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Obama says Richardson key part of team

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
       WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that Bill Richardson will be an integral part of his economic team as U.S. commerce secretary and that the former U.N. ambassador will help rebuild America's "economic diplomacy."
    Obama, speaking at a Chicago news conference announcing Richardson's nomination to the Cabinet, also said the job was not a consolation prize for the New Mexico governor, who apparently was considered for the higher-profile secretary of state position before Obama offered it to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
    "Commerce secretary is a pretty good job," Obama said. "It's a member of my key economic team that is going to be dealing with the most significant issue that America faces right now, and that is how do we put people back to work and rejuvenate the economy.
    "Bill Richardson has been selected because he is the best person for that job," Obama added. "The notion that somehow the commerce secretary is not going to be central to everything we do is fundamentally mistaken."
    Richardson, 61, joined the president-elect in Chicago for the announcement and called it "a great honor." He said the Commerce Department can help get America's economy back on track.
    "There is a vital role for the Department of Commerce in our economic recovery," Richardson said. "The unique strengths of the department and its talented public servants make it the natural programmatic agency to serve as the nerve center in America's struggle to rejuvenate our economy."
    He also predicted that the Commerce Department will help promote "millions of new jobs" in clean energy production, manufacturing and other segments of the economy.
    Richardson had a special message for New Mexico, which he served as a congressman for 14 years and as governor for the past six years.
    "New Mexico, I will never forget you and I will always be grateful," Richardson said.
    It is unclear when Richardson will leave office in New Mexico, but he said in a statement Wednesday that he will remain on the job for the start of the state legislative session and will not resign until he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. That could push his departure into February or later.
    As commerce secretary, Richardson will take over a sprawling federal agency with headquarters two blocks from the White House, with nearly 40,000 employees and a widely divergent set of responsibilities. Agencies that report to the commerce secretary include the International Trade Administration, Bureau of the Census, the Patent and Trademark Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
    Richardson's resume doesn't boast formal economic training, but he has made job creation and economic development a centerpiece of his tenure as New Mexico governor. Obama said the former U.S. energy secretary and sometime global diplomatic troubleshooter will bring diverse skills to the Department of Commerce.
    "With his breadth and depth of experience in public life, Governor Richardson is uniquely suited for this role as a leading economic diplomat for America," he said.
    Obama credited Richardson with "helping to create 80,000 new jobs" in New Mexico — a number that seems to be supported by academic research but that also might be attributable, at least in part, to normal economic growth.
    In 2003, the first full year of Richardson's first term, 835,835 people were employed in New Mexico, according to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico. By 2007, 909,968 people were employed, meaning an increase of 74,133 jobs. It's believed that another 6,000 jobs have been added in 2008.
    Richardson is the first Hispanic that Obama has appointed to a Cabinet-level position.
    "I think people are going to say this is one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs of all time, but more importantly they are going to say these are all people with outstanding qualifications and excellence," Obama said. "It just so happens that Bill Richardson is one of those people."
    Richardson's appointment was not without some controversy. A group of Chinese-Americans has been circulating a petition opposing Richardson's nomination, citing his role as energy secretary in the controversial firing of Wen Ho Lee, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who was embroiled in an espionage scandal but ultimately not found culpable.
    Meanwhile, The Politico Web site reported Wednesday on Richardson's business dealings after he left the Clinton administration, suggesting he cashed in on his government experience by collecting director's fees and stock options. During his presidential campaign, Obama decried the cozy connections between business and former government officials.
    Terri Cole, president of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said Richardson exceeded expectations of the New Mexico business community after he took office in 2003. He created jobs and cut taxes — both of which helped jump-start New Mexico's economy, Cole said.
    "Most people in the business community appreciate his priority of growing this economy while he was governor," Cole said. "He did more than just talk about it; he delivered some real results."
    Beverlee McClure, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry in New Mexico and a former state secretary of higher education under Richardson, welcomed Richardson's appointment, partly because, she said, his high profile could elevate a department that has historically flown under the radar.
    "Having someone with great name recognition will be beneficial," McClure said. "You can't put Bill Richardson on the back burner."