Campaign Crawlers

Doing the Hispanic Hustle

Bill Richardson could have a future -- once we all learn Spanish.

By 3.20.06

On Saturday night I ventured out to Manchester, N.H., to see New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, probable contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, give the keynote speech at a fundraiser for the state legislature's minority caucus. As I sat at a corner table in the small Mexican restaurant, the room began to take on the atmosphere of a foreign airport. If Richardson was my flight, he was either delayed or cancelled. I couldn't tell which. All the announcements were in Spanish. Though varying in length and urgency, each bulletin had a shared characteristic: "Bill Richardson" were the only two words I could pick out in any of them.

Now I'm not one of these people who can be thrown into an indignant apoplexy whenever an ATM offers my options in Spanish. Robust immigration does not signal the end of Western civilization to me and would not even be a cautious blip on my inner radar screen if not for the welfare state. But let's be reasonable. This is New Hampshire. One assumes the minority caucus wants to increase its influence in the state and raise cash, no? Is rendering much of the event inaccessible to many of the very people they are seeking support from the best way to gain access to the political system? Probably not.

At last, after 45 minutes of this odd limbo, Richardson came sashaying in, completely at ease in the candidate-schmoozer role. Hugs, exaggerated recognitions, first names, slaps on the back and fake boxing stances abounded. It was a little disappointing to not see him in the traditional Mexican garb he sometimes throws on. Khakis and a fancy blue dress coat with bright gold cufflinks would have to do. As he made the rounds Richardson begged off calls for him to cut the proverbial rug, demurring that his Southwestern boots made it impossible.

I wondered if the English portion of the program was about to begin. "We're going to sing something Mexican tonight!" the house singer announced as colored lights spun around him on the small dance floor and a karaoke machine cranked up the background music. Guess not. Another ten minutes passed. The music stopped. Someone got up to introduce Richardson -- in Spanish. At least this time there was a translator.

"I feel like I'm in New Mexico tonight!" Richardson said to the 100 or so New Hampshire Hispanics who, along with a few dozen Anglos, crowded the small restaurant. (There are about 25,000 Hispanics in the state.) Not a bad draw by any measure for a candidate nearly two years out from the primary.

And then he gave a short speech a good deal of which was...in Spanish. It was admirably non-partisan, however. "I'm a Democrat and I hope everyone here is a Democrat," he said. "But if you're not, that's okay, because I want our people stronger in the Republican Party and the independent parties, too. I want our people stronger everywhere." He also urged attendees to "be proud to be Latino but know you are also part of the American mainstream."

The response from Spanish speakers to this and all the rest I couldn't understand was fairly raucous, but the language barrier left most of the Granite State's traditional middle class white liberals in attendance a bit off balance. Confused eyes betrayed many smiles, but in the interest of diversity people were willing to laugh and clap a few seconds behind the others. It was a noble effort that didn't go entirely unnoticed.

"Thanks to all you non-Hispanics, too," Richardson said as he wrapped things up. "Your presence tonight shows you care about diversity and the American dream. And we appreciate that."

Now if only we understood half of what had been said...

SOME FORTY-EIGHT HOURS after Richardson left the stage in Manchester with a shout of "Viva New Hampshire!" I caught up with the governor at a seminar for political science students at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H. They had been instructed to read his book, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life and be prepared to ask questions. But Richardson was not there to test their Spanish.

"I'm an American of Hispanic heritage," he explained after giving an appropriately vague answer on bilingual education. "I'm not a professional Hispanic. I'm not just interested in Hispanic issues."

Instead, Richardson steered the conversation towards values. To wit: Richardson said, "One thing I've learned is that there is a difference between having values and having political skills," citing as examples two of the great moral paragons of our time, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. He divulged even more: He told the students his political hero was Hubert Humphrey. Blank faces. Long pause. "And John F. Kennedy." Recognition, smiles.

Richardson also added to that list one non-American president: The Big Boss in that Great White House in the Sky.

"My sense of social justice comes from my Catholic faith," Richardson explained sans any prodding. The former U.N. ambassador laid it on pretty thick, too, contending that when he was conflicted about whether to raise the minimum wage or not he sought guidance from his priest who, of course, told him to jack it up as high as the legislature would allow him to, providing yet one more example of why we as a nation don't elect Catholic priests to Congress anymore.

Students, however, preferred to ask Richardson about details of his negotiations with Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and the North Koreans. Interestingly enough, no one asked to hear about his negotiations with Monica Lewinsky, but, then again, those didn't go quite as well as the others.

Richardson described Castro as the "most informed" of all the world leaders he'd met, but admitted he was driven to distraction by the dictator's "terrible dandruff."

"I said, 'Man, I need to get this guy some Head & Shoulders,'" Richardson joked.

Richardson also dished that after closing the deal with the Butcher of Baghdad to gain the release of some prisoners, he and Saddam agreed there was no political worth for either of them in having their picture taken together, so Richardson told Saddam he was instead going to church to "Thank the Lord" for apparently helping out with the negotiations. Saddam's response, "I hope you don't go to confession. Then you'll never leave."

The students, clearly enthralled, broke into laughter. Richardson had felt around for a bit until he found what they were looking for from him and provided it with a flourish. It was no different for the crowd at the Mexican restaurant.

Think back to how uncomfortable the Democratic presidential candidates looked during that train wreck Spanish debate during the 2004 primaries as they mangled what few Spanish phrases they'd crammed for the occasion. Now imagine Richardson in the same situation. Imagine someone at ease and able to move deftly between the extremes. On Sunday he was one of the guests of honor at the Manchester St. Patrick's Day parade, for God's sake, and was well received to boot.

This is no one trick pony. This is a savvy politician and if he takes this campaign seriously, he will put up a serious challenge.

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