New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is a larger-than-life presence in his state’s Feb. 3, 2004, presidential caucuses.
The former House Member and Energy secretary during the Clinton administration, who was elected to the state’s top post in 2002, has not only been the prime mover behind the election but has also sprinkled his top lieutenants throughout the campaigns of the frontrunning candidates for the presidential nomination.
Fred Nathan, executive director of a Santa Fe-based progressive think tank, suggested that “you get the impression that these candidates won’t use a john in New Mexico without the governor’s permission.”
Richardson’s chief fundraiser Jamie Koch, a former state party chairman with close ties to former Gov. Bruce King (D), is serving as the head of Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) presidential operation. Ed Romero, Richardson’s campaign chairman and a major player in the Hispanic community, is working for retired Gen. Wesley Clark. House Speaker Ben Lujan, a longtime Richardson confidant, has thrown his support behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
And, at an event in Albuquerque last week, Richardson lavished praise on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, crediting him with having the strongest organization in the state.
Richardson has repeatedly said he will not endorse any candidate because of his position as the chairman of the 2004 Democratic Convention. He has also ruled out the possibility of serving as a vice presidential candidate, although some remain skeptical that Richardson would turn down the post if it was offered.
For the moment, Richardson is clearly enjoying the limelight cast on his state and is seeking to take full advantage for both himself and the Land of Enchantment.
Expending significant political capital early in his administration, Richardson backed a proposal to move the state’s presidential contest from its traditional June date to the first week of February, arguing that it would increase the influence of the state in picking the party’s nominee. The state adopted a hybrid caucus format (known officially as a party-run primary) making the balloting even more of an insider’s game.
Unlike the Iowa caucuses, New Mexico voters will not be required to spend hours whittling down the candidates.
Voters will be able to enter their polling place, cast a ballot and leave — much like in a traditional primary. There will be fewer places to vote and the polls will only be open from noon to 7 p.m., both elements typical of a caucus.
One Democratic Party official estimated that 50,000 voters will participate in the caucuses, roughly half of which will vote by mail. Voters can request mail-in ballots starting Dec. 15.
Richardson also pushed hard to have the first Democratic National Committee-sponsored presidential debate in the state, which took place Sept. 5 in Albuquerque.
“This is going to put New Mexico on the map,” predicted Joe Velasquez, a Hispanic political consultant and the head of Richardson’s Moving America Forward political action committee. “It is clearly getting a great deal more attention than it has in the past.”
Moving America Forward has benefited from Richardson’s ever-increasing national profile.
In its most recent filing, the committee showed nearly $200,000 raised from Sept. 23 to Oct. 15. Contributions included a $100,000 donation from the Laborers’ Political League, $50,000 from the AFL-CIO, $35,000 from the Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers and $25,000 from the International Association of Firefighters.
Moving America Forward ended the period with more than $400,000 in its bank account.
Richardson’s practiced neutrality has not kept him from opining about the race, specifically which candidates have what it takes to be president.
The New Mexico Democrat has said publicly that Clark, Dean, Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) are all in the top tier, a lineup generally reflective of current candidate standings in the state.
“Dean has the lead here,” said Amanda Cooper, political director of Moving America Forward.
Cooper said that Dean’s recent endorsement by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will provide him a further boost as the union has a strong presence in the state.
“With that [endorsement] comes a lot of organization and turnout,” Cooper said.
Dean has also secured the backing of several prominent Hispanics in the state, including Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and former Gov. Toney Anaya, a liberal Democrat who served from 1982 to 1986.
Hispanics make up 42 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2001 Census and will represent a significantly larger chunk of Democratic caucus-goers.
American Indians make up another 10 percent of the population, a major reason why Dean, Clark and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) all appeared in person (and draped with traditional American Indian wool blankets to boot) at the National Congress of American Indians meeting last week in Albuquerque. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gephardt sent taped messages; Kerry appeared via satellite.
One potential hurdle for Dean is the support for Kucinich in the liberal enclave of Santa Fe, where the Ohio Congressman’s vehement opposition to the war in Iraq may bleed some support from Dean.
Velasquez said that Dean and Gephardt have been the most “in your face” presence in the state.
As is the case in several Feb. 3 states, Gephardt is relying heavily on his support within the labor community to organize and turn out voters.
“In terms of a caucus, labor still has a very strong presence in New Mexico,” Cooper said.
Gephardt’s field operation in the state is being headed by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee National Field Director Cathy Duvall.
Democratic Rep. Tom Udall said that Gephardt “has a track record in New Mexico of working with labor and working in our Congressional races.”
Udall has not endorsed any candidate but has either met with or introduced Clark, Kerry and Dean.
Udall said he does expect to eventually endorse in the primary, but is currently working as a broker between New Mexico voters and the presidential candidates.
“I help them learn the issues and learn about the state,” he said.
Although he has been in the race for less than two months, Clark has already visited the state twice, and neutral observers believe his background will resonate well with the large contingent of retired military men and women in the state. Roughly 15 percent of the state’s population are veterans.
“There is a big military presence here,” said one New Mexico political operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Clark will do better than the pundits think. He has some momentum.”
Another major piece of Clark’s viability is Romero, the former ambassador to Spain during the Clinton administration. Romero has significant ties both to the Hispanic community and the major money players in the state.