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Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and UN ambassador, dies at Chatham’s home

Bill Richardson, a two-term Democratic governor of New Mexico and a US ambassador to the United Nations who devoted his post-political career to liberating Americans imprisoned abroad, has passed away. He was 75.

The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which he founded and directed, said in a statement Saturday that he died in his sleep at his home in Chatham, Massachusetts.

“He has served others throughout his life — including both his time in government and his subsequent career helping to free people held hostage or wrongly held abroad,” said Mickey Bergman, vice president from the center. “There was not a person that Governor Richardson would not speak to if it was a promise to bring someone back to freedom. The world has lost a champion to those wrongfully detained abroad, and I have lost a mentor and a dear friend.”

Prior to his election as governor in 2002, Richardson was UN ambassador and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton and served as a congressman for northern New Mexico for 14 years.

Richardson also traveled the world as an unofficial diplomatic troubleshooter, negotiating the release of hostages and US military personnel from North Korea, Iraq, Cuba and Sudan. He negotiated with a who’s who of America’s opponents, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It was a role Richardson enjoyed, once describing himself as “the casual undersecretary for felons.”

Armed with a golden resume and a wealth of experience in foreign and domestic affairs, Richardson ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, hoping to become the country’s first Latin American president. He dropped out of the race after finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

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Richardson was the country’s only Hispanic governor during his two terms. He described the governorship as “the best job I’ve ever had.”

“It’s the most fun. You can get most of it done. You set the agenda,” said Richardson.

As governor, Richardson signed legislation in 2009 repealing the death penalty. He called it the “hardest decision in my political life” because he had previously supported the death penalty.

Other accomplishments as governor included minimum salaries of $50,000 a year for New Mexico’s most qualified teachers, an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 an hour, kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds, the requirements for renewable energy for utilities and financing for major infrastructure projects, including a commercial spaceport in southern New Mexico and a $400 million commuter rail system.

Richardson continued his freelance diplomacy even while serving as governor. He had just begun his first term as governor when he met two North Korean envoys in Santa Fe. He traveled to North Korea in 2007 to collect the remains of American soldiers who had died in the Korean War. In 2006, he convinced Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to release Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Paul Salopek.

Richardson transformed the political landscape in New Mexico. He has raised and spent record amounts on his campaigns. He brought Washington-style politics to a jovial Western state with a part-time legislature.

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Lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, complained that Richardson threatened retaliation against those who opposed him. Senator Tim Jennings of the Democratic state’s Roswell once said that Richardson “hit people over the head” when dealing with lobbyists on a health care issue. Richardson rejected criticism of his managerial style.

“Admittedly, I am aggressive. I use the pulpit of the governorship,” Richardson said. “But I’m not threatening retaliation. They say I am a vengeful person. I just don’t believe that.”

Longtime friends and supporters attributed Richardson’s success in part to his ruthlessness. Bob Gallagher, head of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said if Richardson wanted something done, “expect him to have a shotgun at the end of the hall.” Or a ramrod.”

After Richardson pulled out of the 2008 presidential race, he supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. That happened despite a long-standing friendship with the Clintons.

Obama later appointed Richardson Secretary of Commerce, but Richardson backed down in early 2009 due to a federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving his government in New Mexico.

Months later, the federal investigation ended with no charges against Richardson and his former top aides. Richardson had a difficult tenure as Secretary of Energy due to a scandal over the lack of computer hardware containing nuclear weapons secrets at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the government’s investigation and prosecution of former nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee.

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Richardson approved Lee’s resignation from Los Alamos in 1999. Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, charged with 59 counts of mishandling sensitive information. Lee later pleaded guilty to mishandling computer files and was released with a federal judge’s apology.

William Blaine Richardson was born in Pasadena, California, but grew up in Mexico City to a Mexican mother and an American father who was a director of an American bank.

He attended prep school in Massachusetts and was a star baseball player. He later attended Tufts University and graduate school in international relations, earning a master’s degree in international affairs.

Richardson moved to New Mexico in 1978 after working as a Capitol Hill staffer. He wanted to run for political office and said New Mexico, with its Hispanic roots, seemed like a good place. Just two years later, he was campaigning for Congress—his only losing race.

In 1982, he won a new congressional seat in northern New Mexico, which the state picked up in redistricting. He resigned from Congress in 1997 to join the Clinton administration as a UN ambassador and became Secretary of Energy in 1998, serving in this position until the end of the Clinton presidency.

This is a development story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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