The seminal moment in Bill Richardson's life came shortly before he was born. His father, a headstrong American banker who worked and lived in Mexico City, told his pregnant wife in the fall of 1947 to pack for a brief trip across the U.S. border.
So she gathered a few things and headed north to deliver her baby. In those days, border officials saw nothing unusual about a pregnant Mexican woman wanting to enter Southern California, so she crossed without incident and headed for Pasadena.
The boy arrived a few days later -- a native born U.S. citizen -- and without as much as a tour of the community, the two returned home.
That moment, and the delicate balancing that it suggests, began the lifelong conflict that Richardson has had with roots. People read his name or hear his voice, and they think Anglo. People see his mestizo features or listen to him address an audience in fluent Spanish, and they think Latino.
His life has been a straddle of those two worlds. Often it has required negotiation and nuance, but largely Richardson has proved remarkably adaptive and adoptive. He endured being derisively called "Pancho" by classmates at his elite U.S. prep school, but later in life has repeatedly found himself comfortable precisely because people don't always see him in one dimension. He has made an art form of being able to understand what his adversary wanted and using that to get what he wants. He has had side tours to negotiate with dictators, to free hostages, to get a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist out of jail in Darfur.
He is a gun-toting Westerner schooled in the northeast. He is the rare Red Sox fan who can also cheer for the Yankees.
So it is hardly surprising that he chose a career in politics, and employed a style that does not see compromise as a bad thing. In public life, he has had an unbroken string of successes, from Tufts University to Congress to a Cabinet post to the New Mexico Governor's Mansion.
And, more than anything, William Blaine Richardson is trying to persuade Americans that his resume and life experience make him the most qualified candidate to be the next president of the United States.
His heritage makes his candidacy unique, but also creates its own set of burdens. On the stump, Richardson often raises the issue first, such as when he was addressing an all-white audience recently in Iowa Falls: "I'm Bill Richardson, and though I might not look like a Richardson is supposed to look, I'm a Latino," he tells a crowd of 200.
"I want you to know my father was an American," he adds, as though the emphasis is needed.
It is typical of Richardson, posing the uncomfortable question himself, then providing the answer. It's a disarming, self-effacing, even humorous side that has helped his upstart candidacy make its way to the middle of the pack, with hopes that should the leaders falter, voters will turn to him.
Yet Richardson can also be defensive. He has snapped when questioned about this identity, especially by those who disagree with his views on immigration and U.S. relations with Mexico.
Such flashes, though, are rare. Richardson is clearly a candidate at ease in the press-the-flesh, slap-the-back retail politics of Iowa. There is a physicality to him that only seems to help, as if he is ever ready to wrap someone in a huge hug.
He is strapping and 6 foot 3, a former college baseball pitcher with professional potential. He is also portly, and some have even measured the seriousness of his presidential ambitions by the inches he had lost from his ample waistline.
His path to the White House begins in Iowa; a state that's only about 4 percent Latino, and that is just one measure of the hill he must climb if he is to get past his better-known opponents.
Yet he is also a man who in three decades has never lost an election. And his stamina is just one reason. A desire to win, at everything, made it easy for Richardson to shake 13,392 hands one day five years ago, setting a new high mark recorded by Guinness World Records.
There is a decidedly rumpled quality to him. His critics say his appearance is a marker of his lack of discipline. In many of the recent candidate debates, Richardson has seemed almost startled by certain questions and then struggles to condense his responses into the sound bites proving so effective for other contenders.
It is both a blessing and a burden for a man who could hit a baseball from either side of the plate. The ability to see all sides of an argument and sometimes advocate multiple sides has served him well as a skilled negotiator and during his rise to power in Washington, D.C.
In less formal settings, Richardson's disarming style has been an important advantage. That straightforward candor is on display at this gathering in rural Iowa, peppered with a few political gaffes he jokes about during presidential debates.
"Shooting straight" as they say in New Mexico, got him elected to a second term with 61 percent of the vote, and though he remains popular, his nearly five years in the Governor's Mansion have not been without controversy. Much of it focused on Richardson's making it possible for state residents to carry firearms in public and questions about "wasteful spending."
Shooting straight can also produce friction. Even with its minuscule Latino population, the Hawkeye State is struggling to understand the impact of a surge in immigrants. "What are we going to do about illegal immigration?" a woman at the Iowa Falls forum asks.
Richardson pauses momentarily; gathering his thoughts because he knows the answer will not earn an applause line.
"I'll tell you my views on this, but first I want to say my views are not popular," he begins, pacing back and forth in a restaurant with deer heads mounted on the walls. "Before you come to a conclusion, hear me out."
His views on immigration are designed to appeal to both sides of the divisive issue. As a border governor, he has cracked down on illegal border crossing, but for those who have arrived, he has extended a hand of compassion. He has taken a tough stand on illegal immigrants by opposing another round of amnesty and last year dispatched New Mexico's National Guard to its border with Mexico to stop a flood of Mexicans from coming into his state.
Yet, he has also made it possible for 30,000 undocumented residents in New Mexico to get state driver's licenses since 2003.
But because his ties run deep on both sides of the border, Richardson struggles with his answer. His political career is on one side, and his elderly mother and sister, a physician, reside on the other.
Perhaps that's why his views often don't please those on either side of the debate.
He tells voters he would "scrap the No Child Left Behind Act and start over." There needs to be health care accessible for every American, he adds, and insists the nation should be willing to forgive a student's college loans in return for a year of government service.
And on the major issue of the day -- the war in Iraq -- Richardson breaks sharply from other leading contenders. He says he would pull all troops out within a year.
'He is always prepared ...'
Not all of his views are that clear-cut. Richardson, a Roman Catholic, culls important principles from his faith, he says. Those are beliefs that have shaped his views on everything from advocating for greater access to health care to gun owner's rights. But he defies church orthodoxy by supporting the death penalty and favoring abortion rights.
Some of his views also can be found in his collection of aphorisms called "Richardson's Rules." Such things as "Learn as much as possible about your adversary. Find something your adversary likes and use it to your advantage. Be discreet and don't volunteer too much information."
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery of Kansas, a fellow Democrat, served in the House with Richardson and called his methods "very successful, because he is always prepared for you."
Mickey Ibarra, a longtime friend and former top White House assistant to President Bill Clinton, describes Richardson this way: "Bill is a man who wants to see results. It's a quality that has set him apart in this town," he explained. "He is not a person who wants to talk about an issue for a long, long time and then see nothing happen," he added.
Richardson's pragmatic approach to solving problems made him a very popular congressman and U.N. ambassador.
It certainly sheds light on why others criticize him for backing President Bush's invasion of Iraq. Now that the war has bogged down, Richardson favors ending it.
That is a view popular among a lot of Democrats, but it would require an exceptional bit of diplomacy, particularly with the Iraqi government.
It's just such delicate dances that Richardson likes to think of as his specialty: bringing people together.
Sometimes it has yielded wonderful results, especially when he's dangled goodies to win friends and help gain approval for projects such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, one of his signature legislative accomplishments. In other cases, his "hands-on" style has backfired, raising questions about how he treats others to get things done.
That quality helped him secure the release of a dozen hostages on foreign soil and return the remains of U.S. military personnel killed overseas. He asked for a meeting with Sudan's leaders in 2006, winning the release of Chicago Tribune journalist Paul Salopek and others in his reporting crew after Salopek's wife wrote Richardson seeking his intervention. The couple maintain a residence in New Mexico.
As governor of New Mexico, he twisted arms and convinced state and local officials to build a $400 million Albuquerque commuter rail line, even though a taxpayer watchdog group contends it's faster to take the freeway.
Richardson's charm begins with a warm smile, his arm on your shoulder and a firm handshake.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Richardson spoke persuasively and dangled a wonderful treat in exchange for his vote to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
"He told me 'vote for NAFTA' and we'll get President Clinton to make you the public face for U.S. citizenship," recalled Gutierrez. "He said, 'you want me to get President Clinton on the line?'"
The day Gutierrez voted against NAFTA, the Chicago Democrat recalled, the offer went up in smoke. But Richardson never stopped talking to him.
Richardson's persona was shaped as a boy living in an upper class section of Mexico City in the 1950s. Richardson's parents married in 1936 when his father was 46 and his mother 22. His sister Vesta was born in 1955. It's where he found himself between two powerful influences: his father, a U.S. bank branch manager, and two nurturing women, his mother and grandmother.
In those days, Richardson's parents would lose track of the boy, only to find him playing baseball with children in the poor barrios. When he returned home, a tutor would sit him down for French lessons.
By the time Richardson turned 11, he felt more comfortable speaking Spanish than English, he says. That's when the man Richardson's grandparents called "El Gringo" decided to send his son to Middlesex School, a private secondary school in rural Massachusetts where he would be forced to speak English and assimilate.
Then it was on to Tufts University where he played on the college baseball team and became president of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. By 19, Richardson was already dating his future wife, Barbara. The couple have been married for 35 years and have no children. Barbara Richardson declined to be interviewed.
A college deferment and a nasal problem kept him out of the Vietnam War, he adds, though it didn't hamper his baseball career at Tufts -- a college his father selected for him and where he was known as a power pitcher with a wicked curve. For three decades Richardson claimed he was drafted by a Major League Baseball team in the 1960s, but recanted two years ago after a state newspaper found no evidence to support his claim.
A lapse in memory, he says in his defense, fades in comparison to all the good work he's done in Washington, D.C., and in New Mexico.
Richardson drifted from one challenge to the next during his years working for President Clinton, including serving as Cabinet secretary for the "snake pit" Department of Energy from 1998 to 2000. During much of his time there, Richardson was mired in security scandals at the nation's nuclear labs, especially at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The security quagmire erupted months after he became energy secretary, and an investigation later found classified U.S. secret nuclear data had been downloaded from a top-secret computer network onto portable computer tapes. Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a lab employee, was linked to the incident and fired -- though some tapes went missing.
Richardson took the heat for that scandal, even though he claims he inherited an agency with morale problems and other issues.
What's important, he says, are all the home runs he's hit in public service, including his tenure as governor of New Mexico. But his five years as chief executive have not been without personal controversy and questions about spending in a state requiring an annual balanced budget. At the same time, he also boasts of cutting taxes.
Some taxpayer groups have criticized him for, among other things, wasteful spending on a $400,000 study to assess whether the region could support a National Football League team; signing into law a measure making medical marijuana legal; and pushing for more than $100 million in public funds to build a private "spaceport" to promote space tourism.
His thick head of black hair seems to stand on end when asked about his behavior around New Mexico's Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. Denish says Richardson, in a playful way, touched her on the hip, leg and neck two years ago.
The behavior has stopped of late, she explained in a telephone interview recently.
"The governor is a hands-on person," said Denish, a co-chairman of Richardson presidential campaign. "I wouldn't be honest to say it didn't irritate me."
When asked about the incident, Richardson said he didn't mean anything sexual. Nor did he mean to offend. "But that's who I am," he explained.
Richardson says it's all in good fun. Like the time he called former Vice President Al Gore, "Albert." Even after Gore told him he prefers "Al." He has also called Sen. John Kerry "Johnny" -- though he knew the Massachusetts senator didn't like that either.
It's nothing more than a fun means of breaking the ice, he insists.
Kay Odell, an 83-year-old Iowa Falls retiree, finds Richardson's appeal very down-to-earth. His views on immigration are solid, she says, as is his experience negotiating with world leaders -- some of them bullies such as the late Yassar Arafat, Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Cuba's Fidel Castro.
While campaigning, Richardson seems to draw energy from crowds that gather to hear him speak. He's not afraid to make biblical references in his remarks, including how he would spend his first week in the White House.
In the first six days as chief executive, Richardson explains, he would end the war, promote a program to curtail U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, propose a universal health care plan, eliminate the No Child Left Behind Act because it relies too much on student testing and close the controversial U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On the seventh day, he adds, slightly out of breath, "I would rest."
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