Insiders Say Richardson Is Well Equipped to Guard U.S. Interests at Commerce

President-elect Barack Obama has nominated Gov. Bill Richardon for Secretary of Commerce. Richardson is currently the governor of New Mexico. Video by AP
By Peter Slevin and Michael Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 4, 2008

CHICAGO, Dec. 3 -- With his choice of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as commerce secretary, President-elect Barack Obama broke with tradition, putting a longtime public servant in a position that has recently been held by private-sector executives.

Richardson, who was one of Obama's rivals for the Democratic nomination, has spent almost his entire career in prominent government roles -- as a governor, congressman, United Nations ambassador and energy secretary. Obama cited the range of Richardson's experience in naming him to his economic team Wednesday, saying he would be a domestic strategist and "a leading economic diplomat."

"Bill Richardson is a leader who shares my values, and he measures progress the same way I do: Are we creating good jobs instead of losing them? Are incomes growing instead of shrinking?" Obama said.

Richardson, 61, the first Latino selected for Obama's Cabinet, delivered a key endorsement to Obama after dropping out of the Democratic race. Despite having served in President Bill Clinton's administration, he endorsed Obama over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, prompting a member of the Clinton camp to call him "Judas."

In brief remarks Wednesday, Richardson dismissed the idea that the Obama Cabinet is "a team of rivals." He said he would focus on Obama's agenda of economic recovery, including a "future of energy independence and clean-energy jobs."

Richardson's nomination marks a break with recent choices for the agency. President Bush's first commerce secretary, energy executive Donald Evans, was a close family friend. He was replaced by Carlos Gutierrez, former chairman of Kellogg.

Former Commerce officials and interest group representatives with close ties to the department said Richardson's diplomatic experience will help him promote international trade and protect the interests of U.S. companies, particularly in dealings with China.

"He has great relationships with foreign governments around the world from his U.N. experience," said Stuart Eisenstat, former commerce undersecretary and ambassador to the European Union during the Clinton administration. "The center of gravity on trade has shifted, and I think he'll be very, very active there."

Richardson was a seven-term member of Congress before resigning to serve as Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations. He later served as energy secretary and was elected twice as New Mexico's governor.

His diplomatic troubleshooting career included face-to-face meetings with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Cuba's Fidel Castro and a host of North Korean officials. He once flew to a rebel outpost in Sudan to negotiate the release of three Red Cross workers.

On Wednesday, Richardson switched from English to Spanish to thank Hispanics for their support and confidence. He also said he aims to strengthen connections between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Obama dismissed the idea, posed by a reporter at Wednesday's news conference in Chicago, that commerce secretary was a consolation prize for Richardson, who had made no secret of his desire to be secretary of state, a nomination that went to Sen. Clinton.

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