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September 17, 2014

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Richardson: Brilliant or bumbling, or both?

Bill Richardson has a lot on his mind this morning.

The New Mexico governor and Democratic presidential aspirant is sitting at the head of an enormous marble table in his Santa Fe briefing room. He’s surrounded by his 22 Cabinet secretaries — about half again the size of a president’s Cabinet. (Richardson had to enlarge the table after taking office in 2003. The Albuquerque Journal reported that when New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer saw the table, he asked where King Arthur sat.)

As the secretaries bring Richardson up to speed, he seems distracted. He fiddles with his BlackBerry and pages through briefing binders, his legs bouncing furiously underneath the table. Then a staff member reports on the state’s float for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year’s Day.

“That’s three days before the Iowa caucus,” Richardson quips, grinning. “I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. But stay on this.”

Back to the BlackBerry.

The process continues, with the multitasking Richardson cracking jokes, asking questions, giving orders.

“I got a list of your pet projects,” he tells his transportation secretary. “A lot of nickel-and-dime stuff in there. Cut it down.”

“Don’t forget the Indians,” Richardson says to another Cabinet member, glancing back to make sure an out-of-state reporter

is listening. “We’re the only state that has a Cabinet-level position for Indians.”

The meeting, last Monday, runs an hour and 45 minutes, short by Richardson standards. But time is precious. He needs to interview eight candidates for a state Supreme Court vacancy, hold a legislative strategy session, meet with an ethics task force, stage a campaign event and attend a fundraiser — all before heading out for a week of campaigning for president.

For 10 months, Richardson’s presidential campaign has been downgraded by the national media, which have described him as a good choice for vice president. The celebrity and sheer cash of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and, to a lesser extent, former Sen. John Edwards, have overshadowed what many observers regard as the best resume of anyone running in either party.

Richardson spent nearly two decades grabbing mostly positive headlines as a hard-charging congressman, U.N. ambassador, freelance international negotiator and U.S. energy secretary. He leveraged his experience to the governorship four years ago. Yet he never managed to establish a national profile.

On this day, however, Richardson senses his moment. Iraq has provided an opening — and the media are paying attention.

“They’re finally recognizing me,” he tells contributors at the fundraiser in Belen, N.M. “I’ve got good moves. We’re rising in the polls. Things are looking up.”

With that, he heads to New York for an interview with CBS News’ Katie Couric and a meeting with the New York Times editorial board.

• • •

Richardson says he didn’t get his first real itch for the White House until 2004, while campaigning for Democratic nominee John Kerry. He filed it away.

A month before Richardson’s reelection last year, while on a train campaigning along the Rio Grande, Chief of Staff Dave Contarino predicted his boss would win 69 percent of the vote.

Richardson told him he was crazy. Sixty percent was the state’s record.

But Contarino said Richardson was favored by 70 percent of independents and 40 percent of Republicans.

“You know, I think we ought to look at the big one,” Richardson replied.

Thus, the unofficial presidential campaign began. Richardson told his advisers to draw up a plan, one that would address the fundraising challenge, and he began raising his national profile.

As chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, he campaigned for his party’s candidates across the country, including Nevada state Sen. Dina Titus in her failed bid for governor.

In the end, Richardson won reelection with the predicted 69 percent of the vote, drawing support from a solid majority of independents and many Republicans. “For a Democratic governor to get that kind of support in a red state spoke to him being in touch with people’s values,” Contarino said.

It is the argument at the heart of Richardson’s presidential campaign. He tells voters he can bring “new real estate” into the Democratic column, particularly in the formerly red Intermountain West.

“The people of the West are looking for executive leadership,” Contarino said.

And presumably, in Richardson’s view, the West also favors a Westerner.

Enter cowboy Bill.

As governor, Richardson often wears jeans and cowboy boots in the office and on the campaign trail. He made the bolo tie the official neckwear of New Mexico. In an ad for his reelection campaign, he wore sheriff’s garb as he rode into town on a horse, dismounted, strode into a saloon and said, “Get me a milk.” He then rode into the sunset.

Quite a transformation for a guy who in 1978 moved from Washington, D.C., to New Mexico in an Alfa Romeo, an Italian sports car.

The son of a New England banker and a Mexican mother, Richardson grew up in Massachusetts and Mexico City — but spent most of his early professional life in Washington. He moved to New Mexico because he wanted to run for Congress. In his memoir, he recalls telling his wife, “I need to be from somewhere.”

By then, he knew he loved the game. “I’ll freely admit I persisted in student politics not because of any idealism, but because I was good at it and found I enjoyed it tremendously,” he wrote in his memoir. Politics, he says, filled the void after dreams of a baseball career died.

Richardson chose New Mexico in part because of its large Hispanic population. He made his first House run in 1980 and lost by less than 1 percent of the vote. Two years later, he won the right to represent the state’s new 3rd Congressional District.

If not a Westerner by birth, Richardson quickly took to the region’s sensibilities. What is a Westerner?

“It means that you’re for individualism,” Richardson says. “You’re entrepreneurial. You’re for protecting what is most essential in the West — land, air and water. You’re libertarian when it comes to civil liberties. You want limited government in your daily life, in your sexual orientation, a woman’s right to choose. Government should not tell you about your personal behavior.”

Richardson won the National Rifle Association’s endorsement for governor and was the only Democrat invited to speak to NRA members in Washington last month.

Richardson says he understands Western values and issues better than his rivals. On a recent trip to Nevada, he eagerly ran through the state’s issues, interjecting between questions, “What else? What’s next?”

On nuclear power, Richardson would eliminate federal subsidies for the nuclear energy industry, redirect incentives to renewable energy technology and get “all of our best brains” to solve the nuclear waste disposal issue. But he would not rule out building more nuclear plants.

Yucca Mountain, he says, is not the answer to the waste problem. Richardson voted against the proposed repository as a congressman. As energy secretary, he stopped a move to open Yucca after learning of environmental concerns.

Asked about the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to pump water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas, Richardson deflects the controversial plan with a laugh — then launches into his plan for a national water summit. Richardson said he would bring states together to talk about a way for water-rich northern-tier states to help with shortages in the Southwest.

He says he would reward better land-use planning in cities with additional federal highway funds and provide incentives for light-rail projects to ease traffic congestion.

On energy, Richardson says he is leading by example. New Mexico adopted Kyoto Protocol standards on greenhouse gas emissions, and must get 20 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2010. Richardson eliminated taxes on hybrid vehicles and boosted the state’s renewable energy industry with tax incentives. New Mexico formed a renewable energy transmission authority to sell wind and solar energy to other states.

As president, Richardson would push for a requirement that the nation’s utilities derive 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. He would cut the demand for oil by 50 percent and push fuel economy standards to 50 miles per gallon.

He says Nevada is squandering an opportunity if it doesn’t capitalize on its potential for wind and solar farms.

On mining, Richardson says he supports reforming the 1872 Mining Law, particularly the provision that allows the government to sell public lands to mining companies for less than $5 an acre. But reform efforts would have to balance environmental protection with economic development, he says.

• • •

At a strategy session in his Santa Fe office, Richardson chews on red-rimmed glasses as a half-dozen advisers debate the political fallout of pushing ahead with health care reform in the state.

Richardson pledged in 2002 that every New Mexican would have coverage within four years, but his effort has been piecemeal. He is now pushing to consolidate state agencies that provide coverage and pressing for insurance reform aimed at covering people with preexisting medical conditions.

His advisers say the costs and the aggressive timetable make legislators nervous.

“Politics,” he huffs. “Is that the only thing holding this back?”

The consensus is yes.

“Who cares,” he barks. “We need to do this.”

Health care in New Mexico cannot be at odds with the coverage plan he is proposing for the entire country in his presidential campaign, he says.

The scene illustrates two large truths about Richardson. He is not above bending New Mexico to suit his presidential aspirations. And he has a strong hand.

“He likes to be in the driver’s seat,” says Lonna Atkeson, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico. “There is leadership in the state and we’re going in a certain direction — but if you don’t agree with that direction, it can seem a little autocratic.”

Hence his nickname in some quarters, “King Bill.”

One of Richardson’s first acts as governor was to demand resignation letters from every member of the state’s 300 boards and commissions. He turned down those from people he thought were doing good work.

He required new regents to file undated letters of resignation, a practice the attorney general said was unconstitutional. And he has called legislators back for special sessions, jolting sleepy Santa Fe into a diet of all-nighters.

“There’s no downtime with the governor,” says state Sen. John Grubesic, a Democrat and frequent Richardson critic.

A common refrain is that Richardson brought Washington politics to the state, which allies see as a good thing and critics deride. He has proved adept at horse trading for the sake of progress. But Grubesic and others say the downside of compromise is that Richardson punishes those who won’t.

So far, Richardson’s agenda has won broad praise, even from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the conservative Cato Institute. His first move as governor was to cut the personal income tax from 8.2 percent to 4.9 percent and chop the state capital gains tax in half.

On the campaign trail, however, he has drawn mixed reviews, even as his standing has crept higher. He has made gaffes large and small, telling an audience of gays and lesbians at a candidate forum that being homosexual is a choice and closing an impassioned speech to the Service Employees International Union political conference by thanking the wrong union.

Richardson says many of those mistakes have come because the longest presidential campaign in American history is taking its toll.

“It’s dizzying. It’s intense. It’s nerve-racking,” Richardson says. “But I love it.

“I’ve made some mistakes. People say, ‘Why did you say that about the gays?’ There are two answers. One, I thought it was a trick question. The second is that I was really tired. I’d flown all night. It’s not an excuse. It was a contributing factor.”

Barbara, his wife of 35 years, has noticed a difference. Richardson takes a day off about once a week — but often ends up in his Santa Fe office, working on New Mexico business, aides say. Barbara Richardson says her husband has called from the campaign trail to complain of exhaustion. “It’s grueling,” she says. “You have to learn all the local issues. That wasn’t part of the other campaigns.”

For his part, Richardson, an avid boxing fan, says he realized something was amiss in May when he found himself campaigning in New Hampshire instead of attending the big fight in Las Vegas between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. (In an interview, he mistakenly identified De La Hoya’s opponent as Owen Beck.)

Whatever the cause, Richardson comes across at turns as sharp, goofy, competent and bumbling. Reporters tell stories about being on the receiving end of head butts, and one account from Salon.com in 2005 has him making an obscene finger gesture in jest at a news conference.

After a series of stumbles, Richardson says he has become a better candidate. “This is my first race for president. You learn as you run. You learn about the country. You learn to be a better campaigner. You learn about the issues. You get more disciplined. So I had a learning curve.”

With Iraq as his signature issue, Richardson is picking up steam. He is polling in the low single digits nationally — 4 percent, according to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll. But he has reached double digits in some polls in Iowa and Nevada, two states early on the primary election calendar. He hopes to surprise in those January contests, building momentum before the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries.

His solution in Iraq stands in sharp contrast to those of his Democratic rivals — and, some say, damages his chances of winning the general election. He advocates withdrawing all U.S. troops immediately, leaving no residual forces. The stance appeals to the liberal activists and anti-war wing of his party, but might hurt him with independent voters.

“I feel very strongly about it because American kids are dying, and there’s no end in sight,” Richardson said. “We have a president who doesn’t listen and a Congress that’s not fighting.”

He touts his experience as President Bill Clinton’s U.N. ambassador, freelance negotiator and energy secretary: “I know the region. I’ve talked to the leaders. I went head to head with Saddam Hussein. I know what I’m talking about.”

Reminded of the infamous meeting with Saddam, during which Richardson inadvertently offended the Iraqi dictator by showing him the sole of his shoe (an Arab insult), the governor explains with a smile: “Yeah, I screwed that up. But I was tired then too.”

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