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?"
John Grubesic, a former Democratic state senator and frequent Richardson critic, likened the governor's status to "a hangover," saying: "The hard-charging Richardson we all knew, that just vanished, and I think he's still depressed."
Richardson acknowledges having been "disappointed" about withdrawing. But here in Santa Fe, he enjoys what many might consider an idyllic life. He wakes up in a sprawling house in the desert hills with stunning views of this old Spanish colony. He works out, plays tennis and shoots skeet. Riding his horse, named Toby (after the country singer Toby Keith), has become his passion. "It's kind of a sense of solitude," he said. "It's the one time I can get away from BlackBerrys and cells."
One morning last week, Richardson sat at the head of his dining table. Country music played quietly in the background. The governor's wavy black hair was slicked back, his salt-and-pepper beard was tightly trimmed, and his feet were covered in cowboy boots. A Western bolo tie and Mickey Mantle commemorative cuff links adorned his black shirt, which fit snugly around his paunch.
Two women on his wait staff served huevos rancheros with green chili sauce, bacon, fresh fruit and white corn tortillas.
Richardson has never been known for eating delicately, and as a photographer snapped pictures, an aide asked, "Can I do a little cosmetic thing here, Governor?"
"I've got a little egg?"
"Just on your upper lip there."
"You'll protect me, won't cha?" Richardson pleaded with the photographer.
Questioned about his relationship with Bill Clinton, Richardson let out a deep belly laugh and nearly spit out his breakfast.
"Nonexistent. He's ticked off with me," he said. "I still have his picture here. I still enjoy my service with him. I don't bear grudges, but he apparently does, but that's okay. That's politics."
But the man who says he is at peace outside Washington still talks regularly with Hillary Clinton about foreign policy. He held two fundraisers for her to help retire her campaign debt and counseled her before her visit to Mexico City last month. Richardson also continues to serve as a kind of ad hoc diplomat with difficult governments.
"With these countries that are different and difficult, you establish a personal relationship," he said. "I have that kind of relationship with the North Koreans, with the Sudanese, with the Cubans, with the Iranians."
Richardson is said to have been in contact with North Korean leaders after they launched a long-range missile earlier this month, but that is a subject he declined to discuss.
Last week, the governor was preoccupied with trying to free Roxana Saberi, an American journalist who was arrested in January in Iran and accused of spying for the United States. Richardson negotiated with Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, to allow Saberi's parents to travel to Iran to see their daughter. But he remains frustrated that the talks have stretched for weeks with no resolution.
Richardson does not like to waste time. On this day, he made the 67-mile trek between Santa Fe and Albuquerque four times, racing to build his legacy. He signed energy bills offering tax credits for renewable energy, as well as legislation that creates stricter accountability measures in public schools. He attended the home opener of the Albuquerque Isotopes, the minor-league baseball team.
He also was preparing for a trip to Rome this week, where he would have an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Richardson recently signed a measure repealing the death penalty in New Mexico, so the Roman Catholic Church planned to light up the Colosseum in the state's honor.
Richardson also visited the Albuquerque soundstage where a crew was filming the movie "The Book of Eli." It is the latest of more than 100 feature films and television series shot in the state since the governor began offering tax incentives to production companies.
"Arnold's ticked off at me because we steal his movies," Richardson said of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who is a friend.
When he arrived on set, Richardson, always a star on his own stage, was as much a celebrity among the local crew as the movie's leading man, Denzel Washington. ("The man who inspired my beard," one crew member said as the governor walked in.)
"Hey, champ, good to see you," Richardson told Washington.
"Good to be seen by you," the actor replied.
Soon, back on the road, Richardson pondered his future. He has been knocked down, but he knows it is possible to return in a blaze of glory.
"You know, I've got years ahead of me," he said. "I'm not a long-range planner."