Speculation Season In the Southwest

It feels like the first true spring day. It snowed earlier in the morning, but now the sun has emerged and a thawing warmth radiates. The nearly deserted road is a ribbon of two-lane blacktop that twists through the rugged stretch of northern New Mexico that connects Pojoaque to the Nambé Pueblo.

Then, like a thunderclap: Lights, sirens. A trooper appears from behind, signals flashing, leaping forward like a predator. A white Cadillac Escalade, on the heels of the police car, blows by in a fury.

Say hello to Gov. Bill Richardson. Fifteen minutes later the small procession is at rest at the head office of the Nambé Pueblo. It's the governor's second visit in the 14 months since he took office; he makes a point of saying no governor before him has ever visited. No one in the small room contradicts him.

Today is what Richardson calls his "Good News" tour. Any suggestion of the evangelical in that is unintentional, though not necessarily inappropriate. Richardson, like many born politicians, is part Music Man, part minister – and, in his case, there's a super-sized portion of patrón thrown into the mix. The day's planned route will take him from Santa Fe to Española to Nambé to Pojoaque and finally to Las Vegas – all in the packed space of a single afternoon. Freed from his Roundhouse desk, Richardson wears a turtleneck – no tie – and a jacket with honest-to-goodness patches on the elbows. He's in his environment, happily informing his constituents what he has done for them like a proud father.

"I love you," he says in Española. "And I mean that." He becomes even more energetic later in the day when he reaches Pojoaque and someone hands him a microphone. Richardson plays to the size of the stage he is given. With a mike in his hand, he's as laid back and as smooth as Tony Bennett.

Here in Nambé, the 40 or so residents attending are just happy to see him. Richardson tells them how his administration helped during the last legislative session to eliminate the tax on food. He talks about the state providing $5,000 for new kitchen equipment for the Pueblo senior center. "I worry about the Native American kids," he says.

"Diabetes, obesity, suicide." He chats about physical education for children, tribal sovereignty, water pollution. Someone presents Richardson, a former minor league pitcher, with a baseball to autograph.

Finally, the inevitable occurs.

"We look forward to supporting you when you run for president," says a man named Paul Rainbird.

The council room bursts into loud applause.

These are odd times for Richardson, this season of speculation. Since Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this month, the only remaining game to be played is the guessing one. Until the July Democratic National Convention in Boston – which Richardson will chair – names of a potential Kerry running mate will be aired in the press and then dismissed, senators and governors shuffled like trading cards. The common term for it is "the short list." Bill Richardson is on it, rest assured, despite a very public effort on his part to downplay his interest.

For the next few months, New Mexicans will wonder if the man who has made it his mission to turn this struggling state around will stay to see his work through or whether he will leave what he calls the "best job he has ever had" less than two years after getting it.

William Blaine Richardson will remain one of the names on the short list until Kerry announces his decision. Richardson's positives are powerful, his negatives not readily apparent. He brings much to the electoral dance. "It's a chess match at this point," says Bill Sisneros, the former chairman of the Santa Fe Democratic Party and an ardent supporter of the governor, "and Bill is one of the key players in the whole process."

Steve Jarding, a Democratic political strategist and current fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says no veep candidate can do for Kerry what Richardson can. "If a governor gives you the strength to take a state, that in and of itself is important," Jarding says. "But I think Bill Richardson reaches beyond the borders of New Mexico."

Jarding, who, among other accomplishments, managed the improbable gubernatorial victory of Democrat Mark Warner in solidly Republican Virginia in 2001, says Richardson can supply the three things any running mate must do for a presidential candidate. First of all, Jarding says, the vice presidential candidate must not hurt the nominee. Here, he says, Richardson is clean. Second, the VP choice must deliver his home state. There seems little doubt that even if he broke his promise to stay, Richardson would remain a wildly popular political figure in New Mexico. Although this state went for Democratic nominee Al Gore by the slimmest of margins in 2000, it seems likely that with a favorite son on the ticket, it would move much more decisively in favor of Kerry.

Third, Jarding says, a potential vice president should be able to help secure other states.

Here is where Richardson may hold a clear advantage. Were Kerry to ask and Richardson to accept, Richardson would become the first Hispanic vice presidential nominee in American history. While that would not automatically secure the loyalty of Latino voters nationwide, it could become a powerful magnet for a burgeoning voting bloc coveted by both major political parties. With Richardson on the ticket, key swing states such as Arizona, California, Nevada, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania could be in play for the Democrats. He is, potentially, a market mover.

Thus, Richardson finds himself pounded with the question everywhere he turns. His critics, who never believed he would stay here his full term and maintained Richardson was just using New Mexico as a stepping stone to higher office, are in high dudgeon. Even some political allies see his time as short. At a ceremony announcing the construction of a new veterans memorial at the Santa Fe Railyard in mid-March, former Ambassador Frank V Ortiz joked that, while he hoped the memorial would be a jewel of the Richardson administration, "we can't get it done in six months."

"Present or not present, Mr. Governor," Ortiz said, "we'll always remember you for what you've done."

A day later, Richardson winces in annoyance when Ortiz's comments are recalled. "It's beginning to become a distraction," he says. He is sitting in his satellite Albuquerque office, a small chamber in the Bank of the West building on the east side of town that offers a panoramic view of the city. Richardson is spending the morning here, tending to downstate business.

He says his response to the eternal question has been a conscious attempt to lower his national profile. In almost the same breath, he notes his appearances the previous day on both Fox News Channel and MSNBC to talk about Iraq. The standing condition, now, for national shows, he says, is that the vice presidential issue cannot be mentioned. "There's possibly three more months of this," Richardson says. "Despite my denials, nobody believes me."

Richardson, who grew up in Massachusetts, California and Mexico, isn't a New Mexico native and the sort of political calculation he went through in order to decide to come to the state is the kind of instinctual, ambitious choice that has always made some people skeptical of his sincerity. "With me, people associate ambition. It's my style," he says. "I like moving fast, being very public, advancing a cause. Everybody thinks the reason I want to be governor is because I want to be president. But I feel a real allegiance to New Mexico. New Mexicans have always believed in me."

Richardson, 56, came to the governor's office from the larger world beyond, following a path that is perhaps unique in modern American political life. In his early 20s, at Tufts University in Boston, Richardson received a master's in diplomacy. He moved on to Washington in the 1970s with posts at the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Hungry to make his mark in politics, he moved to New Mexico in the latter part of the decade to run for Congress against local icon Manual Lujan. (He didn't win.)

First elected as congressman for the 3rd District in 1982, Richardson established his personal touch in hundreds and perhaps thousands of "town meetings" with constituents. Sometimes only four or five people would show up, but Richardson came ready to talk and made sure he brought an aide along to address constituent problems. His district, as diverse perhaps as one anywhere save for a large urban center, included Santa Fe progressives, New Age-y dropouts, Native Americans living on scattered pueblos and, of course, Old Country Hispanics whose families trace back generations. "That's where I learned these skills of mediation," Richardson says now. "They serve me well in this job."

His was a rather mainstream political career in its early phase, as Richardson rose through the ranks of leadership in the House of Representatives, ultimately becoming Majority Whip while Democrats still controlled that body. He came within a hair's breadth of being named Secretary of the Interior in 1992, but then was passed over – one of his biggest political disappointments. But he went on in the House to help secure passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement on behalf of the Clinton White House in 1994. Then, however, the Republicans took control and Richardson was cut out of the action. So he began making his own. He became almost a freelance hostage negotiator, bargaining for the release of captives in Iraq, Bangladesh, Burma, Cuba and North Korea.

In his Albuquerque office, Richardson relates the story of his December 1996 trip to the Sudan, in which he bargained for the release of three hostages, a New Mexico pilot and two Red Cross workers. The Sudanese rebel commander holding the three asked for $20 million. Richardson countered by saying he could give him a Jeep. Five Jeeps, the commander countered. Two Jeeps, Richardson replied, thinking to himself that he only had authorization from the Red Cross to hand over a single vehicle. What sealed the deal was Richardson's offer to provide nurses and syringes for an immunization program for the village. He had earlier learned the commander's daughter was ill with smallpox.

During Clinton's second term, things accelerated for Richardson. He was first named Secretary to the UN, replacing Madeleine Albright. Two years later, he was appointed Energy Secretary. It was at Energy where his career seemed to strike its roughest patch. The administrator of a large federal agency, a bureaucracy, Richardson suddenly couldn't use the people skills and political instincts that had always guided him. The department became embroiled in repeated scandals, including the government's failed prosecution of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee and lapses in security at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was famously reprimanded by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) at a Senate hearing.

"You've had a bright and brilliant career," Byrd told Richardson. 'But you will never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed. It's gone. You've squandered your treasure."

Unsurprisingly, Richardson won't admit that any aspect of his career was less than successful, but he does say now that the Energy post was "frustrating. You couldn't get your hands on it. As governor, you can set the agenda. Build schools. Build roads. Bring in jobs." After the Democrats lost the White House in 2000, Richardson drifted a bit, taking speaking engagements, sitting on corporate boards, lecturing at Harvard. "I didn't know if I wanted to get back into politics," he says.

But New Mexico tempted him. Richardson and Brian Condit, who has worked with Richardson since the congressional days, set off on a trip around the southern part of the state, where Richardson was less known, for a field survey. "Anywhere we went around the state, there seemed to be a sense of great excitement," says Condit, who now helps push Richardson's agenda through the Legislature. "People were very encouraged by the prospect. The governor seemed to know everyone."

Bill Greehey, the chief executive officer of Valero Energy Corporation in San Antonio, asked Richardson to join his company's board, and then watched him depart shortly thereafter to re-enter the public arena. "He was in private life, he was making a lot of money," Greehey says, "and public service pulled him back."

Watching Richardson talk about the senior center in Nambé or a teacher-education program in Española, one wonders if it's enough to sustain someone who made a name for himself as a maverick diplomat in the 1990s by journeying to Iraq, the Sudan and North Korea.

At the same time, Richardson's style is born out of visiting small towns throughout northern New Mexico. He's a cigar-chomping, press-the-flesh populist. A boss. His manner is one of old-fashioned solicitousness. Everyone is "my friend." His memory is legendary. He can see someone sitting in the crowd and name that man's father, recall a time when they banged on doors campaigning in Las Vegas in 1978. His tastes are similarly old-school: sports, particularly boxing. He rides horses. He recently developed a new passion for shooting clay pigeons. "He is the best politician I have ever seen," says Kay Roybal, who worked as a legislative liaison for Richardson during his congressional career. "His instincts are incredible. He has never been bit bad by a risk he took."

To Richardson, all of politics is diffused through the prism of negotiation, the art of the deal. "Negotiating internationally and negotiating locally is the same," he says. He has some basic philosophies: Respect people. Trust other cultures. Always know where you're going to end up. Concede things up front that don't matter, such as the meeting place.

He uses this day's trip to Albuquerque as an example, comparing a jaunt down I-25 to traveling to Iraq or the Sudan. He's trying to a resolve a citywide spat over the extension of Paseo del Norte through Petroglyph National Monument. Richardson says he wanted to come and meet here with representatives of the east and west sides of Albuquerque. "This is their turf. I came to this city. I didn't make them come up to my office in Santa Fe," he says.

Since being elected handily in November 2002, Richardson has acquired the persona of someone who's a step too quick in a place known for taking things slow. The local media has focused on his high-speed driving, his helicopter trips around the state, his national speaking engagements, the money spent on entertainment. He pushed and hectored the State Legislature to enact his reforms. A defining moment may have come during this past session, when an emotional Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, took to the Senate floor in early February to label Richardson a bully.

Other politicians might have tried to smooth over the situation, especially when the complaint came from a member of their own party. Richardson went the other way. He refused to apologize for his behavior, saying he was standing up to special interests. Former aide Roybal says such a response is again part of the governor's continual political calculus. Of his denunciation of Jennings, Roybal says Richardson "doesn't do that very often. He pulls that out very rarely." And Richardson was right. His image wasn't harmed by the event. The criticism evaporated.

This morning in Albuquerque is simply an extension of the same modus operandi Richardson used on his high-velocity "Good News" tour across northern New Mexico earlier in the month. But now, instead of Richardson staying in nearly constant motion, it's instead his aides and other politicians buzzing about him. Time with him comes in nuggets, interspersed with closed-door meetings with notables. Looking like a truant being called into the principal's office, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez is brought into the office for a brief meeting and then departs. Then, Rep. W Ken Martinez (D-Grants) asks for a few moments alone with the governor. In and out. In and out. Think of the opening scene of "The Godfather."

Richardson opens the day by convening a panel studying the widespread use of ignition interlocks in automobiles to combat drunken driving. The creation of the panel is textbook Richardson. Requiring interlocks in all vehicles sold in the state was the subject of a bill offered by Martinez during the just-completed 30-day legislative session and it immediately became a lightning rod for controversy, a stir Richardson largely avoided. But now, he wants to see if the state can gain national attention for being a leader in the use of the interlocks.

"I would like New Mexico to be the No. 1 state in interlock technology," he announces. The issue no longer belongs to Martinez, but to the governor. Discussing Richardson later, his legislative aide, Brian Condit, says that on any issue, the governor "is going to drive it to a solution, absolutely drive it to the best conclusion."

The interlock meeting breaks up and almost instantaneously, Richardson is on the phone in his office, discussing the next day's planned announcement of a deal concerning environmental cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "Domenici's very anxious to get something out," he says. The message is clear: Richardson wants to get his ducks in a row before the state's veteran Republican senator breaks the news. For the rest of the day, his press staff will debate how to control release of information about the agreement so that the maximum impact of the announcement is retained.

Richardson seems to enjoy himself while his aides run about like nervous birds. He talks about how he prefers doing things in a "whirlwind" manner. He knows it's part of his image and doesn't run from the association. "I think he thrives on it," says Brian Condit. "He has more energy than I could ever imagine anyone could have. His appetite for work is immense. He can exhaust 20 staffers on a day-to-day basis."

"I like this more than any other job," Richardson says. "I'm actually doing things. I'm setting the agenda – and I like that."

Although Richardson continues to promise his agenda will stay local, many believe he could change his mind and retain the support of New Mexico.

"Most of the people who would be angry didn't support him in the first place," says Roybal, who now works in the community relations office at LANL. She adds that she doesn't believe Richardson would accept the VP job. "I don't think he wants to be vice president. I think he wants to be president. He could go for the top spot when he is done being governor. I certainly don't think he's afraid of lost opportunities."

2004 congressional hopeful Gary King cautions that "there's always a downside if you run for office and don't finish out your term." A former state representative who hoped to secure the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002, King is the son of former three-term governor Bruce King. "People who voted for him counted on him to be the governor for four years," Gary King says. "He might not have had sufficient time to do what he wanted to do. I think people expected him to stay. I think he expected to stay. I think he was very sincere when he was running."

Jarding, of the Kennedy School of Government, believes Richardson would find being the first Hispanic on a presidential ticket irresistible, and compares him to groundbreakers Geraldine Ferraro and Joe Lieberman. (Of course, it also must be noted that both of those candidates lost.) He takes Richardson's repeated denials with a grain of salt. "You never say you are interested in something in the abstract. It doesn't make sense to go out on a limb until the moment the nominee says 'I need you to lead this party and this nation,'" Jarding says. "Sometimes life is bigger than where we are."

Bill Sisneros agrees. "I think it would be an incredibly difficult decision," he says. "But if the polls show Kerry could win and he calls Richardson, I don't know how he could turn it down."

Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil-rights group, says a Richardson candidacy "is something we would advocate and welcome. Gov. Richardson is very well versed in the history of the Latino community. He would take very seriously the prospect of being the first Latino to be on a national ticket."

Richardson is mindful of his multiple constituencies, the citizens of his state, Hispanics nationwide and, of course, the Democratic Party. "My first responsibility is to the electorate of New Mexico, whom I assured I would not take that step," he says. But when pressed about whether he could actually turn down the position if offered, he adds, "I have other responsibilities, too. There are other national considerations. And I have to consider the responsibility to myself. You say you're not going to do that, you have to honor it." What bothers him perhaps the most, he says, is that right now, he believes his political adversaries think they might be able to wait him out, that they won't have to deal with him much longer.

Finally, he says, "The best thing to happen is if I am not asked."

Sometimes, keeping up with Bill Richardson feels a bit like being a racehorse puffing down the backstretch next to Seabiscuit. No lead is safe. On the Friday of his "Good News" tour, an attempt to leave his speech in Pojoaque 15 minutes early to get a jump on the Cadillac Escalade seems at first to work. There's no sign of the governor along the backroads through Santa Fe and to I-25 as it ascends northward toward Las Vegas.

But it isn't long before it materializes in the rearview mirror: the Escalade. The other cars on the road seem frozen in place. This time the governor's SUV is alone; no police escort necessary. It hurtles past at a speed close to 100 miles per hour. The gap between the two cars grows. Bill Richardson soon is a small point in the distance. Then he is gone. Maybe gone for good.

James Oliphant is a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter.

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