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A New New Democrat Looks West and Forward

August 14, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE, N.M. — Bill Richardson is holding court, seated at the far end of a shiny table in his modest Albuquerque office. It is Thursday, and the governor is hosting one of his regular open-door sessions -- a chance for citizens to walk off the street and avail themselves of an audience with New Mexico's chief executive.

Richardson values these meetings, he said, for the knowledge he takes away and the connection they give him to the far-flung people of his state. But Richardson is a man of constant, propulsive motion, and it obviously pains him to sit still for so long. Even more painful, it seems, is having to sit with his mouth shut.

In the course of one afternoon, Richardson will meet a candidate for state attorney general, agree to write the foreword of a nature book, grant $500,000 to put a new roof on a local library, agree to a management study at the University of New Mexico hospital, and pardon three convicted felons. Each session goes something like this: a handshake, chitchat, goodnatured needling, a bit of listening. And then the governor abruptly cuts off each visitor. "OK," he demands. "What do you want from me?"

Richardson has long been the proverbial man in a hurry, starting with his first audacious run for office 25 years ago, when, transplanted from Washington, the Democrat nearly unseated the state's veteran GOP congressman. (Richardson won his own House seat in 1982.) Lately, Richardson's exertions have been aimed at resuscitating New Mexico, the sick man of the Southwest. His ultimate design, apparently, is a White House bid in 2008.

Sometimes it is hard to tell where the governor's ministrations end and self-promotion begins. Take, for instance, that Times Square billboard featuring a larger-than-life Richardson, promoting New Mexico for tourists. Or consider his frequent out-of-state travels and appearances on national television.

"You'll hear [Republican leaders] say that Bill is so personally ambitious he cares more for himself than the state of New Mexico," said Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster who has been sampling state opinion for nearly 25 years.

No matter. Richardson enjoys healthy voter approval ratings, with significant support even among rank-and-file Republicans.

In the last 2 1/2 years, he has slashed taxes and won the hearts of New Mexico's business leaders, shaken up the education establishment and steamrolled his critics on the left and right, all while fashioning the philosophy of what he calls "a new progressive Democrat."

"It's basically not center, not left, not right, but basically forward," Richardson explained one morning over coffee at the governor's mansion. "What works? What helps people? What solves problems?"

As the Democratic Party struggles to find its way nationally, Richardson said the answer lies out West and with the nation's governors, who "see the daily challenges that people confront in their families, in their business and their communities," as he told newspaper publishers in the spring in San Francisco. "I come face to face with these people that I serve, and they're not worried about reforming the tax code or Social Security or some nebulous issue like judicial appointments."

"We cannot be a Washington, D.C.-based party," he added. "We tried that and it failed."

Richardson has a point. Four of the last five presidents were once governors. The nation's population -- and the weight of the electoral college -- is shifting South and West. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has vowed to make the party more competitive in states that voted to reelect President Bush, where a handful of Democratic governors -- among them Arizona's Janet Napolitano, Montana's Brian Schweitzer and Richardson -- have become totemic figures in the party's search for salvation.

Richardson, blessed with the prospect of easy reelection in 2006, is the only one among them now running for president. (Officially, he is merely keeping his options open.)

Straddling dual roles is nothing new for the 57-year-old born in Pasadena. He grew up in the embrace of two cultures, speaking Spanish with his Mexican-born mother and English with his Boston-bred father. He refers to "us" and "our community" before Latino audiences, but he also jokes about his distinctly Anglo surname.

All of which raises this question: With Latino clout growing from Los Angeles to New Hampshire to Washington is America ready to elect a Latino president?

If so, could his name be Richardson?

*

If politics worked like the futures market, there would be no hotter commodity today than Latino voters.

For decades, they were written off as a sleeping giant -- huge but politically inert -- in a catchphrase as patronizing as it was cliched.

Then came Proposition 187.

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