New Mexico Gov. Richardson Sets Aside Political Aspirations -- for Now

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

SANTA FE, N.M. -- If all had gone according to plan, Bill Richardson would be at center stage in Washington, wheeling, dealing and glad-handing around the globe -- as president, or at least as secretary of state.

But Richardson remains the Democratic governor of New Mexico, barreling across the vast high desert here, the wind howling and the sand flying as he races to build a legacy and rebuild his career. The nation's most prominent Latino politician is stuck in virtual exile, term-limited from office in two years with no easy next step.

A federal pay-to-play investigation of his gubernatorial office forced Richardson in January to withdraw his nomination as commerce secretary, and the dark cloud of the investigation now hovers over his once-bright political future. The lifelong politician who craved the spotlight and longed to return to Washington says he has had enough -- at least for now.

"The end-all, be-all for many in politics is Washington," Richardson, 61, said last week over breakfast at the adobe-walled governor's mansion here, in his first extensive interview since withdrawing as President Obama's nominee for commerce secretary.

"I've been there, I've done service in the Congress, Cabinet, the U.N.," he continued, adding: "I don't miss it one bit. I really don't. I wish them well. I'm satisfied with what they're doing. I don't have to be part of it to feel satisfied. I really don't. This is hard convincing people because they know me, but I've found the ultimate job in being governor. I really have."

For years as a congressman and governor, Richardson commanded this sprawling and mostly rural state with sheer charisma, but the once-boyish political animal now appears aged, as though the accumulated stress of recent trials is weighing on him.

Last year, Richardson finished a distant fourth in the early Democratic presidential primaries and, despite serving as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, he endorsed Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Obama passed him over for secretary of state in favor of Hillary Clinton, offering instead the lower-profile commerce position.

Secretary-designate Richardson lasted 33 days before he was derailed by a federal grand jury investigating whether one of his campaign donors won state contracts because of pressure from the governor's office. The probe is moving along aggressively, sources close to the investigation said, and it is unclear whether Richardson could be indicted or what may become of his top aides, some of whom have been questioned.

The governor said he is "very confident that we did nothing wrong," but he complained that the inquiry "just drags on."

Still, damage has been done. Long a popular figure in New Mexico -- he was elected in 2002 with 56 percent of the vote and won reelection four years later with 68 percent, the highest margin in state history -- Richardson now is a lame duck whose approval rating is below 50 percent for the first time.

During the 60-day state legislative session that ended last month, the governor kept an unusually low profile, political observers here said.

"He's in this period of suspension," said Brian Sanderoff, who runs New Mexico's biggest polling company. "He just had this crown jewel, a Cabinet position, so close at hand and he had to take his name out of consideration because of all the investigations occurring. So, what is he striving for now?"

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