A Question for Bill Richardson

I really wish New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson would remain the globe-spanning international problem fixer that he has been for many years. New Mexicans seem to like their Governor-Diplomat, and Richardson seems not to be in any trouble for expanding his job responsibilities to include many things beyond New Mexico's water wars with Texas and the issue that New Mexico ranks 47th in the nation in terms of per capita income.

But Bill Richardson has announced that he is in, too. And so we have yet another presidential candidate who probably has little chance of actually winning the nod of Democratic Party primary voters.

But his obsessive flirtation with the White House steals oxygen, in my view, from many other excellent Hispanic-Americans who might otherwise move forward if he were not always the front-runner Hispanic who could not go all of the way.

I could be wrong -- and I will correct course if that's appropriate down the road -- but as someone who worked with Bill Richardson's staff closely when he was in the House of Representatives as I worked in the Senate as a senior staff member to Senator Jeff Bingaman, I have seen Richardson and his team up close. I know many of those who worked for him then and who worked for him as Secretary of Energy and then at the United Nations -- and now lots of folks who work in his administration in Santa Fe.

The personal activities of candidates and the public ambitions ought not to collide as much as they do in our world -- but there are issues that Richardson needs to address that involve his own blurring of public responsibilities and 'what should be' private behavior.

I will frame this as a "question" for Bill Richardson.

Have you behaved inappropriately or not in public settings with female members of your government administration, jokingly or not? Have you gestured to female public servants and political appointees -- who work as colleagues with you -- and made lewd gestures, specifically pointing to them and then pointing at your crotch with a room full of media and other politicos there in the room?

I ask this not to demean or undermine Richardson.

I ask it because I was not in the room when this particular incident occurred but many others were -- and rumors have long swept around Santa Fe that Bill Richardson makes a constant festive joke out of demeaning women. These incidents don't have to do with the comments by Lt. Governor Diane Denish that Richardson is a "touchy" and "feely" Governor. They have to do with questions about a far more crude kind of gesture that demeans professional women.

These concerns I have heard may be completely contrived, but after speaking with several senior level New Mexico officials, my sense is that it needs to at a minimum be addressed by the Governor who wants to be President. Some suggest that Richardson "can't stop himself" or "doesn't even realize what he is doing" or thinks that "this sort of thing is part of New Mexico's political scene."

Given that Richardson has thrown his hat into the biggest political contest in the country -- he needs to address publicly concerns about his views towards and treatment of women. Arnold Schwarzenegger fessed up to some of his past misbehavior and moved forward successfully. Governor Richardson could do this too.

Richardson needs to articulate his own views and either categorically deny that anything that could have been perceived as seriously demeaning to women were contrivances of those around him. It would be good for him to give a talk or speech about how important work/family issues are and to manage to weave into that talk respect for women and the requirement that they be free from "good old boy" style harassment.

In the middle of the "first phase" of the John Bolton confirmation battle over his appointment to serve as US Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson was one of several leading Democratic Party pundits on the Sunday morning shows who predicted that despite the early fireworks and surprising twists at the start of the Bolton confirmation process that he would be confirmed. Then Democratic Party Whip Dick Durbin and Senator Patrick Leahy did the same.

I wrote to all three.

I informed them that the twists and turns that had occurred in the Bolton process had been in part the result of writers, former government officials, concerned NGOs, and this blogger in trying to raise fundamental questions about the appropriateness of Bolton for the UN role.

I told them that they were "flying on automatic pilot" and their cynicism about the potential success of our work was not only undermining us but would also inhibit moderate Republicans from joining what we were doing -- and that was essential to win.

I told them that the Bolton battle was about more than just John Bolton and was for many of us a "proxy battle" over the kind of pugnacious, anti-internationalism that had become the dominant personality of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Senator Durbin had the integrity and guts to issue a public statement through The Washington Note and graciously reversed his position. Senator Leahy also acknowledged that he had "given the wrong signals" and went down to the floor of the Senate to rededicate himself to advising President Bush to withdraw John Bolton's nomination.

Bill Richardson instead sent me an email saying he was grateful for the work of the NGO crowd on Bolton, but that I should "stop biting" a friend.

I do like Bill Richardson and feel that he has helped create a motif for state involvement in real international problems that other governors would be wise to follow. I also think that Richardson thrives on complex, tough negotiations and is often able to get some of the world's worst thugs to do the right thing for a moment. My hat is tipped to him -- seriously -- for the great contributions he has made in the international arena.

But I raise these other matters not "to bite" Bill Richardson, friend or not.

I raise them because Bill Richardson needed to be told he was undermining us on John Bolton. He needed to be told to back off on that because he had crossed lines that others in the fight could not accept. He wanted the matter ignored perhaps, or pushed under the rug.

But that's not the way transparent and honest politics should occur in this country. Bill Richardson might make a great President. He is a leader and he has great talents.

But he needs to solve this perceived problem in his political portfolio and address it now. He will possibly see this post as a "biting" one again. But it might just help him as well if he knows that this issue is lurking out there in the minds of many -- and he should just come out and put it to rest.

If he does, I'll be the first to applaud and withdraw my concern. And then I'll write more about some of the fascinating (and good) wheeling and dealing that Bill Richardson has done for many Americans in real trouble.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note