New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to be the Secretary of Commerce according to several published reports. The former Clinton administration Energy Secretary and Ambassador to the United Nations represents the first high-profile Latino to be appointed to President-elect Obama’s inner circle.
A former presidential candidate whose endorsement was coveted by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the Democratic primary campaign, Richardson surprised many when, after leaving the race, he endorsed Obama despite his close association with the Clintons. It was one of the first cracks in the Clinton armor and helped connect the Illinois senator to the nation’s Latino community. It was a bold but highly personal move on the part of Richardson, who was literally painted a turncoat by Clinton ally, political consultant James Carville. Though Senator Clinton carried the bulk of the Latino vote during the party primaries, Richardson’s support was instrumental in flipping New Mexico from “red” to “blue” on November 4 and served as a conduit for Latino support throughout the country.
Bill Richardson is an accomplished public servant and perhaps has one of the most impressive backgrounds of any public official currently serving in the nation. He was elected to Congress from New Mexico’s 3rd District in 1982 after having narrowly lost two years earlier. During his term in the House of Representatives Richardson served as chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. In that capacity Richardson sponsored a number of bills aimed at restoring the rights of American Indians in relation to natural resources.
Richardson also developed an extensive track record in foreign relations, a natural area of interest given his graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. In 1995 he traveled to Iraq and met with Saddam Hussein and secured the release of two American aerospace workers. It was one of several instances when his diplomatic skills were called into service during the Clinton administration.
Having become a trusted adviser on foreign affairs, Richardson received the confidence of President Clinton and was awarded with the appointment as United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He was later picked by Clinton to serve as Secretary of Energy. One of the highlights of his tenure at Energy was when he oversaw the largest return ever of federal lands (84,000 acres) to the Northern Ute Tribe of Utah.
Upon leaving government Richardson became an adjunct professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and joined a consulting firm headed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Clinton White House chief of staff Mack McLarty.
Bill Richardson was elected governor of New Mexico in November 2002, defeating his Republican opponent 56-39 percent. When he took office the following January he was the lone Latino governor in the United States. While governor his international forays continued as he helped negotiate the release of an imprisoned journalist in Sudan. One of his triumphs in office was making New Mexico the first state to offer $400,000 in life insurance coverage to National Guard troops on active duty. Thirty five states have since done likewise. During his governorship Richardson was also named chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
Richardson is looked upon fairly favorable by the nation’s business leadership. Forbes magazine heralded his work as governor and named Albuquerque the best city in the nation for business and carriers. He was also cited by the Cato Institute as one of the most fiscally responsible Democratic governors in the nation.
As Commerce Secretary Richardson will be the administration’s conduit to the nation’s business leadership and will undoubtedly play a significant role in working out the terms of the President-elect’s economic recovery package. His skill at negotiating will come in handy as Mr. Obama will have to determine what concessions he must draw from private industry seeking the federal government’s assistance. His broad international experience should also serve him well as the nation’s financial woes are tied to a global economy. Having previously served in a presidential administration, Richardson’s Senate confirmation should be a formality.