Cabinet gets more diverse

N.M. governor gets commerce post

Latino activists had pushed for high-profile job of secretary of state

Obama's Transition

December 04, 2008|By Christi Parsons and John McCormick | Christi Parsons and John McCormick,Tribune Washington Bureau

CHICAGO - Of all the titles that Bill Richardson has held in his storied political career, the one he seems to like most is memorialized in Guinness World Records.

He brags about it often: the time he shook 13,392 hands in an eight-hour period to break a nearly century-old record.

When President-elect Barack Obama announced yesterday that he will make Richardson his commerce secretary, Obama noted all of the most relevant achievements: Richardson's stints as U.N. ambassador, congressman, U.S. energy secretary and his current post, governor of New Mexico.

Then he brought up the handshakes.

"All of this reflects a determination to reach out and understand where people are coming from, what they hope for and what he can do to help," Obama said.

Such a span of experience would qualify a candidate for just about any heavyweight Cabinet post.

Many Latino activists had been pushing Obama to give the high-profile job of secretary of state to Richardson, the son of an American father and Mexican mother who grew up in both countries.

Obama's decision this week to post Hillary Clinton at the State Department left some wondering whether Hispanic voters were being shown disrespect after turning out in such solid numbers for the Illinois Democrat in the November election.

It also raised the question of whether Richardson could countenance any other job in what is supposed to be Obama's drama-free White House - and what tension that might create among the president-elect's Cabinet members.

William M. Daley, who served with Richardson in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet, acknowledged that Richardson has a big personality. But Daley, a former commerce secretary, said Richardson isn't prone to conflict or drama.

"He's not always politically correct," Daley said, "but he gets away with it because he's not mean-spirited about it."

Obama insisted that he intends for his commerce secretary to play a key role in his administration and that Richardson is uniquely suited for it without regard for his ethnicity.

Richardson said he considers the Commerce Department the "nerve center" in the effort to rejuvenate the economy, suggesting that he views his new post in global terms.

"Boosting commerce between states and nations is not just a path to solvency and growth, it's the only path," Richardson said. "We will revitalize our nation's historic strength in manufacturing, while restoring our position of respect in the world."

Like Obama, Richardson has been informed by a childhood spent largely outside of the United States. He grew up in Mexico City in the 1950s, the son of an American bank manager, before going to private school in Massachusetts.

Richardson represented northern New Mexico in Congress for 15 years, making several international missions as a special envoy; he has been credited with winning the release of hostages, U.S. service members and prisoners in North Korea, Iraq and Cuba.

Bill Clinton nominated him to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1997. A year later he became secretary of energy.

Richardson spent much of his time at Energy dealing with security scandals at the nation's nuclear laboratories, most notably at Los Alamos. Richardson endured much of the heat during the government's failed prosecution of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Richardson later called his time as the head of an agency "frustrating," comparing it unfavorably with the job of governor - one in which "you can set the agenda."

In 2002 he got that job, after running a campaign that included the hand-shaking marathon.

Obama said yesterday that he values diversity but, in making major appointments, has thought about qualifications first and foremost.

In his view, Richardson said, the president-elect did put some thought into assembling a diverse team.

"It will be a great honor," he said, "to serve once again a president who recognizes that America's diverse heritage is its greatest strength."

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