Alibi V.16 No.15 • April 12-18, 2007 

Ortiz y Pino

What Makes Bill Run?

How Richardson could win the presidency

According to the New Mexico Legislature, the Official State Question is “Red or Green?”

In my experience, though, the most frequently asked question in the state in the past four months has to be, “Does the governor really think he has a chance to win the presidency?”

The follow-up query is frequently, “No, really. What does he hope to get out of this?”

Apparently, many New Mexicans can’t believe our guy is a serious contender for the presidency. Backwater states far from the mainstream media action on both coasts are assumed to be incapable of spawning chief executives. (Right, Arkansas? Right, Georgia?) And in the league of backwater states, New Mexico is about as far from the major currents as a state can get.

So it came as something of a shock for many in New Mexico to hear that Bill Richardson had raised, in the first quarter of his candidacy, $6 million. That’s serious money … particularly for someone who still gets frequently misidentified as governor of Arizona, for crying out loud.

OK, so that figure left him far behind Hillary and Barack and was less than half of what John Edwards had deposited during the same period, but by historical standards, Gov. Richardson has taken a major step toward legitimizing his candidacy.

For president. Not for second place on a “dream ticket” or for some hotshot cabinet post in a new Democratic administration. For president.

Two stories, both true, have helped convince me that Richardson could actually win the Democratic nomination.

First, I flew into Washington, D.C., just before Christmas for a meeting. The cab driver who picked me up at National and drove me to the hotel was (no surprise) from East Africa. He asked where I was from and I assumed I would have to go into some detail to help him differentiate New Mexico from Old Mexico.

But I was wrong. “Oh, New Mexico,” he said at once. “Your governor has a very impressive résumé. He’s very smart; I think he would make a good president.”

I was stunned, not only about discovering a cabbie from Somalia or Eritrea who was so knowledgeable about current affairs but because he seemed altogether more enthusiastic about our governor’s candidacy than most of the New Mexicans I know.

Second story: Last month I was at another meeting, this one in Chicago. A Hispanic legislator from Wyoming caught sight of my name-tag and headed straight for me. “New Mexico, eh? I’ve got your governor’s bumper sticker on my Jeep back home,” he proclaimed before introducing himself.

All weekend, whenever the occasion presented itself, he chortled contentedly to me about how impressed he was with Richardson. He was too polite to mention how comparatively restrained I seemed about the candidacy of the most prominent Latino elected official in the country.

And, in fact, his enthusiasm (or was it the cabbie’s informed insider opinion?) does seem to have had an effect on me. I find I am now able to envision a number of scenarios in which Bill Richardson could vault from relative invisibility into a position of seriously contending for the White House.

They all hinge on a combination of three factors: his personal charm and magnetism in one-on-one campaigning situations; the propensity for the media to zero in on the front-runners during the early months of the campaign as the search for feet of clay reaches a pinnacle of frenzy; and the likelihood that Richardson will become the favorite son candidate of Latinos everywhere.

Consider one possibility. He shakes hands with every single Democrat in New Hampshire between now and the primary next February. (Crazy? Remember, this guy holds the Guinness record for political handshakes in a single day. He loves this kind of stuff.) He charms the old ladies, he trades cornball humor with the old guys, he talks sports with the young guys and he flashes dimpled charm and smiles at the young ladies.

He finishes fourth there, but a close fourth, just a few percentage points behind Edwards.

The same tactics work in Iowa so well that he edges out Edwards and comes in third. The contributions start jumping and the press starts paying attention as he heads for Nevada, a state with a relatively large Hispanic population and one where he has close connections.

And if he catches a break about then and one or both of the frontrunners stumbles (as someone usually does at about this point in the primary season) … well, then, who knows?

If those three aforementioned factors work out just perfectly, our governor (or Arizona’s—does it make much difference if you live east of the Mississippi?) could go into next summer’s Democratic Convention as one of the top challengers.

Then remember that the 2008 Democratic Convention is in Denver; a Mountain Time zone state neighboring New Mexico, one with a large Hispanic population. When the mariachis start playing as they lead him onto the floor of the Convention and the confetti starts flying … so much excitement could mean all bets are off.

I know it’s a long shot. For every possible successful scenario there are half a dozen more plausible unsuccessful ones. But just analyzing the possibility makes the question “Is he serious?” moot. I know I’m not dismissing it anymore. Of course, since I’m a Cleveland Indians fan, I always root for the underdog.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.