Richardson navigates uncharted territory as Latino candidate

Julia Prodis Sulek
Presidential candidate Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico speaks in Sacramento, California, Tuesday, June 12, 2007. (Florence Low/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - At the Mexican Heritage Plaza in the heart of San Jose's Latino neighborhood, Bill Richardson - the first Latino to run for president - strode across the stage Tuesday and, with a Spanish pleasantry, greeted the audience.

The venue seemed perfect. The audience didn't. Relatively few in the crowd of 500 understood what he said - many were members of the Silicon Valley Commonwealth Club that sponsored the event.

"I almost responded in German just to lighten it up," said Fernando Zazueta, a prominent San Jose lawyer who moderated the question-and-answer session with the Democratic candidate.

The New Mexico governor, born the son of a Mexican mother and American father in Pasadena, Ca., is walking a fine line of defining his cultural identity while appealing to a broader group.

Although Richardson has the dark eyes and complexion of his Mexican ancestry, "he has to spend time, valuable time, letting his natural constituency know he's one of us when he should really have that already done and be going forward from there," Zazueta said later Tuesday.

It's a problem Democratic presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama don't have. Their identities as a woman and an African-American have actually generated more excitement around them. It's an energy that Richardson - a former secretary of energy, former ambassador to the United Nations and four-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize - has had trouble generating. He said Tuesday he is actually pleased that he's cracked 10 percent support in Iowa and New Hampshire - two states with the earliest primaries.

"I just hope a decision is not made on who's the biggest rock star or who has the biggest celebrity or the most money," Richardson said, "but the person who has a different vision."

In an hour-long conversation with Zazueta, he explained that vision on issues ranging from immigration to Iraq.

Although he supports many provisions in the immigration reform bill that collapsed in Congress last week, including adopting a legalization plan for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., he opposes building more barriers along the border. It reminds him of the old wall between East and West Germany. "That's not American," he said.

Those who knowingly employ illegal aliens should be punished, he said, and the Mexican government should do more to help its people prosper.

He would strive to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil to 10 percent, down from 65 percent now imported, and support renewable energy programs, such as wind and solar power.

If he were president, he said, "I would get out of Iraq, but do it with diplomacy," he said. He would divide Iraq into three entities that would split the country's oil revenues and have the country protected by an "all-Muslim peace-keeping force."

"I'm about seeking common ground," he said. "I'm not about threats."

Richardson, who spent his childhood in Mexico before moving back to the states, explained to the audience that "I'm not running as a Hispanic candidate, but as a governor very proud to be Hispanic."

Crews from three Spanish language TV stations filmed the event. Richardson spoke to them in Spanish in a later press conference.

To Pat Tappan, a member of the Commonwealth Club who attended the event, Richardson's message resonated.

"I like the way he relates to the common person," said Tappan, whose father was part of the cannery workers union in San Jose in the 1950s.

Gil Villagran, a San Jose State social services instructor and community activist who was born in Mexico, used a Spanish word to describe his feelings toward Richardson: "orgullo" or "being proud - like of your children who gets summa cum laude or the gold medal."

"Just like African Americans are proud of Obama," he said, "the general population is looking at these guys like, yeah, they could be president."

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