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The Life Of The Party?


May 9, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

Bill Richardson
PHOTO: Michael Edwards for The New York Times

Because his state has a rather small population and because he has served in public office since 1982, Bill Richardson is fairly visible in New Mexico, but the crowd at Palacio Bar was still surprised when he popped in during a late-night pub crawl last month. The governor was at the tail end of a supersaturated day in Las Cruces -- morning press conference, power lunch, three speeches, two dinners, a fund-raiser, 39 constituent meetings at five minutes a pop -- but 16 hours later, at 10:30 p.m., he was still rippling with the energy of a fire hose. ''I'll have your best tequila,'' Richardson shouted as he walked in the door. At 56, he was older than most of the startled patrons by a coefficient of two. A biker walked by. ''Que pasa, muchacho?'' the governor asked.

Palacio Bar was the second of two bars Richardson visited that evening. The first, El Patio, was packed with white kids in backward baseball caps; the second, this biker joint, was almost all Latino. Richardson's ability to move between worlds is one reason his name is on Senator John Kerry's short list of vice-presidential candidates. It also helps to explain why he was selected as chairman of the Democratic National Convention this July and why his name is mentioned as a Democratic candidate in 2008, should Kerry lose to George W. Bush this fall.

The biker Richardson addressed was clearly delighted. ''Hey,'' he answered, then turned to the bar. ''Whatever the governor's drinking is on my tab!'' He turned back to Richardson. ''But give me one of your cigars.''

Richardson's role in the Democratic convention will be a visible one. As a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, he is fluent in the language of international relations and diplomacy; as the child of a Mexican mother and an American father, he is also fluent in Spanish, providing Democrats with a much-needed counterweight to Bush's considerable popularity with the Hispanic electorate. From his 14 years in Congress, he is a relaxed and agile communicator, at times shamelessly solicitous of the press. And as a pro-gun, tax-cutting governor, he evokes the era when Democrats spoke, with a straight face, about a third way of governance.

The biker's girlfriend, a resplendent study in leather, wandered over and informed the governor that she never saw the point in voting. Richardson lurched into high gear. ''If you don't vote,'' he said, ''you don't have the right to complain. If you don't vote. . . . '' He completed his thought in Spanish.

The woman betrayed no evidence that she was persuaded by Richardson's argument. But when the jukebox went quiet, she began warbling to the governor in a plaintive, mostly tuneful Spanish, and the whole bar hushed to listen. After her serenade, she asked him to dance. He demurred. She insisted. He waved her off, taking pungent drags on his Cuban cigar.

As we were leaving, I asked Richardson if he planned to lure voters to the polls this season one person at a time. He said the method didn't seem especially efficient. I asked whether he had at least succeeded in luring this woman. He shook his head. ''I doubt it.'' He looked wistfully into the middle distance, then directly at me. ''I'll bet all she'll remember,'' he said, ''is that I didn't dance with her.''

Bill Richardson says he believes in the radical theory, currently enjoying currency in some political circles, that the Democratic key to the presidency lies in making a crisp, clean break from the South, which for more than 70 years served as a bedrock constituency of the post-Reconstruction Democratic Party. ''I don't think it's realistic for us to have a Southern strategy,'' he said the first morning we spent together in Las Cruces, near the Mexican border. ''We should concentrate on either a Western strategy -- a Western/Hispanic strategy -- which is basically Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida, or we should try to pick off one or two states in the Midwest. Those have to be the two options to win the presidency.''

Coming from a Southwestern governor, particularly one who was recently interviewed by Kerry's vice-presidential search squad, Richardson's enthusiasm for this theory may seem unsurprising, if not frankly self-serving. But that doesn't mean it can't work. When I asked Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, if he agreed with Richardson's assessment, he briefly hesitated. ''Well, even if I did, I'd never say it,'' he said. ''But he has a valid point.''

From the perspective of the Electoral College, there are certainly more efficient ways for Democrats to recapture the White House than to conquer the American desert -- like winning Ohio, for instance, which has as many electoral votes as Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona combined. But as a long-term goal, a Southwest strategy is remarkably tantalizing, primarily because it looks forward instead of backward. Rather than trying to recapture the South, which has been slipping out of Democratic control since the rise of the civil rights movement, and rather than making an aggressive play for the Rust Belt, which inevitably requires baroque curlicues of doublespeak about free trade, the party can turn its gaze to a region where cities are expanding, retirees are settling and the Hispanic population, now the largest minority in the United States, is both swelling and voting in significant numbers. Arizona, home of Barry Goldwater, voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and came within 6.3 percentage points of voting for Al Gore. Nevada came even closer, with a margin of just 3.5 percent. And New Mexico actually went to Gore, though by a mere 366 votes.

''Horace Greeley told us to go West,'' one of Kerry's advisers told me. ''And that's where we're going.''

Well in advance of this season's presidential primary, Richardson seemed to sense this -- and that the Democrats needed a response to Bush's success with Hispanic voters, 38 percent of whom support his re-election, according to the most recent Pew Hispanic Center poll. The governor successfully agitated for a Hispanic Super Tuesday, in which the Arizona and New Mexico primaries were held on the same day; he arranged for the first official primary debate to be held at the University of New Mexico, which was billed as the ''Hispanic'' debate; he gave the first Spanish-language response to the State of the Union, on the television network Univision; and he established Moving America Forward, a political action committee dedicated to registering Hispanics and Native Americans.

Of course, in doing so, Richardson not only raised the profile of Latino and Southwestern issues within the Democratic Party. He also raised his own. For all of his rakishness and buoyancy, the governor is, at his core, an ambitious man. In 2000, he made no secret of his interest in joining the Gore ticket, and had he not made such a public-relations disaster of his stint as energy secretary, he might even have been invited to do so. But shortly into Richardson's tenure, two computer hard drives containing nuclear secrets vanished from Los Alamos National Laboratory, and he avoided, at least initially, testifying at a Senate hearing about it. The evening news ran footage of his empty chair. Senators called for his resignation.

oday, chastened and newly employed, Richardson insists that he is no longer interested in the vice presidency. Whenever he is asked, and he is asked with metronomic regularity, he says he would turn it down: in 2002, he made a commitment to the citizens of New Mexico to be their governor for a full term. He and his wife of 32 years, Barbara, have no desire to leave. ''I ride my horse; I try to exercise, to play tennis, to hike,'' he told me. ''I don't need to leave here. No one understands that, and no one believes me anyway.''

He's right. No one does, including the Democratic Party chairman. (''To my mind, he'd accept the job,'' McAuliffe said. ''Who are we kidding?'') But whether the governor is interested or not may be beside the point. As a member of the country's most rapidly expanding ethnic minority and as a governor from one of the country's most rapidly changing regions, Richardson will doubtless play a key role both in the coming election and the Democratic future -- if not literally, as one of the party leaders, then metaphorically, as the embodiment of its shifting demographics. ''It may not be in the most politically correct taste to say this,'' said Henry Cisneros, who also served in the Clinton cabinet, ''but during Bill's Congressional campaigns in New Mexico, we used to joke that the Anglo residents would think he was one of them because his name is Richardson and the Latinos would say he's one of them because he speaks perfect Spanish and the Native Americans would think he's one of them because of his costuming and dress. Everyone had a claim on him.''

"Who's next?''

The afternoon before our pub crawl, Richardson sat in the conference room of his Las Cruces office, doing what he does once a month: holding open office hours, during which he meets for five minutes with anyone who walks in off the street.

A pleasant-looking, smartly dressed blonde entered the room with her husband, a British fellow. The man started to speak, but Richardson cut him off almost the moment he began his preamble of praise. ''Thanks,'' Richardson said. ''What can I do for you? What do you want?''

''Well,'' the fellow said, slightly rattled,

''I'm sure you know my wife's father, Ike Smalley. He served nearly 40 years in the State Legislature. . . . ''

''Sure,'' Richardson said, again cutting him off. ''O.K., so what do you want named after him?''

The husband looked stunned, apparently unnerved that their request had been so quickly divined. But the woman answered: ''Well, would it be possible to name the road to Santa Teresa after him? He devoted himself to building strong relations with Mexico.''

''Yeah,'' Richardson said. He turned to an aide. ''Get Johnny Cope from the highway department, and let's have an appropriate ceremony. Let's get it done right.'' Then, back to Smalley's daughter. ''I took a road trip with your dad. Did he tell you?'' Another assistant walked in, carrying a burrito for him, minus the beans.

Pretty much anywhere he goes, Richardson is known not for his ideas but for his energy and political instincts. He enjoys wheeling and dealing, enjoys steering toward consensus and getting to yes. When he served in Congress, his cheery temperament, occasional bullying and literal penchant for backslapping propelled him straight into the Democratic leadership, where he served as chief deputy whip. Around the time the Democrats lost control of the House, he cultivated a sideline that again exploited his interpersonal skills -- as a globe-trotting troubleshooter for the Clinton administration. In 1996, Clinton named him ambassador to the United Nations, formalizing his diplomatic role. Even after he became governor of New Mexico, Richardson continued to moonlight as a diplomat: in 2003, with the blessing of Colin Powell, he met with a delegation of North Koreans in Santa Fe before it stopped at the United Nations.

''I could not get Bill to focus on what I thought was a very interesting painting,'' said Andy Athy, a Washington lawyer who is close to Richardson. ''And he's not going to be staying up all night reading a complex book, though he definitely reads. What he finds interesting is people.''

Shashi Tharoor, an undersecretary general at the United Nations, agreed. ''He wasn't an Andy Young, he wasn't a Richard Holbrooke and he wasn't a Tom Pickering,'' he said, referring to Richardson's more erudite U.N. predecessors. ''But he was a great Bill Richardson. He was so astonishingly friendly. Very often, countries heed the positions of the U.S. ambassadors because they feel they have no choice. So it's that much more palatable if those policies are put forward in an agreeable way by a bonhomous U.S. ambassador.''

Because he is more of a doer than a thinker and because he has an almost insatiable fondness for media attention, Richardson sometimes leaves the impression that he's not a terribly serious person. When people find fault with him, the word ''lightweight'' comes up; though he is conversant in both foreign and domestic policy, the governor's connection to politics is essentially sensual. He loves meeting people, loves schmoozing, loves smoking cigars and nibbling on buffets and riding the endless fund-raising cocktail surf. During his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, he earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for shaking the most hands in an eight-hour period (13,392). He wears alligator boots and happily uses words you can't say on TV. At times, he can be reckless, hot-tempered and a vainglorious showboat. A Democratic ticket with him and John Kerry -- hollow-eyed, estranged from his appetites, subsisting on a diet of rectitude and moral fiber alone -- would be a striking comedy of contrasts and perhaps not the one Kerry is striving for.

Yet anyone as tireless and hellbent on pleasing people is also bound to be effective. In Congress, Richardson was an early Democratic proponent of trade with Mexico, working hard to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. As a freelance diplomat, he successfully negotiated the release of three Red Cross workers who were taken hostage in Sudan, and he paved the way for the liberation of a downed pilot in North Korea. (Richardson referred to himself during those years as ''under secretary for thugs.'') In New Mexico, the governor has drummed up trade along the Mexican border, lured Hollywood films to the desert and cut taxes to make the state competitive with its neighbors. Even 43 percent of New Mexico Republicans give him a positive approval rating.

Charm isn't a bad asset during an election year, either. If Richardson dedicated himself to shaking as many hands in 2004 as he did in 2002, you wonder what kind of results he could produce -- especially among Hispanics, who made up 5 percent of the voters in the 2000 presidential race and who have recently shown less fealty to the Democratic Party in elections like the California recall, the Texas Senate race and the gubernatorial races in New York and Florida. A new, more centrist message may be in order, and a bilingual, business-friendly governor of a state that is 42 percent Hispanic is as decent a messenger as any. ''The Democratic Party needs to revitalize its outreach with Hispanic voters,'' he told me. ''We can't just appeal to them on immigration issues and civil rights and affirmative action. We've got to talk to Hispanics about broader, mainstream issues like entrepreneurship, home ownership, education. Set it around the American dream and not around 'Keep your distinct Hispanicness.' There's too much of a younger, up-and-coming, business-oriented Latino population that, you know, wants a piece of the economic pie.''

He thought for a moment. ''You know, my worst nightmare is that we, the Democrats, won't have a strategy that involves counteradvertising. I've seen the Republicans' Spanish ads. They're good.''

As the day was winding down, Richardson sat in the front of his S.U.V., munching on chicharrones and harrassing one of his media people for proposing a photo op on a lake he, rather unpopularly, ordered partially drained. ''Forget it,'' the governor barked. ''They hate me out there.'' Then he looked at me and rolled his eyes. ''This is my communications staff. This is positive image-building. I can't wait for the next big idea.''

When it comes to the media, no one is shrewder in the Democratic Party than Richardson. In the end, that may be his biggest contribution to the 2004 election. The role of convention chairman is largely as talking head, master of ceremonies and (if need be) one-man rapid-response team, and this role is ideal for both Richardson and the party. Compared with the Republicans, who run a well-oiled media machine, the Democrats are disastrously bad at P.R. They're dull. Defensive. Chaotic.

Richardson, on the other hand, is the Democratic answer to John McCain. He says pretty much what he's thinking. Candor for him is both schtick and real. Several times a day, he beckons his assistant to come over and touch up his makeup in order to make him camera-ready; his press people carry extra foundation in their bags. They estimate that he gets three requests from the national news media per day, as well as one from the Spanish-language media.

Which says nothing of the requests he gets from the local media, whose coverage occasionally borders on the swooning. You read it and think, A man can't buy publicity like that. Then you talk to Republicans, and you realize that that's sort of what Richardson did: after moving into the governor's mansion, he raided local news outlets for star political reporters, including the editorial director of The Albuquerque Journal. Pete Domenici, who has served as New Mexico's Republican senator for 32 years, still can't get over it. Recently, at a lunch before the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, he joked about how many reporters were in attendance. ''Because Richardson has hired 17 of them!'' he later explained to me. ''Or, O.K., not 17, but a number.'' (That number, as a matter of fact, is nine, which is pretty remarkable for a state with so few media markets.)

But Richardson also gets very fine national coverage. This can't be explained by a local hiring spree, and any reporter who is honest with him or herself should be able to guess the reason: Richardson provides some much-needed relief from canned speech. I remember experiencing this myself back in 1994, shortly after Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives. I told Richardson, who was a congressman at the time, that I was planning to write an article about House Democrats. He cut me off in midsentence: ''Aaaaagh, are you going to write that we don't have our [expletive] together? Is that what you're going to write? Because maybe we don't, O.K.? But don't write that.'' I came away stunned. It occurred to me that I had forgotten what real speech, not to mention genuine sentiment, sounded like. I had forgotten that it didn't always come out of a test tube.

Richardson hasn't lost that bluntness. Over dinner, I asked whether he still kept up with Clinton. He said yes, but added that he had also hurt the president's feelings by not inviting him to New Mexico during his gubernatorial race. ''Polling showed he was too controversial,'' he said. How many other politicians would admit they were listening so closely to polls? Later, the governor also mentioned that Kerry had asked him to consider hiring his sister, Peggy Kerry, at the United Nations back when he was ambassador. ''It was totally proper,'' he told me. I didn't doubt it, but still, would Kerry really want Richardson volunteering this information? Did Richardson really want people to know he went ahead and hired her? Especially after he had to testify about interviewing Monica Lewinsky for a job?

In many politicians, strengths and weaknesses are one and the same. In Richardson, they are just a bit louder. At some point, I asked Richardson how it was that he came to have so little regard for the conventions of political rhetoric. He thought. ''Well, being bilingual, you're able to appreciate cultures differently, to almost have two different personalities,'' he said after a moment. ''And my father and my mother were both very strict with me, but very generous, and they told me to be honest and tell the truth.'' He trailed off, seemingly unconvinced by his own assessment. ''But you know, this sounds like [expletive]. I don't know. Let me think about this some more.''

Jennifer Senior is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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