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The Washington Post

Bill Richardson, Looming Large

The Democrats' Hot Property Is Everywhere but on a Ticket

By Mark Leibovich

September 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

Bill Richardson holds forth with reporters at an Albuquerque restaurant, above, where he and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe grab a bite to eat, below. "You can't go a full day without seeing him on TV," says McAuliffe of the man often considered a possible vice presidential candidate.
(PHOTO: Pat Vasquez-Cunningham
The Albuquerque Journal Via AP)


ALBUQUERQUE - There are so many bases to touch, it's getting late and Bill Richardson is a man in a supersize hurry.

"Let's do this fast, in and out," Richardson says as he slams the door of his SUV and barrels into the Hilton lobby.

"After this I want to pop the Lieberman thing, then the Edwards thing. Let's try to do this one in, like, 10 minutes."

Like, no way. Everyone wants a piece of Richardson these days, which is fine, because the feeling is mutual and there's plenty of his supersize life to go around. But it all takes time, 20 minutes for him to navigate hugs and autograph demands in a short hallway en route to a reception.

"Señor vice presidente," a woman says, kissing his right jowl. This is about the two-dozenth time in the last hour that someone has alluded (in English or Spanish) to the governor of New Mexico's possible spot on the Democratic ticket in 2004.

"Hey, Howard Dean," Richardson says, turning into a reception room.

"Hey, you're everywhere," the former Vermont governor tells Richardson, "everywhere" meaning at the Democratic presidential debate that just ended here. "Everywhere" could just as aptly describe the media ubiquity Richardson is enjoying -- clearly enjoying -- on matters ranging from power failures to North Korean nukes.

Richardson, 55, is a 6-foot-2, 228-pound force of political nature who holds the Guinness World Record for shaking the most hands -- 13,392 -- in an eight-hour period. He is a former congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, global troubleshooter, secretary of energy and chairman of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He might be the country's most celebrated and courted Latino politician.

Richardson's current magnitude was conveyed with grand eloquence at a Democratic presidential debate at the University of New Mexico earlier this month: "The Richardson Debate," as it became known among some campaign officials. His dressing room at UNM's Popejoy Hall, for instance, was roughly five times the size of the rooms provided for the candidates. "It helps when you fund the university," Richardson explains.

Many of his "old friends" are here. And Richardson is one of those supersize political specimens who seem to be "old friends" with 95 percent of the people in public life. He wears the beam of an 8-year-old on his birthday.

"Hey, Bob Graham!" Richardson says, rubbing the Florida senator's shoulders. They've traveled in the Middle East together. "I look forward to having a conversation with you about North Korea," Graham says, and Richardson rambles another 40 feet down the hallway.

"Hey, John Kerry!" They huddle against a wall. "I like your tie," Richardson tells the Massachusetts senator.

"Love your cowboy boots," Kerry says.

"Okay, let's hurry, hurry," Richardson says, bounding out a side door and back to his SUV. "Okay, let's be smart about this," Richardson says as his driver peels out of the Hilton parking lot, trailing a car with flashing lights. Richardson, who always rides shotgun, is joined in the vehicle by two members of his security detail, a Washington Post reporter, his chief of staff, David Contarino, and his executive assistant, Elizabeth Korsmo (an attorney and makeup artist).

"Where is the Edwards thing and where is the Lieberman thing?" Richardson asks.

They are nowhere near each other, he is told.

"[Expletive]," Richardson says. "What time is it now?"

9:20 p.m.


He is thinking, calculating. He saw John Edwards briefly at a reception before the debate. But Richardson hasn't seen Joe Lieberman today. He makes an executive decision.

"[Expletive] . . . We'll just hit the Lieberman thing."

The Lieberman thing -- a fundraiser at the home of sporting goods entrepreneur Art Gardenswartz -- is up in the hills, normally a 25-minute drive.

"Hurry up," Richardson says as the driver guns it onto Interstate 40. Within seconds, the two-car caravan hits 95 miles per hour, then 100, then 110, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating, making strategic use of sirens. The trip takes 16 minutes.

Lieberman, holding a glass of red wine, receives Richardson in the living room. They, too, are old friends. They worked on the 1992 Democratic platform together. They hug. "I'm not drinking alone," Lieberman tells Richardson as the governor is handed a glass. They clink.

"I wore this to curry favor with you," Lieberman says, pointing to a New Mexico pin on his lapel. "You also saw that I spoke a little Spanish in [the debate]."

"I thought that was Yiddish," Richardson says, and slaps Lieberman's right triceps.

"I love Bill Richardson," Lieberman says in a brief speech a few minutes later. "When the good Lord created Bill Richardson, he threw the mold away."

Richardson raises his glass to Lieberman, the last Democratic running mate, who, in turn, raises his glass to the man who might be the next.

Hot Property

Bill Richardson says he is not a candidate for vice president. This is not to say the question doesn't come up a lot.

Richardson -- whose mother is Hispanic and who spent much of his childhood in Mexico City -- is a member of the country's largest minority group. He is a moderate, a dynamic campaigner, seasoned in domestic and foreign matters and the popular governor of a swing state (Al Gore won New Mexico by 365 votes).

Politics is a feast of human contact for him. He loves big crowds, fat cigars. "I love the mixing of politics, I love to campaign, I love parades," Richardson says. "I don't believe I'm pretentious. I'm very earthy." He travels constantly, does his best thinking in cars and airplanes. "When I'm in motion, that's when my mind becomes free," he says.

He's always been ambitious, even among pols. The Almanac of American Politics dubbed him a "young man in a hurry" when he was elected to Congress from New Mexico in 1982. Clearly he still is, angling for something bigger. So goes the insider's cliche.

Never mind that Richardson says his current job is the best he's ever held, or that several times a week he denies interest in joining the national Democratic ticket.

The evening before the Richardson Debate finds the governor collapsed on a chair in his state office in Santa Fe. Over the course of 45 minutes, he hits on, among other topics, his brief career as a minor league baseball pitcher, his quarterhorse (Sundance), his perennial diets, his channel-surfing habits, his ability to sleep on planes and his favorite sport, boxing.

His office is huge, clean and decorated with colorful art from the state collection. He keeps a humidor stocked with Cuban cigars ("from my U.N. days") in a corner closet. "You see my Cabinet chair?" he says, showing off the chair he used when he was energy secretary. "You know I had to buy this." It cost $1,300.

"It's a little frustrating that no one believes me," Richardson says of his avowed non-interest in the vice presidency. Flattering, too, for the question has become shorthand for Bill Richardson as a hot property.

It is also a sign of political rehabilitation for a man who, not long ago, was enduring the roughest patch of his career. On Richardson's watch at the Department of Energy, there were allegations that nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory had turned up in China. Richardson was roundly criticized in Congress for his handling of the alleged breach, for the botched case against Taiwan-born Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, and for lax security at the country's national labs. It killed his chance of becoming Al Gore's running mate in 2000, a position he wanted and was being considered for. "It certainly didn't help," Richardson says. (Nor did it help that Richardson offered Monica Lewinsky a job while he was U.N. ambassador -- at the apparent urging of the White House.)

The episode was a blemish on an otherwise shining run of success. Richardson was born in California, the son of a Boston banker. He spent his childhood in Mexico City (where his mother still resides), attended prep school in Concord, Mass. (where he met his wife, Barbara) and went to college and graduate school at Tufts.

In Congress, Richardson focused heavily on foreign policy and undertook a series of diplomacy missions at the behest of the Clinton administration to Sudan, Iraq, Haiti and North Korea, among other places. He became U.N. ambassador in 1997 and energy secretary in 1998. After a teaching stint at Harvard, Richardson returned to New Mexico, where he vowed to shake at least 600 hands a day in his campaign for governor last year. On Sept. 16, 2002, he shattered Teddy Roosevelt's 94-year-old record of 8,513 handshakes in an eight-hour period. On Election Day, he defeated Republican John Sanchez by 16 percentage points.

Even in the job of governor, Richardson's varied résumé lands him in an eclectic set of spotlights. After last month's blackout, Richardson became a national TV fixture for several days. In January, North Korean emissaries called. Richardson, who had negotiated the release of an American pilot from North Korea in 1994, held talks with two North Korean diplomats at the governor's mansion, conferring regularly with Colin Powell. This is not, as a rule, something governors deal with during their first days in office. "If there's ever a blackout in Pyongyang, I'll be ready," Richardson says, cackling.

But now, Richardson is full-body focused on his debate, which he lobbied hard for. No, he says, this is not about him. This is about making New Mexico look good. It's about the issues, the campaigns and the candidates. The show belongs to Kerry, Lieberman and Dean, et al.

But it's Bill Richardson's party.

The Omnipresent Man

"Carol Moseley Braun!"

The former Illinois senator is eating enchiladas with green chili at a Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque. Richardson bounds up to his old friend's booth. Richardson defended Moseley Braun in the '90s when she was being criticized for her ties to a Nigerian dictator. They hug. "I'll never forget what you did," Moseley Braun says, and Richardson continues to work the room.

This is the first Richardson sighting of Debate Day. He is here for lunch with Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman, and about 40 of his closest camera- and notebook-toting friends. Richardson wears a wrinkled gray suit. "Look at these [expletives]," Richardson says, joking about two members of his security detail standing idly nearby. "They're gonna get me killed." He shakes his head. "You're fired," he tells the officers.

Richardson fires people about 20 times a day. He does it as an endearment.

He is unsubtle and unfiltered. He wears his agenda and vanity plainly, leavened with soft doses of self-deprecation. Politics is a full-on joy ride, something Richardson experiences in his belly.

He is at a table with McAuliffe, eating a green chili cheeseburger. McAuliffe calls Richardson "Vice President Man." He says very nice things about Richardson, although -- according to DNC sources -- he became somewhat exasperated with Richardson and his staff as they ironed out details for the debate. The gist of the DNC's grievances -- shared, to a lesser degree, by some campaign officials -- was that this debate was becoming "all about Bill Richardson." For now, though, McAuliffe is awed by Richardson's omnipresence. "You can't go a full day without seeing him on TV," McAuliffe says, adding that Richardson did "a great job getting to the bottom of that space shuttle tragedy."

Richardson had nothing to do with the space shuttle investigation.

McAuliffe knows this. He's kidding.

"You know, they keep blaming the 'culture' at NASA for all the problems," Richardson opines. His voice turns mocking and sarcastic. "That's what they did to me at DOE. They kept saying the culture did it. The culture. That's how they [expletive] you."

He fires up a cigar in a fleeting second of repose, until, a few minutes later, he's in his SUV again, sirening through red lights.

He has an interview with Fox outside the debate hall. He arrives, gets wired, accuses the woman wiring him up of sexual harassment and does the interview: He is not a candidate for vice president. He loves his job. Tonight's debate is a chance for New Mexico to shine.

He thanks the Fox reporter. He greets a group of police officers, praises their work and fires them.

Then he repairs to his big greenroom with his arm draped around Joni Gutierrez, the state Democratic Party chairman. He settles into a plush chair next to a lighted mirror and demands a cigar.

The scene in the greenroom unfolds with a kind of manic cinematography. There are quirky characters, offbeat conversational rhythms and jarring background noises such as Gutierrez's cell phone, which rings in the sound of a cat's loud MEOW!

"Joseph, what the [expletive] is wrong with you?" the governor says, turning to Chief of Staff David Contarino, whom he inexplicably calls "Joseph." Richardson keeps rolling up gum wrappers and flicking them at executive assistant Elizabeth Korsmo (the attorney and makeup artist). He sips a Starbucks double latte, one of the six or seven cups of coffee he drinks a day. He begins reading from a draft of the brief introduction he will deliver before the debate. He chews multiple pieces of gum, taps his black cowboy boots on the linoleum floor and tries to concentrate.


"Who wrote this?" Richardson asks about the six-paragraph introduction. "It's [expletive]."

"What exactly don't you like about it, sir?" asks Contarino.

"Paragraphs 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6."


'I Gotta Be Neutral'

"Hey, John Edwards!"

Richardson is romping his way through a pre-debate reception, with waiters carrying trays of white wine and chocolate eclairs. Richardson has no significant history with the North Carolina senator. But Richardson thanks Edwards for all of his nice notes and thoughtful phone calls. Richardson can't endorse anyone because of his role as convention chairman, but tells Edwards, "Your courtesy means a lot."

Richardson returns to his greenroom at 5:15 p.m., 45 minutes before the debate. He sits in his big chair, studying his one-minute remarks while Korsmo sponges his face with makeup. Al Sharpton calls to say his plane is grounded in Atlanta and he won't make the debate. But he wanted to thank Richardson for his help in trying to arrange a flight. They're old friends.

McAuliffe bursts into the greenroom, shouting:



Then he leaves, and Billy Sparks, Richardson's ponytailed press secretary, tells the governor that he needs to thank McAuliffe in his welcoming remarks. He also reminds him that he'll be doing interviews in the media "spin room" after the debate.

"Yeh, I guess I gotta be neutral, right?" Richardson says. "I should say something like, 'It was a spirited debate, everyone did well' or some [expletive] like that, right?"


The governor fans himself with a stack of papers while Korsmo mists him with hair spray. Kerry walks by in the hall, then Lieberman and Richardson head out at a few minutes to 6.

He is quiet on his short walk to the stage except for two firings (Korsmo and a police officer). He walks onstage to an ovation, does his welcome, then heads to a big chair backstage to watch the debate.

"Elizabeth, cut me a cigar!"

Richard Gephardt is on TV calling the Bush administration a "miserable failure."

"I call him Geppy," Richardson says of his old friend from Congress. "I try to give nicknames to all the guys." Such as: "I call Kerry 'Johnny,' but I don't think he likes it too much. We don't know each other that well."

Kerry is speaking. "He's got that little smirk, doesn't he?" Richardson says. "Bush has one of those, too. But Kerry looks good. Presidential. I love his ties, too. Hermes."

Korsmo presents Richardson with the cigar he requested and an executive order to sign. He sips Perrier and exhales a massive yawn while Dennis Kucinich tries to say something in Spanish.

Geppy is on again. He is about to make the governor's week.

"Bill Richardson was my chief deputy whip in Congress," Gephardt says. Richardson grins and holds two fists triumphantly over his head.

"Yeah, Geppy," he says.

When Richardson is asked later in the spin room who won the debate, he gives the obvious answer.

"Gephardt, because he mentioned me."

Winding Down

At 10:30 that night, Richardson is back in his SUV, contemplating dinner at the leisurely pace of 90 miles per hour.

"Who's hungry? Who wants steak? I'm getting a big steak. This is where my [expletive] diet goes to hell."

Richardson instructs Korsmo to order four steaks and four Greek salads from Yanni's, a restaurant he frequents in Albuquerque.

When Richardson and entourage arrive, they take over a table in the middle of the quiet restaurant. The governor looks tired and wired, the satisfied party host in a vacated house. His shirt is untucked. He leans back in his chair, waiting for his rib-eye.

"Joseph," he says, "I want to appoint Jimmy to the MFA board." Jimmy is Yanni's co-owner James Daskalos, who is getting a seat on the state's Mortgage Finance Authority. "Do that, okay, Joseph?"

Korsmo, 34, shows off a tattoo on her shoulder and a piece of jewelry in her bellybutton. She opens a cigar box and Richardson picks out a small Cohiba.

"Walter Mondale came out and campaigned for me once," Richardson is recalling. "And after a long day of campaigning, he smoked a cigar. And I thought that was really cool. So I started doing it."

He is expansive and, for the first time all day, soft-spoken. He is asked who his political idol is.

"Besides Sharpton?" he says, smiling. "I liked JFK. He was charismatic. He was for low taxes and a strong defense. And he was Hispanic, of course."

Of course.

It's almost midnight and there are bags under Richardson's eyes. His makeup is smeared. He needs to be up for a CNN interview at 6 a.m. By then the circus will be gone and Richardson will stay behind on the small stage of New Mexico, pushing for his education initiative. "I open the state fair tomorrow at 9:30," Richardson says. "I'm gonna ride in some carriage or something."

Slowly, for the time being.

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