A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 14, 2008
Gov. Bill Richardson said something at a news conference this week that made the ears of every reporter in the room perk up:
“I invite anybody to test whether Bill Richardson is a lame duck. I’ve got possibly three more years here. Everybody who wants to test if I’m a lame duck, please proceed. I’d be very interested in facing that challenge.”
He might not be a lame duck. But he sure sounded like a thin-skinned duck.
No, it wasn’t the “bring-it-on” belligerence of his “challenge” that stuck in the ears of reporters.
It was the “possibly three more years” part.
Even before Richardson announced his presidential campaign early last year, there was widespread speculation he actually was gunning for a slightly lower position in a new Democratic administration in Washington, D.C. Some assumed he was thinking of the vice presidency. Others assumed secretary of state or maybe some troubleshooting ambassador-at-large gig.
Richardson of course consistently brushed off such talk. Aw shucks, I’m flattered, was his basic attitude. When going through the denial ritual on television news shows, he’d always laugh, as if whoever was asking was foolish to even think such silly thoughts.
And — except for a couple of times when he was pressed and admitted, “I never say never” — Richardson inevitably would say if he didn’t win the White House, he’d come back to New Mexico where he’d go back to being governor — “the best job I’ve ever had.”
Sometimes it was “the greatest job in the world.”
But by early this week, the thought of serving out the rest of his elected term as governor was expressed only as a possibility.
This sparked immediate speculation that Richardson might already have something lined up with one of the candidates. The momentum and delegate mathematics at the moment seem to be with Barack Obama, who could use some help with Hispanic voters. Of course, Hillary Clinton can’t be counted out yet, and remember Richardson is her husband’s football-watching buddy.
Or maybe there’s nothing lined up yet. Aides to the governor say both camps constantly call, trying to win the Richardson endorsement. Richardson has more clout within the national Democratic establishment than he does with the general electorate, one staffer said this week.
And apparently he has more clout with national party honchos than he does with his own Legislature.
By early this week, Richardson’s legislative agenda was in shambles.
Ethics bills are limping toward oblivion. His domestic-partnership legislation was stomped to death in Senate Judiciary.
He said he’d settle for a watered-down version of his health care reform bill — as long as the governor would have the power to appoint the executive director of the proposed new Health Coverage Authority. But the Senate might not be inclined to give him that. By Wednesday night, a fight was brewing over vetoed capital outlay projects.
Richardson threatened to call a special session if he doesn’t get it his way. But there’s no evidence a special session this year would be any less a disaster than the one he forced last year.
Richardson found himself at odds with a Democratic attorney general, who sided with the Legislature over who can accept bills sent to the governor. (The governor in the end, decided not to press that issue, though his staff still insists the governor was right.)
And he’s even in a public spat with an increasingly independent Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who for five years was dependably loyal to him.
Last year, when Richardson was out of state running for president for most of the year, Denish voluntarily gave up the extra pay she earned for serving as acting governor. She did this so the extra expense to the state wouldn’t become an issue that could be used against Richardson. Now Denish says she has been denied state police protection sometimes while serving as acting governor.
So even if Richardson doesn’t have a new job lined up, maybe leaving before his term is up seems like a pleasant possibility.
I’m getting the idea that being governor of New Mexico isn’t the greatest job in the world anymore.
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