In search of Western Democrats

As a registered Democrat (believe it or not) who is thoroughly disillusioned with President Bush and the Republicans, I'm looking for a moderate Democrat to back for president in 2008 - someone like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who made an early campaign stop in Minden late last month.

I've admired Richardson ever since he was a bright young congressman while I was still serving in the U.S. Foreign Service. Knowledgeable about foreign affairs and a centrist on domestic policy, he reminds me of the Democratic senator I admired as I grew up in Seattle, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who fought international communism as hard as he fought for compassionate social programs.

A foreign policy moderate, Richardson has had some success in the international arena. Most recently, as one of the few American politicians the North Koreans will meet with, he went there to urge that nation's Communist leaders to give up their destabilizing nuclear weapons program.

As President Clinton's United Nations ambassador, Richardson earned the respect of the international community and has served both Democratic and Republican presidents as an effective, low-key global trouble-shooter. Moreover, as Clinton's Energy Secretary he dealt with western land and water issues, and understood Nevada's implacable opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which is on life support now that powerful Nevada Democrat Harry Reid is the Senate Majority Leader.

Although Richardson is Hispanic - the son of an American father and a Mexican mother - he doesn't wear his ethnicity on his sleeve, and neither does another Democratic presidential candidate, African-American Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Wisely, they choose not to campaign as hyphenated Americans, and that's a good thing.

More often than not, presidential candidates are elite Easterners who don't connect with Western voters. Most of the 18 (!) politicians who have already announced for president are Easterners or Southerners who know little if anything about the West - people like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani, who probably couldn't find Yucca Mountain on a map if their life depended on it. But Mrs. Clinton, Edwards, Obama and Richardson will know where Nevada is by next January when they'll compete head-to-head in statewide Democratic caucuses sandwiched between the Iowa caucuses and the all-important New Hampshire primary.

Edwards has already been here and Richardson headlined a "Turn Nevada Blue" dinner in Minden two weeks ago; however, I was troubled by what the governor said about Yucca Mountain. "I blocked the nuclear dump ... when I was (President Clinton's) Energy Secretary and insisted the location be based on science, not politics," he said. Well, not exactly, because Richardson supported the toxic project and his explanation echoes the "sound science" whopper President Bush told before he suddenly approved the nuclear waste dump in 2002. Yucca Mountain isn't about science; it's about politics, and has been ever since Congress passed the infamous "Screw Nevada" bill in 1987.

Time magazine's Joe Klein recognized the importance of the West in a recent article about what western Democrats can teach their party. Noting that the Democratic National Convention will be held in Denver next year, Klein predicted that the West will be a key political battleground in 2008. "There's a distinct Rocky Mountain Democratic agenda, which emphasizes pragmatism and moderation," he wrote. "Some of the issues are local and perennial, including how to manage growth and resources like water in the nation's fastest-growing region."

Klein singled out governors Richardson, Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Brian Schweitzer of Montana along with senators Ken Salazar of Colorado and newly elected Jon Tester of Montana as western Democrats who "get it." Although Klein wrote that Richardson "sometimes tries a bit too hard at playing the western card," I disagree because he's a successful governor with deep roots in our part of the country and a keen understanding of regional issues. In fact, we might be able to turn him around on Yucca Mountain with the help of our own Sen. Reid.

According to Klein, "The Democratic Party is being reborn (in the West) with a raft of colorful candidates who have won the hearts of independents and moderate Republican voters." That's true in Nevada, where Democrats now occupy three statewide offices previously held by Republicans. So the Silver State isn't nearly as "red" as it used to be, thanks to an unpopular president and GOP congressional scandals. Once President Bush lied to us about Yucca Mountain, he was in deep doo-doo (that's how they say "problem" in Texas) around here. And he still is as we sink deeper and deeper into the Iraqi quagmire.

During an early debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls in Carson City on Feb. 21, we'll have a firsthand opportunity to hear what they say about Yucca Mountain and other western regional issues, and we should rule out any of them who don't know how to pronounce the name of our state. To paraphrase an old movie, The politicians are coming! The politicians are coming! Run for the hills.

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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