"What you see is what you get"

As the only serious candidate so far in the 2006 governor's race, New Mexico's Bill Richardson can afford to be in-your-face -- and to start planning for 2008.

Published August 8, 2005 5:33PM (EDT)

The camera does not love Bill Richardson. Close-ups, head shots, even profiles do nothing for the New Mexico governor's jowly, moon-faced countenance. No matter. Richardson seems content with a one-sided affair. "Is television here yet? You know I only do this for television," he'll say at the beginning of a press conference. A joke is often this Democrat's favored entry into a meeting. Though he is known for serious work -- as an ambassador, a Cabinet secretary and now a governor, Richardson is apparently unfazed by pomp, having seen it all before.

Sometimes he seems almost bored. There's Richardson, seated at his massive marble meeting-room table (he had it enlarged to handle a growing staff), idly twirling in his chair while other dignitaries speak. Look closer, and he's got one hand under the table, gently pulling on the chair of his second in command, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. She smiles resignedly and tries to stabilize her chair.

But when a reporter, especially one with a television camera, addresses Richardson directly, he assumes the "serious governor" mask -- now well known to the millions of TV viewers who've seen him on "Larry King Live" or "Hannity & Colmes." His eyebrows waggle into angles, creating a solemn, skeptical pose. He squints.

The cameras click off, and Richardson looks tired. He lifts his big body off his chair and slowly shuffles to a door leading out of the room, flanked by staffers who seem perpetually antsy about his tardiness. But if a reporter dodges in between Richardson and that door, he's happy to chat for a few moments more. After a gibe or two at reporters he knows, Richardson resumes his mask, timed exactly with the camera lights, leading another day's news in New Mexico.

No governor in little New Mexico's history has come to dominate the political landscape quite like Richardson has. He is a larger-than-life character to New Mexicans, who swooned at the polls when he ran in 2002, against Albuquerque businessman John Sanchez, and elected him by one of the largest margins the state had ever seen. This in a state that swung hard for President Bush's reelection in 2004 after splitting its vote in 2000.

Now, with his reelection campaign looming in 2006, Richardson has already raised as much as $3 million. Yet he is the only one in the race; no serious candidates have emerged.

"It's hard to want to run a race when you know you're going to get whomped," says Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Almost from the moment he became governor, longtime Richardson allies and enemies alike saw him make some calculated political maneuvers. These moves -- headline-grabbing flourishes like cutting state taxes, meeting with international leaders and raising scads of money -- all pointed to one thing, they say: a run for the White House in 2008. In fact, with his reelection all but ensured, Richardson watchers have practically ceased to care about 2006. Instead, they are observing how Richardson positions himself for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. Richardson himself demurs on the subject, though no one takes him seriously. "I'm focused on my reelection. After that," he'll say, drawing out his words with a flicker of a smile, "we'll see."

Richardson's success in New Mexico is the result of a carefully laid-out strategy that began when he moved to New Mexico in 1978. Born in Pasadena, Calif., and raised first in Mexico City, then Massachusetts, Richardson went looking, friends say, for a place that might give his political career a good start.

"His political life story," Atkeson says, "is ambition."

New Mexico turned out to be a good fit. The dusty, poverty-stricken state (14 percent of its children live in extreme poverty, and 54 percent live in low-income households) had a bankable asset for Richardson.

"He came to New Mexico because it was a Hispanic state," says Richardson's friend and longtime campaign assistant, Jamie Koch, a Santa Fe insurance salesman. "He felt if he was to have any career in politics, he needed to be in a state that had a majority of Hispanics." (Hispanics constitute about 42 percent of the population.)

Koch recalls meeting a "very appealing, very aggressive individual" who inserted himself into the state's Democratic Party apparatus and never looked back. After losing his first congressional bid in 1980, Richardson won a seat in 1983 and held it for seven terms. In Congress, he caught the eye of President Clinton, who thought he might make a skillful diplomat.

Richardson jumped into his role as ambassador to the United Nations, and thus began his jet-setting lifestyle. In episodes that still resonate today, Richardson won the release of several American hostages from the governments of North Korea and Sudan. After that he went to Iraq, where he was one of the first Americans ever to sit down opposite Saddam Hussein. (Richardson once recalled a faux pas in that meeting wherein he crossed his legs, inadvertently showing the Iraqi dictator the sole of his shoe, a grave insult; they got over it.)

The North Korea work spilled over into a dramatic series of events in the first week of Richardson's tenure as governor in 2003, when a delegation of North Korean diplomats made an unheard-of trip to the governor's mansion in Santa Fe. A nuclear standoff with the United States seemed imminent, and the North Koreans, experts figured, went to talk with the one American they knew well.

A new governor could hardly have asked for better press. For three days a herd of national reporters camped out on Richardson's driveway as word of phone calls between Richardson and then Secretary of State Colin Powell became the gossip of the day. From time to time Richardson would step out to greet reporters, the "serious governor" mask firmly in place. "I'm a governor of a small state, I'm not an ambassador," he said, to little effect. That no one took him seriously did not seem to bother him.

Since then, Richardson has never had to try very hard to get the attention of the media, local or national. And despite the negative press he got as a suspected leaker of classified information about former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee (a leak Richardson vigorously denies), he appears to genuinely like reporters; he jokes with them and seems unconcerned about appearances. A common Richardson move at a press conference is to drag his staff from the back of the room up to the microphone to answer technical questions. "Get up here, help me," he'll bark. "I'm a policy guy, not a numbers guy."

Other times he'll get more physical. Many reporters covering Richardson have received his signature head butt in the middle of a question, in which a looming Richardson (he is well over 6 feet tall) leans in slowly and gently knocks the reporter's noggin with his own. And if seated across from a reporter, he might edge out a loafered toe to stamp on the reporter's shoe. "Does that hurt?" he'll ask with mock concern.

Sometimes he is more direct. I can recall at least two occasions on which Richardson flipped me the bird across a press conference table. Catching my eye as others spoke, he slowly put his middle finger up to his eye, as if to scratch an itch. It was like taking notes from a frat boy.

For a big guy, Richardson loves to keep moving, an image that has both helped and hurt him in sparsely populated New Mexico. It helps him when constituents see a hands-on governor whose Clintonian habit of responding to every publicized issue keeps him in touch. This tactic is an old one for Richardson, who set a Guinness world record for number of hands shaken in a day during his 2002 governor's race. The tactic evolved, he says, from being a new guy on the political scene way back in the late 1970s.

"I felt the only way I might make a dent was to talk to as many people as I possibly could, to actually touch as many people as I could," he said. "I found that voters liked that, to try to connect, even if they didn't agree with your policy positions."

Throughout his congressional tenure and now as governor, Richardson has continued his in-your-face style of political communication. "I'm basically saying, Here I am, what's on your mind, let's talk," Richardson says. "We've actually made important policy decisions that way." He walks away from these meetings with his pockets filled with scraps of paper people have given him. He collects them in plastic baggies and hands them to staff later, as problems for them to solve.

But when he operates in a way that contrasts starkly with the expectations of old-fashioned New Mexicans, his desire to be omnipresent hurts him. Richardson travels with a thick gaggle of staff, usually in a large luxury SUV like a Cadillac Escalade or a Lincoln Navigator. He (or, more accurately, his driver) has now been caught speeding in state vehicles so many times, by press and police, that he made a pledge this summer to travel the speed limit.

When not on the highway, Richardson takes to the air, flying a $5.5 million jet that, while approved by the state Legislature, has nonetheless opened him up to criticism from New Mexico's Republican Party. A radio ad produced by the party makes fun of his fancy plane, which is outfitted with a wet bar and leather seats. The ad, which played in New Hampshire during a Richardson trip there earlier this summer, asks: "Is it P. Diddy? Britney Spears? No, it's Governor Bill Richardson."

New Mexico Republicans, who are still looking for a candidate to take on Richardson in the 2006 race, are happy to have this P.R. gift. "He's been beating himself up -- we've just been pointing it out," says Marta Kramer, executive director of the New Mexico GOP.

The "King Bill" shtick so far has been the best angle of attack local Republicans have against Richardson, who typically outmaneuvers the party in public policy debates. "It appeared to me as if this governor was getting such a pass by the press," Kramer says. That began to shift a bit after the party's attack ads, she says. Articles in the state's dailies now more frequently question Richardson's plane, the size of his staff and his conduct (e.g., speeding, rubbing elbows with celebrities, hogging TV time, smoking cigars in nonsmoking buildings).

"This is a governor who spends lavishly and has an indulgent lifestyle," Kramer says. "He thinks he's above the law." That judgment is, so far, the best thing Republicans have. Although they correctly assert that he has raised taxes as much as or more than he has lowered them, the criticism just hasn't stuck. Over the past three years, Richardson has enraged New Mexico conservatives by picking up kudos from outlets like the Cato Institute, Forbes Magazine and the Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

"It's not that Richardson walks on water," says Joe Monahan, a New Mexico political commentator. "Sometimes, you're blessed with an incompetent opponent."

Richardson beats the Republican rap by using the time-honored tactic of message repetition. He isn't afraid to tell reporters, whether they asked or not, that he is a "tax-cutting Democrat." And then repeat it.

This nod toward a political center, observers say, smacks of the sort of thing Richardson's friend and political mentor was so good at. "If anyone could have been a tutor for Richardson, it was Bill Clinton," says onetime Richardson opponent Sanchez, who, after losing the governor's race, helped coordinate the successful Bush campaign in the Southwest in 2004. Sanchez recalls watching Richardson, on the campaign trail, pick up Republican issues such as tax cuts and run away laughing with them.

"He is a very deft, very savvy politician," Sanchez says. "He knows how to relate to people just like Bill Clinton" does. Picking up issues that might resonate with swing voters, Sanchez says, is an example of Richardson's "learning from the master."

But Richardson has a knack for self-promotion that is more naked. In 2003, after the successful passage of a series of income-tax reductions, Richardson's administration took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, supposedly pitching New Mexico's positive business climate but also featuring a thoughtful Richardson. "A Democrat cutting taxes?" the ad read. "Things are different in New Mexico."

Ironically, the picture in the ad was a file photo from one of Richardson's darkest hours, the late-1990s debacle over Los Alamos National Laboratory. When the federal weapons lab became known better for security breaches and wayward scientists than for smart nuclear research, Richardson was at the helm of the Energy Department. During those grim times Richardson sweated under merciless grilling from Congress about the way he ran -- or didn't run -- the agency, and about the persecution of scientist Wen Ho Lee. By the time the 2000 presidential race was up and running, Richardson's political star had been dragged out of the firmament. He went from a likely V.P. candidate for Al Gore to a political footnote.

"That knocked him right off the Gore ticket," Atkeson, the political science professor, says. "To the best of my knowledge, that's his biggest political liability."

Whether the issue would dog him in a presidential race remains to be seen. While leaking government secrets has hurt a household name like Karl Rove, the American public has yet to seize upon it as a voteworthy issue. It's likely that by the time Richardson starts pushing hard for a slice of the limelight in 2007 or 2008, the question of Lee and his secrets will be almost forgotten.

Nowadays, Richardson is ascending beyond New Mexico again, including well-publicized trips to New Hampshire. James Pindell, of the political Web site PoliticsNH.com, says Richardson is ahead of any of the other potential 2008 contenders in the number of New Hampshire visits this year. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has made two visits. Sen. Hillary Clinton has also made two. Richardson? Three, so far.

"Most of these people come in, they do their speech, and they're outta here," Pindell says. "He spent two whole days."

Richardson admits the trip was a bit of a 2008 tester. "I wanted to get a good lay of the land," he says. "I felt very good. I got good response."

What Richardson did in New Hampshire is something he's known for coast to coast: hobnobbing with his inner Rolodex on turbo. From D.C. to Los Angeles, Richardson seems never to be in a crowd of complete strangers. Somehow, from behind the microphones and lecterns, he'll spot a familiar face, dredge up the person's name without a staffer to whisper it to him and go so far as to shout out to the person, who invariably reacts with flattered surprise.

"He just walked around the crowd, and he would just recognize people," Pindell says. "You can't make this stuff up."

Candidates, even nondeclared ones, have three things to accomplish in a New Hampshire trip, Pindell says: Introduce yourself to the nation's early primary voters, leave the crowd with a better opinion of you than when you arrived, and show a little respect for the East Coast traditions of politics and baseball.

"While he appears intelligent, he was more than happy to be in New England and talk about the Red Sox," Pindell says. "People seem to be very impressed with him."

All of the gallivanting about has helped wedge Richardson back into the limelight. He has even gotten the sideways compliment of being spoofed on "Saturday Night Live." In March, "SNL" player Horatio Sanz played Richardson perfectly, with the coiffed black hair, imperious public persona and black suit. In the skit, which features several other politicians, Sanz/Richardson tries to explain to Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, played by Jimmy Fallon, that he loves their music. Fallon/Gibb responds by screaming at him.

Richardson's response to being played so well by an actor he refers to as "that fat guy" was to send Sanz a New Mexico pin with a note. "I said, next time, wear this -- at least you'll have something nice to wear," Richardson recalls, chuckling.

Two things other than appearance ring true in the skit. First, Richardson genuinely loves cheesy classic rock. He makes a habit of attending the acts that show up in New Mexico stadiums, including Cher, Ringo Starr and Julio Iglesias. Invariably he'll meet with the stars. For a time, while governor, he held a membership in a local Jimmy Buffett fan club.

Second, Richardson is no lightweight. He is a big guy who knows it. Since becoming governor he has taken to the bicycle to try to keep in shape, puffing up and down bike paths in Albuquerque with friends and security guards whenever he can. When I joined him on one of these excursions, I clocked our average speed at about 10 miles per hour. Nonetheless, he rode for about 13 miles, chugging along slowly in a sweat suit and Lance Armstrong-esque wraparound sunglasses.

If Richardson decides to run for president, he will not have the heartwarming military story of Sen. John McCain. Nor will he have the catalog-perfect children of Sen. John Edwards (Richardson and his wife, Barbara, have no children) to trot along the campaign trail. Which doesn't seem to matter to Richardson: "I'm not going to try to weave in anything personal," he says.

What Richardson needs now, observers agree, is more exposure of the North Korean and New Hampshire kind. Otherwise, he risks being merely an interesting sidelight to attention-grabbing potential candidates like Sen. Clinton. "He's the girl at the dance who hasn't been seen by many of the guys," Monahan says.

Comments like this make Richardson chortle. "My approach is going to be: Here I am; this is me," Richardson says. "What you see is what you get."

By Shea Andersen

Shea Andersen covered Bill Richardson for over three years as a reporter and columnist for the Albuquerque Tribune. He has also written for Reuters, High Country News and New West Network. He lives in Boise, Idaho.

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2008 Elections Al Gore Bill Clinton Bill Richardson North Korea