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Richardson joins Obama team as Commerce chief

The New Mexico governor considers his position the 'nerve center' in the effort to lift the economy.

December 04, 2008|Christi Parsons and John McCormick Parsons is a writer in our Washington bureau. McCormick writes for the Chicago Tribune.
  • President-elect Barack Obama and Commerce Secretary-designate New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson take part in a news conference today in Chicago.
President-elect Barack Obama and Commerce Secretary-designate New Mexico… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

WASHINGTON AND CHICAGO — When Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was naming Bill Richardson as his Commerce secretary, the president-elect noted the New Mexico governor's many achievements: his stints as a U.S. congressman, United Nations ambassador and Energy secretary.

Then Obama brought up the handshakes. Richardson often brags that he is in the Guinness World Records for the time he shook 13,392 hands in an eight-hour period.

"All of this reflects a determination to reach out and understand where people are coming from -- what they hope for, and what he can do to help," Obama said.

But it also reflects Richardson's ambitions as a politician. Obama's appointment of Richardson comes after his announcement this week that he had chosen Hillary Rodham Clinton to be secretary of State, a job that some Latino activists had hoped would go to Richardson.

In naming the Democratic governor to the Commerce post, Obama emphasized the importance of the job in this economic climate and described it in international terms, which raised questions about whether Richardson's larger-than-life character would lead to tension among the president-elect's team of economic advisors and other Cabinet picks.

Richardson said he considered the Commerce Department the "nerve center" in the effort to rejuvenate the economy.

"Boosting commerce between states and nations is not just a path to solvency and growth, it's the only path," Richardson said. "We will revitalize our nation's historic strength in manufacturing, while restoring our position of respect in the world."

William Daley, who served in President Clinton's Cabinet with Richardson, acknowledged that the governor had a big personality. But Daley, a former Commerce secretary, said Richardson wasn't prone to conflict or drama.

"He's not always politically correct," Daley said. "But he gets away with it because he's not mean-spirited about it."

Like Obama, Richardson has been informed by a childhood spent largely outside the U.S. He grew up in Mexico City in the 1950s, the son of an American bank manager, before going to private school in Massachusetts.

Richardson represented northern New Mexico in Congress for 15 years, making several international missions as a special envoy. He is credited with winning the release of hostages, U.S. service members and prisoners in North Korea, Iraq and Cuba.

President Clinton nominated him to serve as ambassador to the United Nations in 1997. A year later he became Energy secretary.

Richardson spent much of his time at the Energy Department dealing with security scandals at the nation's nuclear laboratories, most notably at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Richardson endured much of the heat from the government's failed prosecution of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Richardson later called his time as an agency head frustrating, comparing it unfavorably to the job of governor, where "you can set the agenda."

In 2002, he was elected New Mexico governor after a campaign that included the record-breaking handshake marathon.

But his diplomatic career has lived on. Two years ago he helped win the release of Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune journalist Paul Salopek, who was jailed in Darfur.

With the U.S. at the center of the global financial crisis, Daley said he expected Richardson would have a harder time with the job than Daley did during the booming 1990s.

"Everyone in the world wanted everything American," Daley said. "They don't need us as much, and we can't go around and harangue them as much. . . . It's a lot more complicated."

Among Latino leaders, who played a big role in Obama's victory, the selection of Richardson allays some concerns. Activists also warmly greeted reports that Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is a leading candidate for U.S. trade representative.

Richardson's "relationships with leaders abroad, especially in Latin America, will help President-elect Obama repair our country's tarnished image and hopefully initiate a new 'good neighbor' era between the U.S. and Latin America," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Nevertheless, Latino lawmakers this week sent Obama a letter recommending several Latino candidates for the Cabinet.

Obama said Wednesday that he valued diversity but thought about qualifications first and foremost.

In Richardson's view, the president-elect put some thought into assembling a diverse team.

"It will be a great honor," Richardson said, "to serve once again a president who recognizes that America's diverse heritage is its greatest strength."

cparsons@tribune.com

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Christi Parsons

reporting from washington

John McCormick

reporting from chicago

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