Analysis: Is America ready for ‘Presidente Richardson?’

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

SANTA FE — Out from somewhere in the crowd at Gov. Bill Richardson’s inaugural ball came the shout: “¡Viva presidente Richardson!”

It was a phrase that made the governor smile – larger ambitions expressed with a Spanish twist.

The words also might express two themes Richardson wants the world to hear as he considers a run for the White House: He can be president, and he’s Hispanic.

Voters beyond New Mexico might not know that the Anglo-surnamed man speaks Spanish as quickly as anyone in, say, Puerto Vallarta. Or that one of the last times he flew to Mexico City, he got to use the presidential runway.

So is America ready for a Hispanic president?

“I think they are ready for a Hispanic who isn’t so Hispanic,” said Albuquerque media and marketing firm owner Armando Gutierrez.

“If his name was Bill Ulibarri or Bill Archuleta, it would be more difficult for him.”

Richardson says he should be judged not on his ethnicity – his mother is Mexican and lives in Mexico – but his abilities. That’s a fine message, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama considering runs for the Democratic nomination.

“I think America is a very open country. I think it could very easily elect a woman, an African-American or a Hispanic president. I think the issue is merits, not ethnicity,” Richardson said.

And, he said, his background doesn’t affect how he governs.

“I try to represent all my constituents. I’m proud to be Hispanic, but I don’t govern as a Hispanic governor, I govern as a New Mexico governor for everyone. But I’m very proud of my heritage.”

As he prepares to run, he needs to decide what image to project and how to distinguish himself from other the candidates in a race where ethnicity plays more of a role than in any other year, political scientists say.

So far, he’s playing himself down the middle, said Gabriel Sanchez, an assistant political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

“He’s pushing himself as a Democratic candidate of Hispanic background, not just a Hispanic candidate,” he said.

The governor probably doesn’t need to emphasize his ethnicity too much, but can subtly remind voters, said John Garcia, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

“He doesn’t need to wear a neon sign that says `I’m Hispanic,’ ” Garcia said. “But he can speak Spanish a little more, or make references to his Hispanic background. But to a certain segment, that can be a negative.”

Sanchez said there probably aren’t enough Hispanic voters to elect Richardson as a one-note candidate.

“Any candidate of minority background has to have a minority coalition in order to get elected.”

That will be a tough task if a candidate like Obama joins the race, he said.

Richardson also said there aren’t Hispanic-only issues that he needs to focus on.

“There’s this misperception that Hispanics only care about civil rights, immigration,” he said Wednesday. “Hispanics care about jobs, foreign policy, education and entrepreneurship.

“That’s a mistake both political parties make. They try to appeal to Hispanics on a very narrow basis.”

And immigration policy, which sparked rallies across the country when Congress debated reforms last year, is dangerous ground.

“The problem with immigration is that it’s super complex, it doesn’t lend itself to simple measures,” Gutierrez said.

“Immigration is an issue you touch at your own risk.”

Richardson has waded into the debate. He has come out against a fence along the border; he was the first border governor to declare a state of emergency along the U.S.-Mexico dividing line; he has good relations with neighboring state Chihuahua and Mexico City, where he grew up.

One thing that could help Richardson is support from influential Hispanics who could help fund a campaign.

In the past, he has received big donations from influential members of the Hispanic community, including Jerry Perenchio, chairman of Univision Communications Inc.

“There is a growing number of affluent Hispanic business individuals,” Garcia said. “And affluent people know other affluent people.”

Published Jan. 18, 2007.