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Bill Richardson: a negotiator's faith in fairness and finding the common good

The Democratic presidential hopeful, perhaps best known for his success in hostage-rescue missions, says he's motivated by 'a big desire to resolve problems.'

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2007

Des Moines, Iowa

Send in Bill Richardson.

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Starting in the 1990s, that became the way to win release of US citizens and others held captive in hostile countries. The energetic negotiator, a congressman back then, brought them home every time – from North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, and Iraq.

His secret weapon: "respect," he says, even for adversaries.

In some ways, Mr. Richardson proved to be particularly suited to the troubleshooting job abroad. Raised in both the United States and Mexico, he'd learned early how to bridge different cultures. And the teachings of his family and his church – to help one's fellow human beings – were a powerful motivator for those rescue missions.

"I have a big desire to resolve problems ... and to help people in need," says Richardson, now a Democratic candidate for president of the United States, during a recent interview on the stump in Iowa. "Coming from two cultures, I appreciate that people have different viewpoints but that everyone should be treated with respect."

One key reason he's running for president now, he says, is to try to bring Americans together to end the current era of intensely polarized politics in the US. Another taps his international credentials: to try to restore America's "moral authority" in the world community, which he sees as severely eroded as a result of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

It may well be Richardson's experience abroad that sets him apart from much of the presidential field. He's currently the popular governor of New Mexico, having won reelection in 2006 with 69 percent of the vote. But he's also served 18 months as United Nations ambassador during the Clinton presidency, run the US Department of Energy, and, before that, pulled off multiple negotiating coups with foreign leaders while a seven-term congressman.

"He really wants America to be a force for peace and democracy, and he understands the need today for interdependence," says long-time friend Mickey Ibarra, who served along with Richardson under Mr. Clinton.

Social justice via Government

The son of an American businessman and a Mexican mother, Richardson cites his family and the Roman Catholic Church as most influential in shaping his convictions and motivations. Catholic social teaching – emphasizing the common good and responsibility for creating a fair society with opportunity for all – is the foundation of his belief that "government exists to help people and be a catalyst for change, but not get in the way by creating barriers," he says.

As governor, he has worked in a coalition with church officials on issues such as eliminating sales tax on food and cracking down on "predatory" lenders to protect low-income borrowers.

"Going to church is an important part of my life and affects a lot of what I do," Richardson says. But in a campaign in which faith has been high-profile, he emphasizes that he does not wear his religion on his sleeve.

The governor also takes a different position from that of his church on abortion. While personally opposed to it, he is on record as saying he believes strongly in individual liberties and medical privacy for women.

Born in Pasadena, Calif., Richardson grew up in Mexico City, where his father headed the Mexican branch of the bank that later became Citibank. In his autobiography, "Between Worlds," Richardson recalls his childhood with passion. His earliest memory, he writes, is of his

(grandma) taking him to church. She saw to it that he said his prayers and went to church – even before the budding star pitcher played a baseball game.

"My grandmother was a big baseball fan, but she regularly cautioned me that I had to stay close to God if I wanted to do well," he writes.

Mano a mano with saddam Hussein

That instruction from his grandmother stood Richardson in good stead during one difficult negotiation in 1995. Indeed, his adherence to religious practice while in Baghdad figured unexpectedly in ending a standoff with none other than Saddam Hussein.