Gov. Bill Richardson’s Thoughts on Immigration

Odd Jobs, People
on September 10, 2006

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson bridges two cultures at a time when the nation is buzzing about illegal immigration. “You have to recognize that it’s a very divisive issue in America and you have to approach it only in a bipartisan manner,” explains Richardson, 59, the son of an American businessman and his Mexican wife.

“These people wanting to come in just want a better life for their families,” he says. “They are not bandits or terrorists; they want a better life.” But, he says, their desire must be balanced with the priority of protecting the jobs and safety of Americans.

Richardson’s level-headed position on immigration is indicative of his long-held philosophy of leadership in general: Listen to all sides of an issue, negotiate and, when possible, forge a compromise that is a win for both sides.

“He is on a very short list of about five officials nationally known in a position to have an impact on this issue,” says Ruben Navarrette Jr., a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist. “When Bill Richardson speaks on the immigration issue, people ought to listen. He is important to the debate.”

A political maverick with an admitted temper, Richardson, 59, has made waves sometimes with his independent streak and unorthodox approach. “He is a Democrat who is not afraid to praise a Republican,” Navarrette says. Richardson—who last year made TIME magazine’s list of 25 most influential Hispanics in America—also is known to be gregarious, charismatic, informal and quick to make a joke to diffuse a tense situation, a skill that he often has used in conducting sensitive negotiations around the world on behalf of the United States.

America’s ‘go-to’ guy

With a resume that includes seven terms in Congress and stints as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the U.S. Secretary of Energy, the four-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee often was the nation’s go-to guy when delicate negotiations with Iraq, Cuba, Sudan and North Korea required face-to-face encounters. Although Richardson insists that he is focusing on his November re-election as governor, he has been touted as a possible presidential candidate in 2008.

“Should I be re-elected (as governor, on Nov. 6), I want my constituents in New Mexico to be comfortable with whether I run for president,” he says. “I’ve got to make an assessment: Is it worth the intensity and scrutiny and hard work that it’s going to take? I’m ready for the hard work and scrutiny, but it’s not a final decision. I’m a big believer in luck and faith, and I don’t know what God has in store.”

TIME magazine senior writer Joe Klein says it is too early to determine what sort of presidential candidate Richardson would be. “He is a very personable guy; he has a lot of foreign experience,” Klein says. “We’ll see whether he can summon the kind of seriousness and gravitas necessary for president.”

Born in Pasadena, Calif., raised in Mexico City and educated at a Massachusetts prep school, Richardson has spent his entire life existing between two cultures. His father spoke to him in English, while his mother addressed him in Spanish. He spent his afternoons on Mexico City baseball fields in good-natured competition alongside some of the poorest children in the city before moving to Concord, Mass., at age 12 and joining his wealthy classmates on the Middlesex School baseball team. He earned a master’s degree in international affairs at Boston’s Tufts University in the early 1970s.

“He’s bicultural, and that gives him an insight into dealing with people, especially in tough situations,” says his wife, Barbara. “If you can’t do it one way, let’s look at another way to achieve a goal. He points out that you have to walk in that person’s shoes and know what it is that person needs when you are in negotiations.”

Between worlds

Richardson’s cultural duality had a downside as well. “Neither side accepted me,” says Richardson, who describes his experiences in the 2005 book, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life. “Man, I had a comfortable life, and I’m not complaining. But at the same time, Mexicans didn’t accept me because I had this Anglo name, and when I went to school in the United States, the Americans called me Pancho and I didn’t quite fit in and I didn’t relate to anything.”

His mixed ethnicity helped Richardson develop a strong sense of self, a passion for fairness and a drive to help those who don’t have a voice in any language. It taught him that almost every dispute can be talked through—it’s always worse not to talk, he says—and that he can find something in common with almost everyone. He used a common love of baseball as an icebreaker with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1996.

In other high-level diplomatic negotiations around the globe, Richardson says he often sensed that, across the table, “they liked the fact that I was a minority and that I could relate to another culture,” he says. “It gave me an advantage because they thought, ‘He’s an American, but he’s got other cultures and we think he’s able to relate better to us.’”

But he stresses that he is an American first, albeit one who cherishes his Hispanic heritage. “I don’t want to be known as a professional Hispanic, that everything I do is because I’m Hispanic or I only serve Hispanics,” says Richardson, who says he dreams in English but reverts to dreaming in Spanish after periodic vacations in Mexico. “I serve a broad constituency: Native Americans, Anglos, Hispanics, progressives, Republicans. I don’t compromise my values, but I never liked to highlight my Hispanic-ness.”

His political advisers once suggested that he use the name Bill Richardson-Lopez because his mother’s maiden name is Lopez. “I said, ‘That’s not me,” Richardson says. “I try to be a mainstream American politician enormously proud of my Hispanic heritage, and I don’t hide it. I feel strongly that if you are going to be representing the American people, you have to be part of the American mainstream.”

Listening to constituents

These days, he’s focused on representing the people of New Mexico as he finishes his first term as governor. Richardson, who does not have children, puts in long hours in his spacious Santa Fe office, decorated with Southwestern and Indian art on loan from the state museum. He’s cut the state’s income tax rate and guided New Mexico to become the first state to provide life insurance for members of the National Guard on active duty.

Twice monthly, he holds an open house where he spends five minutes with any constituent who asks. “He’s informal and it’s just his style, and that reflects on how he relates to people,” Barbara says. “He is not an intimidating person; he makes people feel comfortable, and he’s pretty direct, too. If somebody is meeting with him, he’ll say, ‘OK, what can I do for you?’”

When he’s not working, he loves to ride horses and attend boxing matches and University of New Mexico basketball games. He ends his days in his study, watching ESPN and enjoying a Dominican Republic cigar.

“I like simple things,” he says. “I’m not terribly sophisticated, although I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot. I feel that I can relate to people, and that my best years are ahead.”

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