Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Bill Richardson is one of the most prominent Hispanic politicians in the United States, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for fourteen years as a New Mexico Democrat and, during the Clinton administration, as ambassador to the United Nations (1997.98) and secretary of energy. He was elected governor of New Mexico and took office January 1, 2003.

Richardson was born in Pasadena, California, on November 15, 1947, to an American father and a Mexican mother. He attended a Massachusetts boarding school and then Tufts University, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1970, after which he was drafted as a pitcher by the Kansas City Athletics baseball team (he quit the sport due to an injury). Richardson arrived in Washington DC as a low-level aide in Richard Nixon's State Department, and he later worked on Capitol Hill. His ambition was to run for public office, and in 1978 he moved to New Mexico–a place where he had no roots but where his Hispanic background and Spanish-speaking abilities helped him with voters. In 1980 he challenged Republican congressman Manuel Lujan and ran a strong race in a losing effort. Two years later, reapportionment gave New Mexico an extra House seat, and Richardson was elected to it, representing the northern tier of the state.

As a member of Congress, Richardson won attention for negotiating hostage releases in Iraq, Kashmir, North Korea, and elsewhere. This led to his un appointment (where he briefly became embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal for holding a job open for her in late 1997). His promotion to energy secretary in 1998 came at a troubled time, right before explosive charges about Chinese espionage at nuclear labs erupted. Although Richardson essentially inherited the problem, he came under sharp attack from Republicans and was frequently criticized for his role in the Wen Ho Lee affair. Soaring gas prices in 2000 also tarnished his reputation. He was talked about as a possible running mate for Al Gore in 2000, but these two controversies forced him from serious contention.

John J. Miller Washington DC

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