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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.'

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The defining moment in his life, he says, came during his graduate year at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. During a trip to Washington in 1971, he was galvanized by a talk by Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota about values and the US role in the world. What struck Richardson most was the senator's passion for public service. "For the first time, I had an inkling of the real potential of political power," Richardson writes in his book. "I felt inspired to make politics and public service my life's work."

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The big issues

On the campaign trail, Richardson seems to relish the hard question on the big issue. Take the concern of a woman in Rockwell City, Iowa, who tells him she's worried about illegal immigration.

It could be a touchy issue for a Hispanic-American candidate, but Richardson is ready: He declared a state of emergency in New Mexico in 2005 and deployed the National Guard along the border – the first governor to do so, he says. But a border fence will not do the job, he adds. He ticks off his plan: Double border agents and keep National Guard units there; crack down on document fraud and create an ID system; fine and punish employers who hire undocumented workers; establish a path to legalization for those already here (background check, learn English, pay back taxes and a fine); allow guest workers based on the needs of the US economy; and prod Mexico to create more jobs and "stop giving out maps on the best places to cross the border!"

On Iraq, he says the US military presence there is a recruiting tool for terrorists and discourages countries in the region from helping to resolve Iraq's problems. US forces should withdraw fully, he says, and a "diplomatic surge" should be undertaken to forge a political compromise, along the lines of the Dayton accords on Bosnia. That would become feasible, he says, once it's clear US forces are exiting.

'Power is good'

By most accounts and by his own admission, Richardson is not shy about wielding political power.

"Power is good if you do the right thing," the governor says. It puts one in a position "to fix problems."

The Albuquerque Journal in February wrote that Richardson has "used his power to ... get change in virtually every corner of New Mexico life, from slashing income taxes to creating pre-kindergarten...."

"He's first and foremost a political animal," Ibarra says. "He loves this stuff!"

Richardson has also been called "ambitious" and "pushy." Critics in New Mexico say he's amassed too much power, including reorganizing public education under his stewardship. The governor counters that state schools ranked poorly and were stuck in the status quo. Via a massive campaign for a constitutional amendment, he persuaded voters to pour $700 million more into public education. He calls the reform "my proudest legislative achievement."

Others credit him for having the energy and fortitude to tackle thorny problems, including managing the Department of Energy. Though warned that DOE was "a snake pit" of problems, Richardson says he was eager to take the helm when Clinton tapped him for the post in 1998. The FBI was already investigating Wen Ho Lee for espionage at a DOE laboratory, and Richardson was berated by a congressional panel looking into loose security at the national labs.

Yet DOE staff say he left a positive legacy.

"He understood leadership and the responsibility to take on difficult problems and try to solve them," says David Michaels, then an assistant secretary. "He called me in and said, 'I've heard from workers in Oak Ridge [National Lab] and other places that their work has made them sick. Go talk with them and see what's going on.' "

After Dr. Michaels delivered his findings, Richardson convinced the president and Congress of the need to compensate lab workers for exposure to hazardous materials. Most thought the legislation "would take years to pull off," Michaels says. But Richardson won bipartisan support, and Congress passed the program in 2000.

In Paducah, Ky., where workers had been exposed to plutonium but not told about it, Richardson apologized on behalf of the president.

Says Michaels, now a research professor at George Washington University: "On many issues top advisers would lay out options, and he'd always ask, 'What's the right thing to do?' He didn't mean the politically right thing, but the morally right thing."