Why Kerry May Choose a Latino VP

Election '04

He's the popular Democratic governor of a southwestern state, with the unlikely advantage of being an experienced international diplomat. He was born in California, but spent his childhood in Mexico City. He speaks real Spanish -- not the spanglish kind -- and has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He's a political moderate with charisma and charm.

Those are some of the reasons why New Mexico governor, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former congressman and former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson Lopez is on everyone's short list as a potential vice presidential nominee to accompany Sen. John Kerry on his bid for the White House.

Though close to 60 people have been mentioned as possible running mates, Richardson is no doubt on Kerry's short list, too.

It's not the first time Richardson has been this close to the vice presidency. In 2000, he made no secret of his ambition to share the ticket with Al Gore, but was quickly dropped from contention after nuclear secrets were stolen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and later found behind a copy machine. Richardson wasn't exactly to blame for the security lapses, which over decades had become legendary within the Department of Energy, but because he was at the helm he was deemed responsible.

Republicans in Congress, obviously nervous at the prospect of Richardson on the ticket, made a huge deal of the incident. This time, however, the issue has likely lost its ability to neutralize the governor.

Democrats have already given Richardson a prominent position in this election cycle, as chairman of the Democratic National Convention that will nominate Kerry in Boston at the end of July. He heads Moving America Forward, a political committee aimed at registering Latinos in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.

Those states are precisely why Richardson is such an attractive choice for the VP spot: As the South goes increasingly Republican, Democratic strategy could shift to courting the Latino vote in the battleground states of the Southwest and even in Florida, where the non-Cuban, Latino Democratic vote is growing fast.

There are other interesting potential VPs on Kerry's short list, such as Sen. John Edwards, the smart, attractive, populist campaigner who gave Kerry a run for his money in the presidential primary. But if the question is, "Can you carry your state and help carry other states outside of the nominee's reach?" then many experts say Richardson is the better choice. No one knows for sure if Edwards or anyone else can help Kerry win anywhere in the South.

Choosing Richardson over a Southerner would challenge the traditional wisdom that no Democrat can win the White House without being from the South or having significant support there. It would signal a strategy shift, a gamble on building more support in the Southwest, where Latinos are a growing presence.

In 2000, Gore carried New Mexico by only 366 votes and lost Arizona and Nevada to Bush. California and Texas are foregone conclusions -- the first for the Democrat and the second for the president -- but in a close race the smaller states could be the key to victory.

Richardson could help defeat the effort by Bush and his political point man Karl Rove to garner 40 percent or more of the Latino vote. The idea of voting for a half-Mexican who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency would be tempting for most Latinos across the nation.

Richardson has some potential downfalls: his enthusiastic support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for one. While in Congress, Richardson was a key vote-getter for NAFTA on behalf of the Clinton administration, back when Democrats were running as centrists and not populists. That puts him at odds with many Democrats from the heartland, who feel the pinch of jobs fleeing overseas and who espouse a more protectionist attitude.

Choosing Richardson for vice president could also alienate African Americans, who have expressed support for Edwards. Also, the black community has voted against Latino candidates in some local and state races, when they feel their political power is being undermined by the new largest minority. Few African Americans will vote for Bush, but they may abstain if they feel unrepresented in the Democratic ticket.

On the other hand, African Americans may cast their ballots for anyone if they dislike the incumbent enough. In California's gubernatorial recall election, blacks supported Latino candidate Cruz Bustamante at a higher rate than Latinos.

Richardson predicted in 2000 that, "if not this time, for sure next time" there will be a Latino on the Democratic ticket. He insisted then that America was ready for such a revolutionary proposition.

Perhaps 2004 will do the trick. Even if Richardson does not become Kerry's right-hand man, most people who know the governor know he would love another position in a potential Kerry administration: Secretary of State.

PNS contributor Pilar Marrero is a political columnist and metropolitan news editor for La Opinion Newspaper in Los Angeles.

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