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First Lady Prefers Low-Key, Private Life

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    Barbara Richardson, smartly casual in a long skirt, sweater and boots, welcomed a North Korean delegation to a luncheon meeting at the Governor's Mansion in Santa Fe late last year, smiling and shaking hands as cameras from a half-dozen Asian TV networks captured the moment.
    A few minutes later, the first lady left the negotiating to her husband, ducked out of the mansion, bypassed the media gaggle, hopped into her gray Jeep— sans security detail— and drove off down the hill.
    That is Barbara Richardson in a snapshot— a gracious hostess, a private person, and happy to be in the background.
    During four years while her highly caffeinated husband has run his staff ragged in pursuit of an ambitious political agenda, Barbara Richardson has hosted dinner parties, taken tender care of the 4,000-square-foot Governor's Mansion and quietly pursued her own public service issues— literacy, childhood immunizations and domestic violence.
    Her public appearances are carefully chosen and relatively rare. She does not often play the role of adoring politician's wife, standing at his side at public functions. And she doesn't share a seat next to him at the concerts, Lobo games and boxing matches her husband likes to attend.
    The 57-year-old first lady declined an interview request for this series on the governor's career and presidential aspirations, saying she would rather the focus stay on him.
    But in 2002, shortly after her husband had been elected governor, Barbara Richardson sat down for an interview with a Journal reporter and talked about the challenges of her new role.
    "I'm a private person, basically, in a very public life; and it's about to get more public," she said.
    In the same interview five years ago, she was asked about speculation that her husband might run for president in 2008.
    Her response: "I'll tell you what I tell him, 'That's another life and another wife.' Honest to God. Not my bag. It's just not something that I even want to contemplate."
    Whether she likes it or not, it's her bag now.
    And her public life is about to get a lot more public once again.
    At a news conference at Richardson's presidential campaign headquarters the day after his official announcement, she sounded very on board, counting this campaign as yet another adventure in the 40-some years they have shared together.
    "We have had great experiences together in public life," she said, "and I look forward to this next one."
    Richardson's father, retired dentist John Flavin, said his daughter and son-in-law are portraits in contrast when it comes to large crowds and glad-handing— the bread and butter of the campaign trail.
    "She's not that way, and I think he respects her for that," Flavin said. "Hers is a lonely life, because he doesn't come home until 8 or 8:30— when he comes home at all. And they have no children, no family. So sitting at home alone every night is pretty tough, and if he goes on the campaign trail, it will be more of the same."
Study in contrasts
    The Richardsons met when they were kids. She was 16, and her family lived across the street from Middlesex School, where Richardson was a boarder. In a now-famous story, she picked him up when he was hitchhiking back to school from downtown Concord, Mass. Young love bloomed, survived frequent separations through college, and eventually, the childhood sweethearts married.
    He still calls her Barbie, and she still calls him Billy.
    The Richardsons are in their 50s now and have no children. Richardson's sister, Vesta, a pediatrician who lives in Mexico City, said they put off having children for the first years of their marriage, then tried to conceive but could not and decided against adopting.
    While Bill Richardson climbed an ever-more ambitious political ladder, his wife made homes in Washington, Santa Fe and New York. She established a business buying and selling antique accessories.
    From the outside, they may look unmatched: She has maintained a low-profile private life, while he has pursued a high-profile public life. She likes books and crossword puzzles and time at home, while he likes boxing and groups of 100. She is calm and good with money, while he is hyperactive and a spendthrift.
    Family and friends say they have a lot in common where it counts.
    "Well, you know," Vesta Richardson said, "they're the best partners I've ever known. Absolutely. They're partners. They talk about everything. She participates in every decision."
    Andrew Athy, a friend of the Richardsons who hosts them at his home on Cape Cod every summer, said Bill and Barbara have different styles but play on the same team.
    "He devours politics. I think she finds politics interesting and not much more than that," he said. "They have a very strong marriage, and she is completely supportive of his efforts. If he's being attacked, she will come to his defense. She's very proud of him."
    And the affection and support go both ways, their friends say.
    "He loves her a lot," Richardson's childhood friend Ignacio Vasquez said. "He always tells me that he loves her. He always says, 'I love her and I respect her.' My point of view is that sometimes Barbara is right behind Billy, quietly."
    Vesta Richardson said her sister-in-law performs important behind-the-scenes work such as balancing the books.
    "She's helped him a lot," she said. "He's a financial wreck, you know. He would have been a terrible banker, because he spends more than what he has. So she controls him. No credit cards, really, just x amount of money in his wallet."
    Vasquez, who has known Barbara since she was 16 and first visited Mexico City, said Barbara skips the governor's trips to Acapulco, where he goes three or four times a year to sun on the beach with relatives and friends. "She doesn't come often. She's not enchanted about coming here. She likes to be in her house, doing what she wants to do. She loves that," Vasquez said.
Beautiful partnership
    "We have a saying in the South that 'he outmarried himself.' And I think Barbara is a very good example of that," says Isabelle Watkins, a Georgia native who has worked for Richardson in Congress, at the United Nations and at the Department of Energy. "She's terrific. She's great."
    Watkins has watched the Richardsons interact for nearly 20 years.
    "He respects her judgment, too. She's very good on politics. If she says something is a good idea or a bad idea, he'll take that with a lot more weight than a lot of people. It's a very long thing, and they're very, very close. I think she's terrific, and I think he feels very lucky to have her."
    Other former Richardson staffers, from Congress, the United Nations and the Department of Energy, also sing Barbara Richardson's praises.
    "I'm a big Barbara fan. I love Barbara," said Rebecca Cooper, who worked for Richardson at the United Nations. "She was very supportive of staff, but she was not an interventionist."
    "I adore her. I think she's wonderful," said Maya Seiden, an aide to Richardson at the Energy Department. "I think she does not have the same personality that he does in terms of wanting attention. She's incredibly down-to-earth. I always thought their interaction was very cute. We'd be in the car all the time, and he'd call Barbie."
    Rebecca Gaghen, who worked for Richardson at the United Nations and the Energy Department, calls Barbara Richardson "a lovely woman, "poised" and "intelligent," who can be a great political asset to her husband on a national campaign trail.
    "They always say there's power behind the throne, but they are a great partnership," Gaghen said. "They understand each other. I always liked them very much as a couple. She understands him extremely well. It just works between them."