Richardson meets the locals

Democratic presidential contender Bill Richardson, here addressing a group of Nevadans at the Gold-N-Silver Restaurant, is cultivating support around the state.

Democratic presidential contender Bill Richardson, here addressing a group of Nevadans at the Gold-N-Silver Restaurant, is cultivating support around the state.

Photo By Carol Cizauskas

Twenty people slowly filled the small meeting room at the Gold-N-Silver restaurant in Reno. Eggs and sausage and fresh-brewed coffee were served to people at rows of tables arranged in a U-shape.

As the room filled, the guest of honor entered almost unnoticed and seated himself at the center of the U. He quietly looked over his notes. The guests continued talking, some unaware he was already there.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson declared his candidacy for president just five days earlier, putting him in the running against better known Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Gold-N-Silver gathering was closed to the press. It was intended to be a meeting of Richardson with potential local supporters.

“I know I’m an underdog,” Richardson said to the group of long-time Democrats. He spent the next 45 minutes wooing the group in an understated manner not usually employed by politicians (at one point he conceded that he’s not “well polished").

“I’m a Westerner, like you,” Richardson said on why he was stumping Nevada so early in the campaign (besides Nevada’s second place in the national caucus lineup). “I want to be able, when I campaign in the West, to wear blue jeans.” On this day, though, Richardson was wearing beige chinos and a dark blue suit jacket—a classic Yuppie uniform, but on him it looked toned down, almost rumpled.

A golden resumé
Richardson spoke on Sunday morning following a Saturday night dinner for more than 240 Democrats in Minden, where he stumped with fellow presidential candidate Wesley Clark, at each stop hoping to win over some people who will attend Nevada’s January 2008 precinct caucuses.

The 59-year-old Richardson has a long history on the national stage: U.S. Representative from 1983 to ‘97, then ambassador to the United Nations, Secretary of Energy in the Clinton cabinet and now two-term Democratic governor in a red state.

“I’m running for president,” Richardson said, “because I believe that … we need to bring this country together. The partisan divide is so huge. Republicans and Democrats—there’s an absence of civility. In the Congress, they get nothing done. In the administration, they’re bereft of ideas. They’re arrogant.”

As U.N. ambassador, he negotiated international agreements. As New Mexico governor during the Bush presidency, Richardson was approached by the North Koreans to help them work out differences with the United States. His latest negotiation achieved a 60-day cease-fire in Darfur reached in three days of talks last month. Not many presidential candidates or state governors can claim such foreign affairs experience.

“The bad guys like to talk to Gov. Richardson because that is one of his particular skills … negotiating and talking to people,” Reynaldo Martinez said. The volunteer chairman for Richardson’s Nevada campaign, Martinez is known for 16 years as U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s chief of staff.

But do people think Richardson is a winning candidate?

“I do,” Martinez said. “The reason that I do is that I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter,” he said. “The first meeting I ever attended with Jimmy Carter in Nevada, we had five people. … It was just amazing what President Carter did on the grass-roots level. And I really think that Governor Richardson has that ability to connect with real people.”

It’s easy to compare Richardson to Jimmy Carter. There’s the same idealism tempered by practical service in international affairs. There’s the governorship of two less urban states. There’s a comfortable way of interacting and talking and dressing.

Beyond the ability to negotiate and a desire to collapse the vitriolic partisan divide in the United States, Richardson has a set of policies he’s formulated. Others he’s still working on, which he candidly admits.

The New Mexico governor said he’s a strong Western candidate because of his environmentalist policies. “Another huge problem that I would tackle is global warming,” he said. “I can tell you, it’s there.” Richardson wants a worldwide effort to develop renewable energy technology. He’s also for nuclear power because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. The governor believes that the United States must curtail its dependence on energy from other countries. He recognizes that water is a major issue facing the West.

As president, Richardson said he would stop Yucca Mountain from becoming the nation’s nuclear waste repository. As Congressman, he voted against Yucca. As Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, he stopped forward movement on Yucca until science could prove it safe, which he said he never saw.

“I wouldn’t have it here,” the candidate said in the closed gathering Sunday. “I’m not going to have it here.”

Where he stands
Among analysts, he is known as the Latino candidate, but he told the breakfast group, “I want the Hispanic vote, but your president represents everybody.” His policy on illegal immigration is a mixture of a get-tough stand for no amnesty and a desire to allow current immigrants to become citizens.

Richardson said he would withdraw troops from Iraq within the year and establish a U.S.-led Iraqi negotiation on redistribution of governance and money. He would invite other countries in the Middle East to determine how best to help Iraq re-build—including Syria and Iran.

“I would get them in a room, I’d have the U.S. lead this effort,” he said. “There is going to be power sharing. You’re going to divide the ministries, the oil revenue, the civil administration, the security.”

Summing up his political positions, Richardson said he wants accountability. He talked about balancing the budget as governor in a state where failure to do so is impeachable. He talked about the fiscal responsibility he would take as president. He said that when new plans are implemented, they should be tested for results. No results, cancel the plan.

He defined himself as a politician this way: “I call myself a progressive, but a new progressive.”

When he went over issues and answered questions at the Gold-N-Silver talk, and particularly on issues where he was still formulating his position, he often said to his questioners, “What do you think?” It was a question posed several times, and a question other states may hear in the coming months. It resonated with some of those Richardson wants to support him.

“He was very professional. When he didn’t know an answer, he talked about that and was willing to look at it,” Stephanie Lamboley said at the gathering. She’s a 20-year Reno resident who just returned to the Silver State. “I think the fact that he didn’t have all the answers impressed me more than anything else.”

The people sharing breakfast with Richardson on Sunday morning were treated to a candidate who didn’t want to stop questioning and developing his answers. When an aide let him know that it was time to leave, Richardson stuck around for a few more minutes.

“I like all this stuff,” he said. “I’m learning. I’m getting my shtick together.”

On the way out the door, he took time to respond to a question. What three things should Nevadans who want Richardson for president say to undecided voters?

“One, that I will protect the environment and prevent nuclear waste from happening … that I will preserve the environmental treasures of Nevada, the Lake, the valleys, rivers. That’s No. 1, the environment.

“No. 2 … rural Nevada. That I would be a candidate that talks about rural issues, like rural jobs tax credits, private property rights, preservation of the cultural Western heritage, like the Second Amendment.

“And thirdly, that I would be a candidate that will recognize the importance of economic development and job creation—high-wage jobs.”

And then, as usual, Richardson asked a question. “How can we be sure that we use the tax system to attract clean industry to Nevada?”

With that, he left the Gold-N-Silver meeting room, escorted by his handlers, to meet the press and depart for his next stop.