Sunbelt favorite son

Nevada Democrats think a western candidate is the party’s ticket for the presidency

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a possible Democratic presidential candidate, here visited Socorro, N.M. to sign some executive orders.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a possible Democratic presidential candidate, here visited Socorro, N.M. to sign some executive orders.

Courtesy Of N.M. Governor's Office

A group of Nevada Democrats have started a campaign to draft New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Richardson responded with a statement that did not knock the idea down.

“I am very encouraged and gratified by the support of these Nevada leaders for my potential candidacy for President,” he said. “Support at the grassroots level is the single most important factor for any potential Presidential candidate because the American people will decide the leader and the direction they want for this country.”

Reynaldo Martinez, once a leading Nevada political figure and an old friend of Richardson’s, announced the formation of the draft committee on Dec. 21, attracting enormous attention across the nation. By the next day, the Google news page recorded more than a hundred hits for the story, many of them linking the development to Nevada’s new role in hosting the second caucuses of the 2008 Democratic presidential nominating campaign.

Before becoming governor, Richardson was a member of Congress, cabinet member and U.N. ambassador.

Martinez, a former 12-year chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid who had retired from politics, said he had personal reasons for getting back in.

“My son flew 14 combat missions in Iraq during the [pre-war] no-fly zone, and everything went well. And now he’s at the peak of his life. He’s 35 years old, he’s a pilot, and my wife and I get a little emotional about this because the military’s stretched so thin that he is a prime candidate to go back there or Iran or whatever country we screw up. As a parent, I feel very strongly about this.”

Martinez said getting supporters to sign up onto the campaign was an “easy sell.” Other Nevadans involved in the campaign are Reno attorney Bill Thornton, former district judge John Mendoza of Las Vegas, University of Nevada Chancellor James Rogers and Washoe County Assessor Robert McGowan. Theresa Navarro, a realtor and prominent anti-gang activist in Reno, is coordinating the northern Nevada campaign. Martinez said the group deliberately did not notify Richardson of their plans.

Nevada’s Republican governor had some nice things to say about Richardson. In an interview with the News & Review, Guinn said, “I’ve gotten to know him quite well, and he’s a very fine gentleman. … We work quite well together and he’s been very supportive and very good to Nevada. And then when he was the secretary of energy, I worked with him, and he was very truthful and up front with me on the progress of Yucca Mountain, etcetera, and understood why we as Nevadans were adamantly against Yucca Mountain.”

Richardson’s stance as President Clinton’s energy secretary on Yucca Mountain was one of the reasons that some Nevada Democrats in 2004 hoped John Kerry would choose him as the vice presidential candidate. “I still believe that Yucca Mountain should not be the receptacle for waste,” Richardson said then ("Running west,” Apr. 1, 2004). “My position was that high-level wastes should be placed at existing [power plant] sites.”

The Nevada committee’s move took a lot of people who are supposedly in the know by surprise. “I don’t know anything about this,” Richardson’s aide Amanda Cooper told the New Mexican newspaper. She managed Richardson’s successful reelection. National Journal, a leading policy/politics magazine, posted a news release notifying reporters of an impending announcement “regarding the 2008 presidential campaign” on its “Hotline” blog under the headline, “We Don’t Know What The Heck This Is.” A day later, after the story broke, the magazine posted its story about the Richardson draft under the headline, “THIS is What The Heck That Was.”

In 2004, former NBC political reporter and Washington Week in Review moderator Ken Bode said that Richardson would bring a whole new dimension to national campaigns, and not just in urban states.

“Iowa has a lot of Latinos,” Bode said. “New York, Illinois—it’s a burgeoning population, and for the most part, it would be the target of the election. It’s the biggest floating bloc of voters that are not committed to one party or the other.” Richardson’s nomination, he said, would provide “an opportunity to cement Latinos in the Democratic Party” while giving Democrats a leg up in states like Nevada. Latinos make up more than a fifth of the Nevada electorate.

“In turnout, it would be the equivalent of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and ‘88 candidacies or Harold Washington running for mayor of Chicago,” Bode said. “Now, the Latino vote is not monolithic. Certainly Cubans are not going to abandon the Republican Party. But it would be a different matter in other segments of that community.”

Martinez argues that Richardson’s nomination would put four states that the Democrats would normally have difficulty winning within reach. “He’s going to put Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in play. We will have a chance to win those states and I don’t know of any other candidate who’s going to have that ability to do that.”

Martinez said he believes that Richardson is a consensus candidate who could negotiate the shoals of issues that play differently in Nevada’s rural and urban areas. The mining law of 1872 and water transfers, for instance, would likely draw different responses in the 2044 Democratic presidential caucuses in Reno and Las Vegas, than in the small counties. In fact, there are probably differences between the two urban areas on some issues, with water transfers more popular in Las Vegas than in Reno, where feeding growth with water from rural areas has been unpopular.

Martinez said, “There’s a lot of similarities in Nevada and New Mexico, and I think he will do well with all the major issues. … One of the things that Bill, his negotiating skills, is that he’s always looking for a win/win for everybody, and he knows that that’s the toughest thing to work on. All I can tell you is what I sense, that he can bring people to the table. … My confidence in him is that he can bring people together.”

He said he thinks that Richardson’s role as a governor will contrast with D.C.-based candidates who are legislators. “They can all talk about what they’re going to do, but he can talk about what he has done.”

In political circles, Richardson is a familiar figure in Nevada. He has been a frequent visitor to the state, both as energy secretary on nuclear waste issues and as governor. For instance, he spoke at the Nevada Women’s Summit in Las Vegas in 2004. Martinez once said that when Richardson was in the House of Representatives he was “Nevada’s third congressman.” He has drawn praise from some surprising places, with even Rush Limbaugh saying something nice about him three days before the Nevada draft committee was formed: “Bill Richardson wrote a letter of support to me during my legal imbroglio, pledging to do what he could to help keep medical records private and so forth.”

His principal handicap at the outset is a dispute that damaged his prospects for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 2000 that finally went to Sen. Joseph Lieberman. While serving as energy secretary, scientist Wen Ho Lee was unjustly accused of espionage activities at the Department of Energy facility at Los Alamos. Lee was later exonerated, pleading guilty to a technical offense. The judge in the case publicly apologized to him for his ordeal, and the U.S. government, the Associated Press, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post paid a total of $1.6 million for damage to his reputation.

Richardson was accused of personally leaking the scientist’s name to the press. In congressional testimony, former Department of Energy security chief Notra Trulock said Richardson was the source of the leak, but Richardson denied the charge in a sworn deposition, and no additional proof was ever offered. The Albuquerque Journal’s Adam Rankin reported that, in a lawsuit, Lee’s attorneys conducted a wide ranging search for proof of the charge, including interviews with 20 witnesses and an effort to force reporters to disclose their sources without ever proving the case against Richardson.

Martinez said he doesn’t know how much staying power the controversy over Lee has, but he points out that Richardson left the U.N. mission to take over the energy department only very reluctantly. “He didn’t want to be energy secretary. Who did?”

One political analyst, Lonna Atkeson, has pointed out that the political climate has changed since the Wen Ho Lee case unfolded. “It might be harder in a post 9/11 world to say that you were hurting someone’s privacy because of national security,” she said.

Martinez says he feels strongly enough about Richardson’s candidacy that it was the only thing that could lure him out of retirement.

“I’m almost 70 years old, and I’m going to do everything I can. And I’ve never felt this way about anybody since working for Sen. Reid.”