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President Richardson or Latino President Richardson?

As Democratic candidates prepare for a televised debate on the largest Spanish language network, Bill Richardson -- the only Latino in the race -- has to walk a thin line to have any hope of getting elected.
 
 
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There was a touchy moment for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson in June 2007 when the Spanish-language TV network Univision announced that it would hold its Democratic candidate debate in September 2007. A testy Richardson threatened to withdraw from the debate unless he could give a presentation in Spanish rather than speak through an interpreter. He got his way. The same week Richardson with much fanfare announced the names of key Latino backers nationally.

The language flap was much more than a stubborn candidate's personal pique at not getting his way. The timing of his Latino supporters was hardly incidental either.

This was Richardson's way of telling Latinos that they finally had one of their own in the presidential hunt. And that he was the candidate that they could rally around. But that posed a dilemma for Richardson. The dilemma was, should Latinos back Richardson because he is Latino? And should Richardson ask them to back him because he's Latino?

This posed the mortal political risk that Richardson could be perceived as politically one-dimensional and appealed only to one segment of the voters. The presidency is supposedly not about representing one ethnic or special interest group. The perception that Richardson was an ethnic candidate could sink him in the South, the Midwest, the Northwest, indeed in just about every section of the country where Latinos are still a bare footnote. It could do even more damage even in places where the number of Latinos has grown, and the issue of immigration ignites fear and resentment among many whites and blacks.

The ambivalence about a Latino presidential candidate surfaced in a Newsweek poll in July 2007. Slightly more than 80 percent of voters said they'd vote for a Latino for president. That was 10 percent less than said they would vote for an African-American, and five percent less than for a woman president. There was more unsettling news for Richardson. Only 25 percent felt that he was qualified to be president. That was almost 10 percent less than said the same thing about Obama.

At first glance the public's notion that he was far less qualified than Obama seemed odd. As a three term Congressman, he worked on budget issues, gun control, abortion and national security issues. He traveled widely internationally as a sort of diplomat-without-portfolio and brokered deals with Saddam Hussein to free American captives, and Castro to gain the release of American political prisoners. He helped negotiate the release of U.S. pilots held in North Korea. He served a quiet but effective stint as UN ambassador in the mid-1990s, and was hailed as a bridge-builder. He later served as Clinton's Energy Secretary. And he is the highly regarded two-term governor of New Mexico.

Richardson's impressive political brag sheet meant little to Jay Leno. The late night talk show host wisecracked, "And yesterday Bill Richardson officially announced he's running for president. So now he officially has no chance of winning."

Leno's sardonic crack and the public ambivalence toward Richardson was much more than a case of him being an unknown quantity on the national political scene. The ambivalence could be traced in some respects to doubts and divisions on immigration. The issue is a double-edged sword for Richardson. When he boasts that he's the only Latino candidate in the presidential derby, the red flags are hoisted high among many Americans. Their suspicion is that as president he would tilt too heavily toward the most liberal immigration reform, and do and say nothing to secure the borders. It's an easy step for some fearful voters to also strongly suspect that Richardson would be much too soft when it came to minority interests, especially Latino interests. Richardson has worked to dispel that thought. He notes that he vetoed a measure that would have stopped New Mexico state police from enforcing immigration laws. But Richardson quietly put the same measure into effect through an executive order. It was political fence straddling with a vengeance. The veto served its purpose. It made Richardson appear to be a Western state governor who was tough on illegal immigration.

Richardson as a Latino knows the peril of being seen as too pro-Latino-interests. The title of his autobiography, "Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life," is a bold declaration that he is a man of two identities. In an interview with the Arizona Republic in April 2007, Richardson was asked directly if being a Latino help or hurt his ability to deal with both sides in the immigration debate. The interviewer undoubtedly meant the pro- and anti-immigration forces.

However, it could have just as easily been a double entendre for the duality of being a Latino American. There was a faint undertone of the invisible separation between the two in the question. Richardson's answer walked the razor thin line. "I'm not just a Latino. I'm running for president for all Americans." It won't be the last time he'll have to reassure Americans about that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

 
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