Is Bill Richardson Radioactive?

In his home state of New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson earns praise from local union leaders, as well as from the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens. On the Presidential campaign trail, even as Richardson calls for a $100 billion universal health care plan, an ambitious clean energy platform, and an end to the Iraq War, some activists back home say there’s more to his record than meets the eye.

Take his Iraq War stance. Richardson is advocating for an immediate withdrawal of American military troops, which has won him praise from national peace groups. “Looking at Richardson’s plan, it is certainly far better than any of the other major candidates—by a very long shot,” says Sue Udry, Washington, D.C.-based legislative coordinator for United for Peace and Justice. Although she is hopeful that his stance against the war will influence other Presidential candidates, she has yet to see signs of that shift.

But back in Albuquerque, sitting in a popular burrito joint across from the University of New Mexico, Bob Anderson drums his fingers on the table when asked about Richardson’s stance on Iraq. Anderson, who along with his wife, Jeanne Pahls, founded the nonprofit Stop the War Machine in the runup to the U.S. invasion, complains that the governor has given little support to activists over the past four years.

“That’s a very small thing, and he doesn’t even do that—because if he did, he would have to take a stand against the economy of a state structured on war profiteering,” says Anderson, a Vietnam veteran, professor, and longtime anti-war activist. “New Mexico is one of the key research states for the whole military-industrial complex. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Honeywell—all of them are here making big bucks off this horrible war.”

Military contractors have long feasted on New Mexico. The Trinity Site is here, as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory. Tucked atop a mesa in northern New Mexico, the lab was home to the Manhattan Project—and today, with its $2 billion annual budget, it is once again producing plutonium triggers or “pits” for nuclear weapons.

New Mexico also hosts a second nuclear lab, Sandia National Laboratories, as well as the Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, an underground nuclear waste dump, and soon, an enriched uranium plant. Not only that, but uranium mining is slated to resume on the Navajo reservation, despite objections from the tribe, local residents, and environmentalists.

Each of these nuclear projects owes a debt of gratitude to Pete Domenici, the state’s powerful Republican Senator, who since 1971 has coaxed and demanded money out of Washington, D.C., for New Mexico’s nuclear projects. But Bill Richardson has played a role in the state’s nuclear projects, as well.

As a Congressman, Richardson’s district included Los Alamos. As Energy Secretary, he was intimately involved with operations there, including when scandals involving security and Wen Ho Lee rocked the lab. While as a legislator he fought for stricter environmental and safety regulations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant—where defense-related nuclear waste is stored in salt caves near Carlsbad—as Energy Secretary, Richardson presided over its opening.

In August, Louisiana Energy Serv­ices began construction on its uranium enrichment plant, which will use thousands of centrifuges to separate uranium 238 isotopes from uranium 235 isotopes. The uranium 235 can then be converted into fuel for nuclear power plants.

According to Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, Richardson could have killed the project. Two other states had succeeded in rejecting the facility. Instead, Hancock says, the governor cut a deal with the company.

Cutting deals with companies comes easily to Richardson. Aside from operating his own consulting company, Richardson Trade Group, he worked as senior managing director for Kissinger McLarty Associates between leaving the Energy Department and being elected governor in 2002. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, he has also sat on the boards of Peregrine Systems, as well as a number of oil and gas companies, including American Energy Group, Inc., Energy Investors Fund Group, Valero Energy Corporation, Diamond Offshore Drilling, and Venoco, Inc.

During his bid for reelection as governor, Richardson received more than $400,000 from the oil and gas industry. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of October, Richardson’s Presidential campaign has brought in $123,000 from the oil and gas industry thus far in the race.

Such connections with the oil and gas industry lie in stark contrast to his aggressive clean energy platform. Richardson is calling for a “New American Revolution.” Under that plan, the United States would lower its demand for oil by 50 percent by 2020, raise vehicle mileage standards to fifty miles per gallon, and enact a federal standard of 30 percent renewable energy consumed by 2020, and 50 percent by 2040.

Asked in early August what technologies would be included in his renewable portfolio standard, he said he would promote new technologies. “We need to shift away from fossil fuels,” he said. When pressed, however, he acknowledged that nuclear power would be a part of the mix.

Speaking on the telephone from New Hampshire, Richardson displayed none of his heralded humor or folksy charm. He seemed not only distracted, but also somewhat confused; he fumbled questions on U.S. energy policy, as well as on issues current to the state he governs.

When I asked him about another Energy Department proposal to reprocess spent nuclear fuel for reuse in commercial reactors, he said: “I’m out here in New Hampshire trying to get elected President. I haven’t really focused on that.”

By now, most everyone knows Bill Richardson’s stellar resume: Raised in Mexico City and educated in Boston, he cut his political teeth working for the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee. As he writes in his autobiography, when he decided to run for public office, he chose New Mexico as a state whose voters would likely support a Hispanic candidate. And they did: Within four years of leaving Washington, Richardson was representing northern New Mexico in Congress. From there, he went on to become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and President Clinton’s Secretary of the Department of Energy.

Since being elected governor of New Mexico in 2002—and reelected in 2006 with a historic 69 percent of the vote—Richardson’s biggest claim to fame has undoubtedly been economic development. Thanks in part to a state budget flush from high oil and gas prices, he’s lured Hollywood east with tax incentives, supported Richard Branson’s plans for a Spaceport, and championed the Southwest’s first commuter rail line.

Richardson is well regarded by conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, on whose board he once sat. He also has championed high profile environmental causes in New Mexico, most notably by siding with environmentalists in their fight to stop the federal government from opening a remote stretch of Chihuahuan desert grasslands to oil and gas drilling.

But it was Richardson’s quiet support of nuclear power that led one New Mexico activist to blow the whistle on what he calls corporate influence over the state’s energy policies.

“The administration did everything it could to block citizen input into legislation—it was brazen and extreme,” says Ben Luce, the former director of New Mexico’s Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy.

As far as the welfare of the New Mexicans, Richardson’s record is nothing to boast about. The state still ranks among the poorest, beating out only Mississippi and Louisiana for the bottom rungs. It has the second-highest level of uninsured residents, at 21 percent (Texas is the worst, at 24 percent). Sixteen percent of New Mexico’s children lack health insurance, almost 30 percent live in poverty, and in 2006, the number of state schools failing to meet “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind rose to more than 50 percent.

Health Action New Mexico estimates that at least 80,000 New Mexico children could be covered under Medicaid if access wasn’t so difficult, thanks to tightened enrollment measures and staffing shortages.

For health care reform advocate Terry Riley, Richardson’s avowed support for insurance companies is a deal-breaker. Last June, when the governor’s office said it would not support an overhaul of New Mexico’s health care system unless it guaranteed a role for insurance carriers, Riley says he put an end to his support for Richardson.

“I contacted his staff and told them the bumper sticker is coming off, they’ll be getting no money, and I will say nothing in support of the governor for President, even though I think he’s the best candidate,” says Riley, a Democrat who’s active in the state party. “His position in the polls is not so strong that I’m going to waste my time and energy if he doesn’t support something really critically important to me.”

Laura Paskus is a freelance writer living in Albuquerque