Nation & World

Profile: Richardson's resume, Hispanic heritage hold his political hopes

Editor's note: With the Iowa caucus set to kick off the primary election season Jan. 3, the Telegraph will present profiles of the major presidential candidates. New profiles will appear each day through Jan. 3.

Days before Bill Richardson was due to arrive in the world, his mother, at her husband's insistence, boarded a train from Mexico City to the United States.

Richardson's father, who was born on a boat heading to Nicaragua, insisted that there be no ambiguity about his son's birthright. Thus Bill Richardson was born a U.S. citizen in Pasadena, Calif.

That was the first in a long line of paternal decisions that ultimately would imbue the younger Richardson with determination, an ability to move effortlessly between cultures and a knack for perpetual motion.

"His father expected a lot from Bill," said Richardson's wife, Barbara, who was in high school when she began dating the man who became her husband. She remembers Richardson's father, an American banker some 24 years older than his Mexican-born wife, as "very strict and very demanding."

At 12, young Billy, raised and educated in Mexico City and fluent in Spanish, was sent north to the Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., described by a former classmate as "very much WASP-Y, very old New England-y."

Richardson, nicknamed "Pancho" by his classmates, said he was homesick and a bit of an outcast — until he showed the baseball prowess he'd honed on ball fields in Mexico City.

By his junior year he was organizing a field trip for his classmates to Mexico, where, pal Ralph Cygan said, the American boys stayed with local families, toured the city and "were uniformly crushed" by the amateur Mexican baseball teams they played.

Still, Richardson was a good enough middle relief pitcher to play in the amateur Cape Cod League, a magnet for major league scouts (future Hall of Famer Thurman Munson hit a home run off one of his fastballs), and he went on to earn bachelors and master's degrees from Tufts University outside Boston.

"When I see his exploits with Saddam Hussein and the North Koreans, pulling rabbits out of hats, I think back to what he accomplished as a schoolboy, bringing those cultures together," Cygan said, referring to Richardson's frequent stints as a global troubleshooter.

Even now, some 35 years after his father's death from Alzheimer's disease, Richardson acknowledges his father's influence as he campaigns for president, striving to crack into the top tier of Democratic contenders by convincing voters that his extensive experience trumps his better-known, better-financed rivals.

"I believe that the fact I am driven is because of him," he told ABC News recently. "He'd be driving me now. He'd be telling me to lose weight, to give better speeches. He'd be giving me advice on where to go, where to campaign."

Drive is something that Richardson — a seven-term congressman turned U.N. ambassador turned Clinton-era energy secretary turned two-term New Mexico governor — never lacked. He turned up in New Mexico in 1977 with a few years experience as a Capitol Hill staffer, no ties to the state and a focused ambition: To win elective office. And not at the local level; he was gunning for Congress, he wrote in his biography, "Between Worlds."

As a congressman, Richardson made a mark in foreign affairs. He hopscotched the world, negotiating with dictators and bringing hostages home from Iraq, North Korea and Cuba. Friends said he was a natural for the job, bringing to bear his experience since childhood of bridging cultures.

Calvin Humphrey, a former House Intelligence Committee staffer who was Richardson's sidekick on several trips and is now a campaign adviser, attributes his success to persistence.

"Bill's relentless. He will not be dissuaded," Humphrey said. "Some dictator can go off for three hours on a tangent and the first minute he gets, Bill will bring him right back to his point. He's not about to let anyone or anything get away."

Clinton appointed Richardson U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1996, a gig that the gregarious pol clearly reveled in, writing in his book that when he left "28 countries wanted to give me a farewell dinner."

The U.N. job ended when Clinton tapped him to become energy secretary, but his tenure there was overshadowed by scandals over nuclear security mishaps at the national laboratories.

At the close of Clinton's term, Richardson tried private life, joining Kissinger McLarty Associates, a consulting firm headed by Henry Kissinger and Mack McLarty, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. It was a brief interlude.

Saying he "desperately missed politics," he returned to New Mexico in 2002 and won election as governor. Championing tax cuts and economic development, he was re-elected in 2006 with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Now campaigning for president, Richardson still finds himself perfecting his lifelong balancing act. He's banking on a boost from Hispanics — the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country — but he jokes that, with a name like Bill Richardson, he's had a hard time convincing Hispanics that he's one of them. He's launched outreach groups, Mi Familia con Richardson, to spread the word.

But he rejects the suggestion that he's running as a Hispanic candidate.

"I'm trying to convey that I'm a mainstream American governor who's very proud to be Hispanic," Richardson said. "I've never wanted to be categorized as a professional Hispanic. I just want to compete with everybody."