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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bill Richardson, champion of Americans held overseas, dies at 75

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico in his office in 2010. He served two terms, from 2003 to 2011, and was the nation’s only Hispanic governor.

By Sam Roberts

Bill Richardson, who served two terms as governor of New Mexico and 14 years as a congressman, then continued to devote himself to liberating Americans who were being held hostage or who he believed were being wrongfully detained by hostile countries overseas, died Friday at his summer home in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He was 75.

His death was announced by the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which he founded. A cause was not given.

Under President Bill Clinton, Richardson was also ambassador to the United Nations, succeeding Madeleine Albright in early 1997, after having served in the House of Representatives, as a member of the New Mexico delegation, from January 1983 to February 1997, and as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He was Clinton’s secretary of energy from 1998 until 2001.

Born in California — his mother had traveled to Pasadena from Mexico City, where the family was living, to give birth so there were would be no question about his citizenship — and descended from William Brewster, a passenger on the Mayflower, Richardson was the nation’s only Hispanic governor during his two terms, from 2003 to 2011.

Rep. Gabe Vasquez, D-N.M., described Richardson in a statement as “one of the most powerful Hispanics in politics that this nation has seen.”

But his home-state popularity — he was reelected in 2006 by a 68% to 32% margin, a record for New Mexico — did not translate into national office.

In 2008, Richardson mounted a short-lived campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination but finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Despite having served in the Clinton administration, he endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton.

After winning the presidency, Obama nominated Richardson as secretary of commerce, but Richardson withdrew because of a pending investigation into allegations of improper business dealings in his home state. No charges were ever filed against him, and the investigation was later dropped.

After Richardson completed his second term as governor, he honed the quasi-public and freelance diplomacy skills that he had learned first in college and further developed on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and when he worked on congressional relations for the State Department under Henry Kissinger.

His separate humanitarian missions on behalf of some 80 families won the release of hostages and American servicemen in countries hostile to the United States, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and Colombia.

“I plead guilty to photo ops and getting human beings rescued and improving the lives of human beings,” he once said.

In 2006, he persuaded President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to free Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Paul Salopek.

The next year, he went to North Korea to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War.

He helped negotiate the release of Michael White, a Navy veteran who was freed by Iran in 2020; flew to Moscow for a meeting with Russian government officials in the months before the release last year of Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran, in a prisoner swap; and worked on the case of Brittney Griner, a WNBA star who was held prisoner and later released by Moscow.

He also helped secure the 2021 release of American journalist Danny Fenster from a Myanmar prison and this year negotiated the freedom of Taylor Dudley, who had crossed the border from Poland into Russia.

William Blaine Richardson III was born Nov. 15, 1947, in Pasadena. His father, who was of Anglo-American and Mexican descent, was a bank executive from Boston who worked in Mexico for what is now Citibank and had been born on a ship en route to Nicaragua when his own father, a biologist, was on his way to collect museum specimens.

“My father had a complex about not having been born in the United States,” Richardson told The Washington Post in 2007.

That was why his mother, Maria Luisa Lopez-Collada Marquez, the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Spanish father who had been his father’s secretary, was dispatched to California to give birth to Richardson.

When he was 13, Richardson was sent to the United States and attended Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts. He earned a bachelor’s degree in French and political science in 1970 from Tufts University in Middlesex County, Massachusetts — he also pitched in the Cape Cod League — and a master’s in international affairs in 1971 from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.

In 1972, he married Barbara Flavin, whom he had met in high school. She survives him. His survivors also include their daughter, Heather Blaine Richardson.

After working in Washington, Richardson had become smitten with politics and moved to New Mexico, where, given his Hispanic heritage, he figured he had the greatest chance of being elected to public office. He ran for Congress in 1980 and lost — his only electoral defeat until the 2008 presidential race — but was elected from a new district covering northern New Mexico in 1980.

As governor, he raised teachers’ salaries, abolished the death penalty, signed legislation to allow New Mexicans to carry concealed handguns, established a fund to pay for public works, supported gay rights, raised the minimum wage and offered prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds. But he declined to pardon William H. Bonney, known as Billy the Kid, for killing a New Mexico sheriff 130 years earlier. (Bonney was said to have been promised a pardon if he testified in another case.)

Richardson said of his two terms as governor: “It’s the most fun. You can get the most done. You set the agenda.”

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