The Pro-Familia Candidate

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007

A couple of months ago a reporter in Washington asked Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson why he thought he could do well next year in the California primary. Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, paused for a moment, stared at his questioner, and then ran through a comprehensive, policy-oriented list: Western governor, strong on environment, solid on immigration, pro-growth to please the Silicon Valley folks, and so on.

He paused. Leaned forward.

"Plus I'm Hispanic," he said. "Did you know that?"

He was teasing, but it's a real strategic issue for a candidate with a vanilla name. He's convinced that even a lot of Hispanics don't know his background -- that he's the son of an American father and a Mexican mother and spent his childhood in Mexico City until coming to America to start the eighth grade.

It's no accident that he chose Los Angeles as the place where he'll announce officially today that he's seeking the presidency.

"I'm not running as a Hispanic candidate, but I'm trying to convince Hispanics that I am Hispanic, and they don't know," he told The Post during a swing through Washington last week. "I go to Los Angeles, they don't know I'm Hispanic. When they know, it's positive. So it's a question of building that."

The name throws people off, he said. But he's also never played up his ethnicity.

"I think of myself as an American governor who happens to be Hispanic and is very proud of it. I've never run as a Hispanic."

Which means?

"That you only deal with Hispanic issues, that you only appeal to Hispanic voters. And I've never done that. In a state like New Mexico, where you have to appeal to conservative voters, Anglo voters, Native American voters. You have to appeal to all voters."

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have stirred discussion about gender and race in presidential politics, but Richardson's ethnicity hasn't gotten much attention. Partly this is because Richardson's echo-chamber message has been experience, experience, experience. His pitch is that he's a doer, an executive, not just one of those senatorial windbags. He knows that Americans tend to go for governors in presidential elections.

He was elected to Congress in 1982, and later served as ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. Along the way he became known as an international troubleshooter, and found himself in sensitive negotiations with the likes of Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. It's an impressive résumé, though collectively it may make him seem all over the place. A man with a fuzzy profile.

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