Richardson the Odd Democrat Out

05/25/2011 01:00 pm ET

A year ago Jay Leno drew howls from his late night talk show audience when he wisecracked, "And yesterday Bill Richardson officially announced he's running for president. So now he officially has no chance of winning." Leno's unflattering crack after Richardson's public announcement that he was a presidential candidate hit the mark in a lot of ways. The politically luckless Richardson's campaign was perennially cash strapped, and garnered few endorsements. He was almost always an afterthought during the Democratic presidential debates. And in the worst insult of all, he got almost no support from the one constituency that he banked on, Hispanic voters. Most top Hispanic Democrats backed either Clinton or Obama. So it's no surprise that at the first whiff of the brewing scandal over the allegation that state contractors paid to play with Richardson, depending on who you want to believe, he booted himself from the Commerce secretary spot or got the boot from Obama.

The generally low public regard that Richardson was held in during his brief presidential foray seemed odd. Richardson is a three term Congressman who worked on the budget, gun control, abortion, and national security issues. He's traveled widely internationally as a sort of diplomat-without-portfolio and brokered deals with Saddam Hussein to free American captives. He bargained with Castro to gain the release of American political prisoners, and helped negotiate the release of US pilots held in North Korea. He served a quiet, but effective stint as UN ambassador in the mid-1990s. He's been praised as a bridge-builder. Later he served as Clinton's Energy Secretary. And he is, of course, is a two term New Mexico governor.

This stoked Richardson passion to be a major player in American politics. The problem as always was that the public didn't quite see Richardson as that major player. Despite his impressive political resume on paper, he recognized the glaring drawback. The title of his autobiography, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life, was a candid declaration that he was a man of two identities. He talked about his early life in which he grew up eating hot dogs on the Fourth of July and celebrating El Grito (Mexican Independence Day in September), as well as other American and Mexican holidays. In an interview with the Arizona Republic, in April 2007, Richardson was asked directly if being a Latino helped or hurt his ability to deal with both sides in the immigration debate.

The interviewer undoubtedly meant the pro and anti-immigration forces. It could have as easily been a double entendre for the duality of being a Latino American. There was the faint undertone of an invisible separation between the two in the question. Richardson's answer walked the razor thin line between the two worlds. This wasn't the end of the questioning of Richardson's possible dual loyalties. The interviewer also probed Richardson's accomplishments as governor and what that meant for the rest of the country. This was yet another way of putting Richardson on the spot about his public policy accomplishments and whether his achievements could translate out into broad voter appeal. Richardson took the cue and talked about the standard campaign issues of health care, the education budget, taxes, business growth and development in his state and insisted the positive marks he got on these issues proved he could be an effective national leader with wide appeal.

That was a pipe dream. Richardson was a politician with limited appeal who got the Commerce post as a political reward for smartly jumping on the Obama bandwagon, and because he is a good Democratic Party foot soldier.

The play for pay scandal just reinforced the notion that politicians who try so hard to be major players in the political ranks will often wheel and deal, cut corners, and or not averse to lining their campaign and even personal coffers with dubious contributions to get ahead.
When they do, and they're called out on it, it insures that they remain not just odd men out of the rarified political circles they desperately want to crack, but disgraced ones too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).