Richardson may be setting plate for role at State

By Kate Nash
Tribune Columnist

SANTA FE – A day before he was scheduled to meet with President Bush on a major free-trade pact with Central America, El Salvador President Antonio Saca flew to the City Different to dine with a governor he had never met.

The get-together, Gov. Bill Richardson said, was only a casual meeting. But it was clear Saca was in town for more than a dinner party: He was touring the nation to get support for the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

“As Central American presidents, we think it’s an important topic for us, and that’s why we’re here to talk to the governor,” Saca said before slipping inside the Governor’s Mansion with his international entourage last week.

Richardson, who is undecided on the treaty, doesn’t have a vote anymore in the Congress that’s considering whether to implement the trade treaty.

As governor, he really has no say over which international agreements the United States signs.

And free trade with a handful of teeny countries doesn’t seem to be a big topic for the 2008 presidential race if Richardson is indeed a candidate, as is widely speculated.

Could it be that the governor, a former ambassador to the United Nations who has racked up more frequent-flier miles than an Airbus pilot, has his sights on something else?

After all, meeting with dignitaries from around the world does help the governor keep his foreign policy credentials fresh. The meals make for good sound bites and photo ops. And the governor probably has a little fun, too.

So think about this: Maybe it’s Richardson for secretary of state in 2008.

The governor, a first-term Democrat, has said he’s got the best job he has ever had, and he’s lasering in on keeping it.

As he prepares to run for re-election in 2006, it’s not a stretch to think Richardson is running after something else, said Christine Sierra, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

“He’s clearly gearing up to run for president,” she said.

But Sierra said heading the State Department might be a possibility for Richardson, as well.

“That’s not far-fetched, given his experience in foreign policy,” she said.

While Richardson might say he’s not thinking about 2008, the guests he has had since taking office two years ago point to the possibility he’s at least eying the post.

Consider the plate mates: a group of North Korean diplomats; Mexican President Vicente Fox; Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar; Spain’s crown prince and princess; Chihuahua’s governor; Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia; the minister of foreign affairs from Qatar; the governor of a Mexico state; the Argentine ambassador to the United States.

Not to mention his trips to Davos, Switzerland, and Mexico City.

Richardson, who has a master’s degree in law and diplomacy, has met key world figures, including Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein.

And, sure, many of his contacts come from years spent as a Clinton administration Energy Department secretary and troubleshooter.

But they also come from a curiosity about other places.

Maybe Richardson, back from meeting in Nuevo Leon with Mexican and Canadian leaders late last week, is bored with the beltway and wants to see more of the world.

Being president or vice president is one way to do that. But if those don’t work out for Richardson who, you’ll remember, didn’t win New Mexico for Sen. John Kerry in November, maybe secretary of state is a pretty good backup plan.

Published May 16, 2005.