Presidential hopeful deserves better look than he’s getting |

Presidential hopeful deserves better look than he’s getting

by John L. Smith

He’s the dynamic son of parents from different ethnic backgrounds. If successful, his long-shot campaign for president would be historic by placing the first minority in the nation’s highest office.

So why aren’t more people buzzing about the candidacy of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson?

While the press continues to gush and enthuse at Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, recently sinking to the laughable low of pondering whether he was “black enough” to win black voters, Richardson’s candidacy bumps along in comparative obscurity. On the upside, to date I know of no sober political pundit who has wondered aloud whether Richardson is “Hispanic enough.”

For the record, he is the son of a Mexican mother and Anglo father. (His just-published autobiography is titled “Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life.”) Not that the major media are penning journalistic sonnets about him.

Although the Nevada Today Web site’s recent small-sample survey has Richardson ahead of the competition with slightly less than a year to go before the Nevada Democratic Caucus, it doesn’t take a Gallup Poll to figure Richardson’s name isn’t well-recognized. His political celebrity is eclipsed by Obama, Hillary Clinton and even John Edwards. With the first Democratic presidential forum Wednesday in Carson City, many eyes were on presumed front-runner Clinton.

Obama, who missed the forum, is a dynamic speaker and a remarkable American success story. But you don’t need all day to read his resume.

Richardson, meanwhile, has served as a governor, congressman, secretary of Energy and ambassador to the United Nations. He’s taken part in successful hostage negotiations involving Iraq, North Korea and Cuba. He’s been on the ground to seek a cease-fire in Darfur, Sudan.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Obama. The fact is no declared Democrat can match Richardson’s work experience.

Of course, that experience cuts both ways. Although he has a keen understanding of Nevada’s longtime battle against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Richardson can be faulted for not accomplishing more as Energy secretary. Although he’s logged plenty of face time with foreign ministers and volatile heads of rogue nations, Richardson can be thumped for his tenure as U.N. ambassador. Although he was re-elected as governor with 69 percent of the vote, he has his critics in New Mexico.

Voters might not like his stance on immigration – a guest-worker program, path to citizenship, increased physical border security and U.S.-Mexico political fence-mending, not fence-building – they can’t say he lacks an intimate understanding of the issue.

In short, Richardson gives his critics and voters a track record to chew on.

Not that Americans have always cared about experience. When it comes to the presidency, voters have often been moved more by dynamic characters than by capable journeymen.

One more thing: Richardson is the only Democratic candidate who gets his mail in the West.

His candidacy could conceivably put the real West, which excludes California, Oregon and Washington, in play for the Democrats for the first time in many years. Real West voters, a generally conservative lot, have greeted recent Democratic presidential nominees about as warmly as extras from the set of “Brokeback Mountain.”

With only $2 million banked, Richardson is a political pauper. He may not have the financial steam or party support to win nationwide, but Richardson on a presidential ticket would give the Democrats a chance to compete in the West.

In Nevada, Richardson’s senior contact is Reynaldo Martinez, who served 16 years as Harry Reid’s House and Senate chief of staff before leaving Washington in 1998. When Richardson contemplated running for the presidency, he sought the counsel of Martinez, his friend of 35 years.

“Others can talk about what they’ll do,” Martinez says. “He can talk about what he’s done. He can talk all day about Nevada. The other folks have a learning curve.”

And then there’s the potential impact of invigorated Latino voters, who might find inspiration in Richardson.

“I think Bill Richardson is a guy who will give Latinos a reason to register and go to the caucus,” Martinez says.

We’ll see. For Richardson, the Westerner, success in Nevada is imperative.

Bill Richardson may be a long shot to make presidential history in 2008, but it’s hard to doubt he has the experience to do the job.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.