Richardson content to start slow in ‘08 race

Times Staff Writer

On the afternoon of the 58th day of New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session, Gov. Bill Richardson reclined on the green leather couch in his office, rubbed his eyes and growled to the cluster of staffers surrounding him: “What can I sign?”

His aides, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, explained that the Legislature’s printing office had lost three employees, keeping newly passed bills from promptly reaching his desk.

“Send them some of our people,” Richardson said. “I gotta sign something.”


That impatience has been the hallmark of Richardson’s four years as governor, a tenure that has transformed this sleepy state’s politics. The Democrat has launched a flurry of initiatives, ranging from the mainstream to the quirky. At his urging, the state has cut taxes, given teachers $275 million in raises, legalized medical marijuana, and authorized $225 million in state money to build a spaceport.

Even though the Legislature passed 80 of his bills in the session that ended March 17, he still wanted more. He called for a special session that ended March 30. He didn’t get his ethics package through the Legislature in the second round, and the governor said he was considering calling yet another special session.

“It just never stops; it’s busy, busy, busy,” said Democratic state Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, a longtime Richardson friend. “He’s got an agenda like you can’t believe.”

Allies and critics agree that Richardson, 59, has become the dominating force in New Mexico politics. But it’s not so on the national scene, where Richardson -- perhaps best-known as a former U.N. ambassador and a freelance negotiator in international hotspots -- faces an uphill battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. He lags far behind front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and also trails John Edwards.

Richardson’s advisors say they’re not worried -- it’s too early for longshots like the governor to pull ahead, and they expect his unvarnished, outsized personality to charm primary voters. He contends he has a better chance than the other underdogs: “I’m perfectly content to be the only candidate in the second tier.”

Once voters learn about what Richardson has done in New Mexico, they’ll pay attention, supporters say. Even the governor’s opponents in the state acknowledge that he’s a formidable political figure.

“People shouldn’t count him out. You won’t find a person who works harder,” said Rep. Dan Foley, GOP whip in the New Mexico House of Representatives. “He is a larger-than-life character.”

Richardson was born in Pasadena. His father was an investment banker from a prosperous, old-line Boston family. Richardson split his early years between New England and his mother’s home country of Mexico. He got hooked on politics when he was elected president of his college fraternity. He worked as a congressional aide after graduation, then made an audacious move in 1978: He relocated to New Mexico, hoping to become a congressman. He narrowly lost his first House race, in 1980 against a veteran incumbent, but won an open seat two years later.

In Congress, Richardson became renowned for his charisma. He became an international troubleshooter of sorts -- he jokingly referred to himself as “undersecretary for thugs.” He negotiated with Kim Jong Il to free an American pilot downed over North Korea, with Saddam Hussein to liberate American workers who accidentally crossed from Kuwait into Iraq, and with Sudanese rebels to release Red Cross workers. (On Monday, Richardson was in North Korea as head of a U.S. mission sent by President Bush to recover the remains of six U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War. Richardson’s delegation also pressed Kim Jong Il’s government to allow U.N. inspectors to monitor its nuclear program.)

In the 1990s, his skills caught President Clinton’s attention. Richardson was named ambassador to the United Nations in 1997, then Energy secretary a year and a half later. In 2002, he returned to New Mexico, ran for governor and easily won.

As Richardson took office, he walked into a contradiction. New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the nation, perennially stuck with Louisiana and Mississippi at the bottom in rankings in poverty, education and child health issues. But it is also an energy-rich state, and New Mexico’s coffers were suddenly flush because an energy boom brought a spurt of oil and gas exploration.

Aided by this windfall, Richardson sprang into action. He rammed a capital-gains and top-bracket tax cut through the Legislature, winning praise from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page. He eliminated the state’s tax on foods, and offered a tax break to companies that paid above the prevailing wage. He wooed the film industry to shoot in New Mexico, and embraced an unusual scheme to build a spaceport in the state’s southern desert to attract high-tech jobs.

“When I became governor, this was a state that was depressed, emotionally and economically,” Richardson said. “Nobody got things done, and we were at the bottom of all the bad lists. I came in to transform the state, politically, policywise and emotionally.”

Some found that transformation unsettling. Richardson dismissed dozens of members of state boards, replacing them with loyalists and campaign contributors. “It was pretty brutal,” said state Sen. John Grubesic, a Democrat and Richardson critic. “If you didn’t come in and swear your loyalty to Richardson, you were gone.”

It was a contrast to traditional New Mexico politics. “New Mexico is a very sort of good ol’ boy [system] -- you help me, I help you, we’re going to eventually get there,” Grubesic said. “This is more Washington, D.C.-style.”

Richardson vetoed the appropriation bills of legislators from either party who didn’t support his proposals. Though the governor said he did this for budgetary reasons, legislators know that crossing Richardson can mean a loss of money for their districts. “He’s extremely vindictive,” said Foley, who’s been on the receiving end of vetoes.

Republicans complained that Richardson was using his office to further his presidential ambitions; that he doubled the size of the governor’s staff, was mortgaging the state’s future with big-ticket projects, jetted about the country on private airplanes and drove through the state in a luxury SUV. Richardson made no apologies for his aggressiveness: “I don’t want us to be dragged into staying in the 19th century,” he said.

New Mexico’s voters loved it. In November, Richardson was reelected with 69% of the vote. Two months later, he announced what seemingly everyone in the state already knew -- that he was running for president. If elected, he would become the nation’s first Latino president.

In his spacious office in the Statehouse recently, Richardson described the mix of qualifications he could bring to the contest. “I’ve got the most foreign policy experience.... I’m from a region that’s prime Democratic territory.... I’m Hispanic, but I don’t wear it on my sleeve.”

And, he said, “I’m the only governor in the [Democratic] race. I’ve actually balanced budgets, created jobs.” Four of the last five presidents were governors.

Then Richardson, wearing a tie and cowboy boots, showed how being a state’s chief executive provided credentials for the campaign trail: He began a freewheeling discussion with his aides of his priorities that were winding through the Legislature. They included several issues that could please Democratic primary voters: benefits for domestic partners, middle- and low-income tax cuts, and an increase in New Mexico’s minimum wage.

As he headed into a news conference, Richardson asked one aide, Eric Witt, what his message should be to the Legislature, which was still dawdling over some of his bills in its waning hours. Witt told him to be firm but polite. “You just keep thinking, Eric,” Richardson muttered. “That’s what you’re good at.”

“What movie is that [line] from?” Richardson then asked, wheeling to face the half-dozen staffers in the room. As he often does, Richardson dug into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of small bills for the trivia challenge. “I’ll give $20 to who remembers it.”

The correct answer -- “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” -- came just as Richardson stepped into another room, where he joined state Atty. Gen. Gary King and Rep. Joseph Cervantes to mark the passage of part of the governor’s ethics package.

The questioning soon turned to presidential politics.

Richardson was asked whether it was risky to push for passage of the medical marijuana law, which allows severely ill residents whose suffering is verified by a physician to possess up to three months’ worth of pot. The governor personally lobbied legislators and claimed credit for swinging five votes to ensure its approval.

Richardson predicted he’d catch “national grief” over the issue and noted that the Bush administration had urged him not to support the measure -- a detail likely to please Democratic primary voters. He quickly said the implications for his campaign were irrelevant.

“So what if it’s risky? It’s the right thing to do,” Richardson said. “I don’t tailor my style to primary states.”