Bill Richardson's Most Treacherous Mission?

The daredevil pol could parachute into the Clinton Cabinet

He keeps popping up, Zelig-like, wherever Americans are being held captive by hostile forces. In the past month, he brokered the release of an American jailed on spy charges in North Korea and three Red Cross workers detained by rebel forces in Sudan. A swashbuckling commando, perhaps? Try an affable, chubby-cheeked congressman. The man with the mission is eight-term New Mexico Democrat Bill Richardson.

The next stop for Richardson, 49, is Bill Clinton's Cabinet. The senior member of the House Intelligence Committee is on the White House shortlist for Commerce or Energy Secretary or U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. His appointment to the Energy or U.N. slots would not be controversial. But some Democrats as well as Republicans privately question whether Richardson has the management skills to clean up the scandal-plagued Commerce Dept.

The President values more than just Richardson's diplomatic derring-do. A member of the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, he is a trusted adviser on issues from trade to the budget and health care. Besides, with Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pea and Housing & Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros on the way out, Clinton is anxious to name a Hispanic to his Cabinet. Richardson, whose mother is Mexican, is a senior member of the congressional Hispanic caucus.

WORDS OF PRAISE. Business execs who know him give Richardson high marks, despite his close ties to labor and environmental groups. A fiscal moderate, Richardson strongly backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. "I think he'd be very effective" in the Cabinet, says Harry C. Stonecipher, CEO of McDonnell Douglas Corp. In 1995, Richardson helped free two McDonnell engineers detained in Iraq, after three months of secret negotiations with an Iraqi diplomat and a tense meeting in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein.

Richardson wins praise for his efforts on more mundane business matters, too. For example, at the urging of high-tech companies, he helped amend a provision of a global trade accord that would have given foreign governments the right to force semiconductor makers to license their technology. "He's a nuts-and-bolts, can-do guy," says Michael C. Maibach, a vice-president at Intel Corp., the largest private employer in New Mexico.

On Capitol Hill, Richardson's reputation is mixed. His diplomatic prowess is widely admired, but some pols regard him as a showboater. Trade mavens especially are gloomy about Richardson's possible move to succeed Mickey Kantor at Commerce because he has little managerial experience and isn't steeped in economic issues. "There's nothing obvious he brings to the job," says one Washington trade expert. But State Dept. officials who have followed his negotiating exploits say Richardson is a quick study. And he may be able to parlay his international reputation and diplomatic smarts into commercial deal-making on behalf of U.S. business.

Navigating different cultures comes naturally to Richardson, who spent much of his childhood in Mexico City, where his American father was a Citibank executive. As a New Mexico politician, he has had to mediate disputes between Navajos, Apaches, and other Native American tribes--as well as appeal to his sprawling district's politically diverse Anglo and Hispanic communities. "Bill is an icon in New Mexico," says Richard Bloch, a real estate investor and Santa Fe neighbor. "He has really been able to bridge the differences" between his district's disparate interests.

Now, Richardson has the opportunity to take on a more high-profile role as a policymaker. Political analysts say he could use a cabinet post to buff his resume for a run for governor in 1998. But with GOP knives out to gut Commerce, Energy, and the U.N. budget, wherever he lands, Richardson will face another rescue mission.

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