Welcome Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico formally announced yesterday he is running for president in 2008. We welcome him to the race. We will not sing too many of his praises here. We are sure websites will pop up to do the praise singing for him. We will note that many Democrats thought Governor Richardson would have made an excellent Vice Presidential pick in the 2004 election and many more think he will make an excellent running mate in 2008.

Unfortunately Richardson turned in a very disappointing performance at the first Democratic debate held in late April. It is possible, as Brian Williams has acknowledged, that the heat was too high in the debate hall for the weak air conditioners or that the sound system was a problem for candidates on the edges of the stage, such as Richardson. What cannot be denied is that Richardson twitched a bit too much and at best provided dubious answers, such as the one about the type of Supreme Court nominee he would consider as a model.

Governor Richardson has some strong pluses to recommend him as a Vice Presidential pick in 2008. He is a Latino in a nation with a large voting bloc of Latinos. He is a current governor. He speaks Spanish and French fluently. His history includes a stint as American Ambassador to the United Nations. He was a congressional representative from New Mexico for 14 years. He was the Secretary of Energy. He has negotiated with Saddam Hussein, the North Koreans and the Sudanese regarding Darfur. In short Governor Richardson has an impressive history.

Along with Governor Richardson’s impressive history we have to add that as Governor of New Mexico he comes from the Southwestern region of the country where Democrats have the opportunity to make big inroads. Hillary Clinton would probably add Arkansas to her win column so it would be a good idea to buttress strengths in the Southwest with a Governor from the region.

Also, Governor Richardson as a Latino would cement Democratic victories in states such as New York, California and New Jersey which have large Latino populations. This might become very important if, as we expect, Mayor Bloomberg decides to announce next May that he is running for president. A Latino on the ticket might also bring victory in states with large Latino populations such as Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas (well, maybe not).

There is however, one red flag that must be addressed whether we like it or not: he is a Latino. We wrote a while back a post called Does Obama’s Skin Color Matter In The Presidential Election? We questioned, with empirical evidence and anecdotal evidence the idea that race no longer matters in the selection of our leaders. We pointed out that most African-Americans scoff at the notion that race is not a crucial factor in their lives nor in elections.

We thought that a similar prejudice would not apply to Latino candidates but apparently we were wrong, it does. Even as the latest Des Moines Register and Zogy polls boost Richardson to 10% support, more disturbing trends emerged from that poll.

“On the other hand, Clinton’s quest to become the first woman elected president gives her at least a small advantage in Iowa. Nearly one-fourth of likely caucus participants say they are more likely to support a candidate for that reason, while just 9 percent say less likely. The rest say it makes no difference.

“She’s a woman and I’m a woman and we’re way overdue,” said poll respondent Kay Frances Scott, 63, of Salix in western Iowa.

“She’s a seasoned politician. She’s very, very smart and I always liked her health care initiative when her husband was president,” said Scott, a writer and actor and teacher.

The Iowa Poll also shows that seeking election as the first black president, as Obama is trying to do, is somewhat more of a plus than a minus. Fifteen percent say it makes them more likely to support that person; 8 percent, less likely; 76 percent, no difference.

Sentiment turns slightly negative when it comes to electing the first Hispanic president, which would apply to Richardson if he makes it to the White House. Eight percent say it makes them more likely to support that person; 12 percent, less likely; 79 percent, no difference.”

This is not the first poll in which being a Latino candidate causes voters to hesitate. Earlier national polls reported the same phenomenon. We think the problem might be greater than the current numbers suggest and that voters are simply lying to pollsters. We also suspect that voters are lying profusely when they are questioned about their potential support for an African-American candidate. We suspect this because there are not many statewide elected Latinos (Colorado being an exception) but even much less statewide elected African-American officials.

None of this means that Democrats should base their votes on fear or prejudice. For instance, we hear all the time that Americans will not elect a woman president. That argument does not resonate much because the polling shows otherwise, but more importantly the evidence contradicts it too, namely the many women elected to statewide offices. It does mean that we need to keep our attention on fighting these prejudices and understanding why they occur.

Perhaps it is the everpresent and now flaring debate over immigration that is now affecting voter attitudes regarding Latinos as candidates. In either case it will be interesting to see how Governor Richardson handles this prejudice even as he courts Latinos as well as all other voters.

The Democratic candidate that prevails to become the Democratic nominee should do so on the basis of position on issues, experience dealing with those issues, willingness to fight for Democratic values, and proven ability to mobilize Democrats nationally to win in November. Democrats should be proud that they have up for consideration such a diverse field of candidates. May the best woman win.