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Governor Drops Out of Commerce Consideration, Cites Federal Probe

By Jeff Jones
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Politics Writer

          Gov. Bill Richardson's surprise weekend announcement to pull the plug on his nomination for U.S. commerce secretary stunned political observers nationwide and transformed New Mexico's political scene in the blink of an eye, derailing Lt. Gov. Diane Denish's planned transition to the state's top job.
        Richardson on Sunday made national news when he announced he was withdrawing his nomination for the Cabinet post in President-elect Barack Obama's administration, citing a federal investigation into how a big-money political contributor landed lucrative state contracts.
        Richardson in a statement said that, while he has done nothing improper, the grand jury probe could have caused an unacceptable delay in his confirmation by the U.S. Senate, which was expected to take up his confirmation in the coming days.
        "Let me say unequivocally that I and my administration have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact," Richardson said in the statement. "But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process. Given the gravity of the economic situation the nation is facing, I could not in good conscience ask the President-elect and his administration to delay for one day the important work that needs to be done."
        Later Sunday, ABC News — citing unidentified sources — said Obama transition team officials felt Richardson was not sufficiently forthcoming with them about the investigation before Obama offered him the job.
        Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos disputed that.
        "The governor was forthcoming," Gallegos said.
        Gallegos said the Obama administration did not pressure Richardson into the decision to withdraw, adding, "This was the governor's decision."
        Obama in a written statement called Richardson an "outstanding public servant," adding that, "It is a measure of his willingness to put the nation first that he has removed himself as a candidate for the cabinet in order to avoid any delay in filling this important economic post at this critical time."
        While both administrations signaled that Richardson could land a future job under Obama — "the governor considers this temporary," Gallegos said — Journal pollster and political analyst Brian Sanderoff said the weekend news carries serious political impact.
        "Today could be the biggest political setback in Bill Richardson's long and successful political career," Sanderoff said. "A man like Bill Richardson would not make the decision to withdraw his name lightly. He's a fighter."
        Abrupt decision?
        The news that Richardson wouldn't be heading back to Washington, D.C., after all — or at least not as soon as expected — appeared to come out of the blue: Just last week, meetings between staff members of Richardson and Denish were taking place nearly daily as Denish prepared to become New Mexico's first female governor.
        Gallegos disputed the contention that the decision was abrupt, saying it was something Richardson, who was announced on Dec. 3 as Obama's choice for the Commerce job, had been pondering.
        "This matter was not concluded as quickly as he hoped it would," Gallegos said, referring to the federal investigation.
        Gallegos said Richardson informed Obama of his decision Saturday and told Denish and other top New Mexico political leaders Sunday.
        Denish, who is in Washington, D.C., to attend swearing-in ceremonies for the state's congressional members, did not return Journal phone messages but issued a written statement about the news.
        "The president-elect said he looks forward to Gov. Richardson joining the administration in the days ahead," Denish said. "In the meantime, Gov. Richardson and I will work together, as we have over the last six years, to tackle challenges at home, to craft a workable budget with the Legislature and to strengthen our economy."
        However, Denish wasn't immediately nixing all of her transition plans. In a Sunday evening e-mail to her volunteer transition advisory team members, transition director Kathy Keith said, "The work of the transition advisory teams will continue along the same schedule."
        Keith describes herself in the e-mail as: "Transition Director, Incoming-Governor Diane Denish."
        Bingaman support
        Veteran Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a Journal interview that he was among those Richardson phoned Sunday morning.
        Bingaman said he had heard no rumblings in D.C. about a potential Senate showdown over Richardson's confirmation.
        "I'm not on the Commerce Committee, where the confirmation hearing would have been held, but I think I would have been hearing if there was any significant opposition to him being confirmed," Bingaman said.
        "I thought he would have strong support in his confirmation process, and obviously, I strongly support him," Bingaman said. "... I didn't try to talk him out of it. I just told him I was disappointed, and (that) he would do extremely well in that position."
        New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Allen Weh said Richardson's announcement shouldn't come as a surprise.
        "You've got a serious investigation taking place," Weh said.
        He added that, while everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence, "It's still not good business for an administration to take a Cabinet officer who has to deal with this — and that becomes the focus, as opposed to stepping into office and carrying out his duties."
        Democratic and Republican state Senate leaders also got calls from Richardson on Sunday.
        "It was a surprising call," said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. "I had certainly thought that, basically, the governor was going to be the new commerce secretary of the United States."
        State Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, who had not spoken with the governor, said he doesn't believe the news will weaken Richardson politically heading into the upcoming session of the state Legislature. The session will be dominated by budget concerns.
        "It shouldn't hinder him any more so than any lame-duck governor," said Cisneros, the nominee for Senate president pro tem for the upcoming session. "Irrespective of who's the governor at the time, we all have to work in a unified manner in an effort to turn our economy around. Whether it's lame-duck Richardson or takeover Denish, we're all poised to do the best we can under the circumstances."
       



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