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A New New Democrat Looks West and Forward

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.”

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“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?

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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.

California’s 1994 initiative targeting illegal immigration prompted a swift backlash, awakening politicians nationwide to the growing importance of the Latino vote. Congressional efforts to deny benefits to legal immigrants further energized the community, to the point that by 2000, candidates were spending unprecedented time and money courting Latino support.

Among those candidates was Texas Gov. George W. Bush. During the 2000 presidential race he distanced himself from immigrant bashers and reached out to the parents of black and brown children by decrying “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” His reward was 35% of the Latino vote, much better than the roughly 20% that Republican Bob Dole got four years earlier.

But as they looked ahead, Bush strategists fretted that simply matching that performance would be insufficient to ensure reelection, given the growing Latino population. So the campaign set out to capture 38% to 40% of the Latino vote, which Bush, with his flag-and-family appeals, not only managed but possibly exceeded. (His actual percentage in 2004 is a source of considerable debate, based on different analyses.)

Democrats, who had enjoyed strong Latino support since the days of the New Deal, were stunned -- and frightened.

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Although voter turnout lags, the Latino community is a young one, with half the population younger than 27. Just as advertisers covet the youth market -- figuring brand loyalty lasts a lifetime -- political strategists believe that winning the support of young Latinos can ensure their backing for decades to come. “The first vote is always the hardest,” said Matthew Dowd, who helped run Bush’s reelection effort.

In New Mexico, Richardson thinks he can show Democrats the way not only to win back Latinos -- “we’ve got to talk to them about education and homeownership and ... economic growth” -- but the way to revive the party nationally.

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Thirty years ago, Richardson had an international studies degree from Tufts University and a staff job on Capitol Hill. But he dreaded the life of a Washington drone. So he set out to build a political career in the Southwest, a region he knew from family visits.

Growing up, Richardson split his time between Mexico City and New England; even now, certain words betray the inflections of a prep-schooled Yankee. As a high school pitcher, he was good enough to draw big-league interest. But a frowning father and a wrecked arm from too many curveballs denied him a shot at pro baseball. He discovered politics in college, when he was elected fraternity president. Along the way, he wed his high school sweetheart, Barbara; the two have been married for 32 years.

Richardson’s arrival in New Mexico in 1978 was hardly auspicious. A month into his job with the state Democratic Party, he was fired in a feud between political rivals. But he soon landed a job as Democratic chief in Albuquerque, heading the state’s biggest party organization.

In 1982, a new congressional district was carved out of northern New Mexico, and Richardson easily won the seat. Over the next 14 years, he built a relatively moderate voting record, supporting legal abortion, gays in the military and the death penalty while opposing most gun control and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But his greatest renown came as a self-selected international troubleshooter (“undersecretary for thugs,” in his words). He met with Cuban President Fidel Castro and then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, winning the release of political prisoners and two captive U.S. businessmen. He secured freedom for a downed U.S. pilot in North Korea and bartered a few tons of rice, four jeeps and nine radios for three Red Cross workers held by Sudanese rebels.

In 1997, Richardson joined the Clinton administration as U.N. ambassador. Many said he was the most laid-back diplomat they could recall; he worked the cafeteria like a political picnic and ambled into Security Council sessions in khakis and a blazer.

After a year and a half, Richardson left the U.N. to head the Energy Department. He kept his high profile in that bureaucratic backwater, though not all attention was favorable; Richardson was soon embroiled in a scandal over security lapses at the nation’s nuclear facilities. Though he inherited many of the problems, Richardson was embarrassed when two computer hard drives with nuclear secrets went missing at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2000. The drives were found behind a copy machine, but not before Richardson had received an angry dressing-down on Capitol Hill.

Returning home when the Clinton administration ended, Richardson ran for governor in 2002, promising to use his national reputation and global ties to promote New Mexico and attract badly needed business to the state. He won the election in a romp, and Republicans are now struggling to find a serious candidate to face him in 2006.

New Mexico has long been one of the nation’s poorest states, plagued by low wages and by high rates of alcoholism, violent crime and other ills. The 1990s boom that lifted its neighbors largely bypassed New Mexico, which combines a wild beauty with vast stretches of desolation. “It was a state that was relatively content with inaction,” Richardson said, describing a welfare mentality that relied on federal spending.

Although the state remains troubled -- “You don’t turn around the Titanic in a day,” said gubernatorial Chief of Staff David Contarino -- things have definitely improved. Tourist revenue and movie production have soared, jobs have increased, the manufacturing base is growing, and entrepreneurs no longer have to leave New Mexico for start-up capital.

Luck helps. Oil and gas revenue has been gushing, filling the state’s coffers and allowing Richardson to cut taxes, raise teacher salaries, boost education funding and still end the last fiscal year with a surplus.

Critics said he had built a structural deficit for future governors. And they accuse Richardson of sacrificing the needy to his ambitions.

“We all understand what’s really going on here. Politics,” New Mexico Voices for Children, a liberal advocacy group, charged in its spring newsletter. “The governor wants to be able to make certain claims that enhance his state and national profile.” Richardson rejects that assertion.

The group isn’t his only critic on the left.

Christine Trujillo, state AFL-CIO president, describes a “push-tug, love-hate” relationship with Richardson -- “like a marriage.” Though pleased with rising teacher salaries, she said that others who keep schools running, such as janitors and bus drivers, have not done nearly as well. State workers also had a rough time in contract talks. “People were disappointed,” Trujillo said. “They thought we’d have a state of nirvana” with a Democratic governor.

Of course, hugging the middle is not a bad move for any Democrat with national ambitions. More serious doubts about Richardson center on his style, including the carefree -- some say careless -- attitude he sometimes has in public. (In political circles, it is usually phrased as doubts that Richardson has the “discipline” to run for president; he was famous in Washington for his ribald sense of humor and penchant for late-night, cigar-smoking conviviality.)

“He’s a likable guy, a personable guy” who has “obviously been in a lot of roles,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan campaign handicapper. The question, Rothenberg said, is: “Does he have the stature of a future president? Does he behave the way presidents ought to?”

Here in New Mexico, the loudest complaints are not about Richardson’s freewheeling style, but his sometimes highhanded manner.

Police have learned not to mess with the governor when he barrels past in his luxury SUV at 100 mph. Republicans point to Richardson’s extensive travels, expansive entourage and purchase of a $5.5-million state jet, and accuse him of running an imperial governorship, footed by taxpayers. The governor’s spokesmen dismiss the charges.

Richardson’s approach -- essentially that he is boss and everyone should act accordingly -- is typical of Washington. But it has been an unhappy revelation to many New Mexicans used to less confrontation and more collegiality. (The governor is no easier on staff; he frowns on time off and monitors the news releases issued by 20 state agencies.)

When members of a state board quarreled with Richardson, they found their budget slashed and operations exiled to a run-down building in Albuquerque. The governor made headlines by hollering at lobbyists who opposed his healthcare proposals. He generated additional negative press when he took a meat ax to projects sought by legislative critics.

“He does wield a pretty heavy stick,” said Dan Foley, a Republican lawmaker from Roswell and one of the governor’s leading nemeses. “Gov. Richardson wants you to be with him 100% of the time. If you’re with him 99% of the time, you’re his enemy.”

But if the governor has run a bit roughshod, he won’t apologize.

“Do I play hardball? I believe that if you’re going to get something done, you have to be aggressive,” he said. “I think some people resent the fact that we’ve had such unprecedented success. But am I vindictive personally? No.”

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Richardson has a prescription for Democrats.

“I think we should become the party of charter schools,” he said. “I think we should be the party of higher teacher salaries, of narrowing the achievement gap, of basically saying we spend too much on administration and bureaucracy in our schools.”

The talk of accountability, of a smaller, smarter government, sounds a lot like the last Democrat to win the White House -- which is no coincidence. Richardson said he learned much from Clinton and owed him a debt of loyalty for putting Richardson in his Cabinet. (Not enough, though, to defer if Clinton’s wife, New York’s Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, runs for president. “I think it’s wide open,” Richardson said of the Democratic race. “There should be no stepping aside.”)

Is the country ready for a Latino president? “I think America’s a very tolerant nation,” the governor replied. “I think Americans will embrace somebody that has values, wants to make a difference, they can connect with. Cares. Race and ethnicity are perhaps factors in some regions. But overall, I doubt that would be an issue.”

Many agree -- to a point.

Michael Madrid, a former California Republican Party strategist, believes Americans could embrace a Latino presidential candidate -- so long as being Latino is just a part of his identity. “America’s not ready for a Latino president; it’s ready for a president who happens to be Latino,” he said.

David Niven, an Ohio University expert on voting and ethnicity, said much the same thing, suggesting that voters could respond to a Latino candidate who came across in a reassuring, “ethnically neutral” way.

Which brings to mind a line that New Mexico’s governor uses at his many out-of-state appearances -- a joshing reference to his ambitions and the prospect of making history as the first Latino president: What else would you expect, he quips, from a guy named Richardson?

He may be on to something.


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