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He's the Non-Candidate on Everyone's Radar

From energy to Iraq, presidential debate host Bill Richardson is often in the thick of issues.

September 04, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE, N.M. — As staffers rushed around the state Capitol on Wednesday making last-minute plans for tonight's presidential debate, Gov. Bill Richardson eased himself into a big leather armchair and drank in the chaos just outside his door.

Soon he would be hosting the first official showdown of the nine Democratic candidates in Albuquerque. His state would be the focus of national attention, Western issues would be brought to the fore and the much-sought-after Latino voters would be in the spotlight. And of course, so would he.

"I lobbied hard. I wanted New Mexico to be the site of the first debate; we want to give it a Hispanic flavor," said Richardson, a former congressman who will chair the Democratic National Convention. "I think New Mexico is a barometer for what the rest of the country will eventually look like."

With 42% of its population Latino and 10% Native American, New Mexico is a state where whites are the minority. Richardson is a Latino along with his attorney general and secretary of state. New Mexico is also a Democratic outpost in a part of the country where Republicans dominate.

Richardson said Latino voters in key battleground states like New Mexico, Florida, Arizona and Nevada could carry the 2004 presidential campaign.

"Hispanics can no longer be taken for granted by the Democrats," he said. "We need to talk about mainstream issues like homeownership and entrepreneurship and not just immigration."

With his ethnic background and an extensive resume including stints as Energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, Richardson is often mentioned as an ideal vice presidential running mate.

But he flatly ruled that out Wednesday, at least for 2004.

"I made a commitment when elected that I would serve four years," he said. "Then I will run for reelection. I think there are a lot of problems here in New Mexico that I have to deal with."

As for 2008, Richardson gave a noncommittal smile when asked if he would run for president, a post many friends say he's keenly interested in.

"Stop asking me," he said. "I don't want to look that far ahead. I want to end my career as a governor, but I know in politics you never rule anything out."

Richardson, 55, may be the most visible governor in the nation. Whatever the issue -- North Korea, energy blackouts or Iraq -- he can be found in the thick of it.

After the power outage that blacked out much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, Richardson said the United States was a First World country with a Third World electrical infrastructure.

"I ruffled a lot of feathers but it's the truth and the truth hurts," he said. "I used to say that as Energy secretary but no one paid attention."

When North Korea wanted to talk to the U.S. about its nuclear weapons, it went through Richardson, who had established good relations with them while U.N. ambassador.

"Richardson has one of the most impressive resumes in politics," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for politics and author of 22 books on government. "He is everywhere because he has had so many jobs, plus he is Hispanic."

Sabato is convinced Richardson has plans to run for president.

"He is well known to have presidential ambitions and it makes sense; he's extraordinarily qualified," he said.

Robert Deposada, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Latino Coalition, an independent advocacy organization, said Richardson could be the face Latinos rally around.

"Nationally, for any candidate to mobilize Hispanic support, they need highly visible leaders," he said. "With Richardson becoming more visible every day, that's now possible."

Richardson has always championed Latino issues but has made an effort to go beyond them.

"He has stepped out of the mold with his foray into international diplomacy at the U.N.," said Christine Sierra, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, who has written extensively about Richardson.

Sierra said Richardson speaks Spanish fluently and is clearly at home in the culture.

"He is the rising Hispanic star, and I think the major political players in the Democratic Party are looking at him that way," she said.

Richardson's father was white and his mother was Mexican. The two met when his dad, from Boston, worked for City Bank in Mexico City. Richardson was born in Pasadena but spent the first 13 years of his life in Mexico City.

"My father spoke English to me and my mother spoke Spanish to me," he recalled. "But I don't want to be boxed in as a Hispanic politician. I am proud to be Hispanic but I try to represent all my constituencies."

Friends say Richardson, who is married with no children, loves government and politics above all else.

"I think politics and government are his life," said Fred Harris, a former chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party. "He doesn't climb mountains or run marathons; government is his hobby."

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