merit pay for teachers and government vouchers for private-school tuition. He ran a series of ads recounting his rise from poverty, using the theme “Dream Big.” But Richardson had much more money and took many more-specific stands on issues. He called for cutting the state income tax—New Mexico’s 8.2% top rate was much higher than those of surrounding states—and eliminating the gross-receipts tax. Amid news of drought and water conservation measures, he called for a statewide water policy and sketched one out in considerable detail. He opposed vouchers but supported charter schools and tax credits for parochial schools. Like Sanchez, he favored the death penalty and a concealed-weapons law. Sanchez criticized Richardson for serving on the board of a company that misstated its earnings. Richardson ran ads criticizing Sanchez for absenteeism in the Legislature and a spot poking fun at his earlier stint as a flight attendant. It said, “While Bill Richardson was cutting taxes for New Mexico, John Sanchez was serving orange juice at 30,000 feet.” There was little suspense about the result. Richardson won 55%-39%. Inevitably, he was asked whether he had ambitions for national office. He said, “I love this state, and I think the governor can make an enormous difference in people’s lives, more so than any job I have held. I see this as a sort of culmination of my career. I am not interested in going back to Washington.”
In office, he did not act like a governor whose horizon ended at the state line. He frequently traveled out of state—to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum; to Chicago, to talk businesses into relocating to New Mexico; to Hollywood, to promote the state as a good location for shooting movies; to Mexico City, where he grew up, to meet with President Vicente Fox. In Sante Fe, he met with a North Korean delegation for three days of discussions about nuclear weapons; it became known as “green chile diplomacy.” Other foreign dignitaries who visited were Spain’s prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar; Saudi Arabia’s ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan; and Prince Andrew of Great Britain. In January 2007 he was involved in negotiations between the Sudanese government and rebel factions that led to a 60-day cease-fire in Darfur. He was a familiar face in the national media and in Times Square, too, where his picture appeared on a giant billboard advertising the virtues of New Mexico and its tax policy. In September 2003, he hosted the first party-sanctioned presidential debate in Albuquerque.
Richardson’s first year in office was among the most productive and successful of all the governors elected in his class of 2002. “We will move so fast! You’re not going to see us,” he said in his address to the opening of the 2003 Legislature. He immediately started lobbying lawmakers of both parties for his tax cut. Later that year, Richardson signed a bill reducing the top income-tax rate from 8.2% in steps to 4.9% and cutting the capital-gains tax in half over five years. He signed a bill to crack down on drunken drivers, an especially vexing problem in New Mexico, and signed an executive order that extended employee benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian state workers. In September, voters approved two constitutional amendments strongly backed by Richardson, one to create a Cabinet-level education secretary appointed by the governor and the other to permit the state to increase the annual payout from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for public schools. Less successful was a fall special session where Richardson called for more-fundamental changes in tax laws. A bill he backed to further tax cuts and increase some state and local taxes and fees failed to pass. Among the proposed increases was a hike in alcohol taxes, already among the highest in the nation. Critics said it would hurt the tourism and hospitality industry.
The next year, Richardson got the food-tax cut he wanted after threatening to call the Legislature back into session, although the gross-receipts tax on other goods and services increased and Republicans complained about his “bullying tactics.” The Legislature also passed tougher drunken-driving penalties and a stronger truancy law. Also in 2004, Richardson played a highly visible role in state and national Democratic politics, including chairing the Democratic National Convention in Boston. At home, he used his $2 million campaign fund, Moving America Forward, to register new voters and to influence state and local elections. He was the driving force in 2003 behind a bill allowing parties to hold caucuses in lieu of presidential primaries, and state Democrats held their presidential nominating caucus in February 2004. New Mexico traditionally held its presidential primary in June, usually long after the party nomination had been settled. As chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, he pushed members to agree to work toward establishing a single date for the Western states’ presidential primaries and caucuses in 2008 to give the region more clout in the nominating process and to focus attention on such issues as water rights, energy, the environment, and immigration.
In 2005 and 2006, Richardson got the Legislature to require that DUI offenders install ignition interlocks in their vehicles to prevent drunken driving; to give National Guard members $250,000 life insurance policies; and to cut the income tax. Richardson called for a huge increase in pre-kindergarten education funding, and got lawmakers to approve $12.5 million. He also won passage of a 5% pay increase for teachers and a 16% hike for state police. The governor urged that schools have more physical education and less junk food, and more security cameras and Global Positioning System devices for school buses. The Legislature approved a solar energy tax credit but failed to pass other Richardson energy proposals. In March 2006, the state entered the Chicago Climate Exchange’s cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and took other steps to cut pollution. But Richardson was unable to stop the Navajo Nation from building a coal-fired plant on its reservation. He has been a big booster of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism business, and got $30 million from the Legislature to help pay for the runways near the White Sands Missile Range. Branson’s plan is for space vehicles to be released by aircraft at 55,000 feet; they would fly at 3,000 miles per hour outside the atmosphere and then glide back down to Earth. Flights are slated to begin in late 2010, and Richardson has signed on to be a passenger.
Richardson was up for re-election in 2006, but the result was never in doubt. His opponent was former Republican state Chairman John Dendahl, an ally of former Gov. Gary Johnson, who got some attention when he said that teachers shortchange the basics because they are too interested in “the three S’s—sexuality, self-esteem, and socialism.” Richardson raised $14 million and won 69%-31%, the highest percentage for a governor in New Mexico history. He lost only one county, by only 6 votes. He also raised $13 million for the Democratic Governors Association, which he headed. In 2007, Richardson got the Legislature to approve a minimum wage increase and, with an eye on his national image, he persuaded it to outlaw cockfighting, which every other state except Louisiana had done.
By early 2007, however, his sights were trained beyond New Mexico. In January, he announced on his website, in English and Spanish, that he was running for president. “I wouldn’t run as a Hispanic candidate. I would run as an American, proud to be Hispanic,” he said. “Most importantly, I can bring this country together. I’m a negotiator. I’ve brought countries together, closer, on peace treaties. I’ve rescued American hostages and servicemen. What we have right now is an opportunity to deal with major issues that really are dividing this country. I have the experience, I’ve been in Iraq. I’ve negotiated with Saddam Hussein. I was secretary of Energy. I increased energy efficiency in our country. I’ve been a governor. I created 86,000 jobs in four years. I’ve cut taxes. I’ve brought economic growth to our state. I’ve made our schools better. I’ve got the strongest record on the environment and dealing with clean energy and fighting global warming.” He said he was not interested in the vice presidency, only the nation’s top job. “I got a better job as governor of New Mexico. If I don’t get the nomination, I’ll come back” to Santa Fe.
Richardson spent much of 2007 on the campaign trail, though he did squeeze in a trip to North Korea in April 2007 to retrieve the remains of U.S. troops killed there during the Korean War. (He also announced that the Communist regime shut down its main nuclear reactor one day after the United States lifted restrictions on a bank in Macao through which regime leaders obtained luxury goods.) In Iowa and New Hampshire, he shook hands and recruited supporters. He participated in 24 debates among the Democratic candidates. Some charged that he was going easy on fellow candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in hopes of ultimately being chosen as her running mate.
Iowa and New Hampshire turned out to be a three-candidate race, with Richardson running fourth. He won only 2.11% of state delegate equivalents in the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and 4.6% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary on January 8. Two days later, he withdrew from the presidential contest and returned to “the job I love as governor of New Mexico.” He went through a “period of decompression,” grew a beard, and attended boxing matches in New Mexico. He was courted by both the Obama and Clinton camps, and was widely expected to support Clinton because of his work in her husband’s administration. But on March 21 in Oregon, he endorsed Barack Obama as “a once-in-a-lifetime candidate.” The Clintons were bitterly disappointed. Longtime adviser James Carville compared Richardson to Judas, and the former president broke off relations. Yet, despite his well-timed endorsement when Obama was getting tepid support from Hispanic voters, Richardson did not later receive serious consideration as Obama’s running mate.
He returned to work in the Capitol, pushing the Legislature to pass a universal health care bill. But lawmakers rejected his mandatory insurance requirement and his proposed tax on employers who do not provide insurance. And he got only pared-down versions of his tax rebate and children’s health care program. Richardson resumed his freelance diplomacy, flying to Venezuela in April to seek leader Hugo Chavez’s help in rescuing U.S. hostages from FARC guerrillas in Colombia. They were later freed in a Colombian government raid.
After the election, on December 3, 2008, Obama nominated Richardson to be his Commerce secretary, arguably not as important a post as those he held in the Clinton administration. But on January 4, Richardson withdrew his acceptance, he said, because of a pending “pay-to-play” investigation of allegations that his aides pressured state agencies to hire financial firms that had contributed to Richardson’s campaigns. Facing a $454 million budget shortfall, Richardson declared 2009 to be “the year of fiscal restraint” and trimmed his budget requests. Despite his former support of the death penalty, he signed a bill abolishing it in March 2009.
Richardson is not eligible to run for a third term, and he passed on running in 2008 for New Mexico’s first open U.S. Senate seat since 1972. He seems now to have no obvious path ahead in electoral politics.