By Barry Massey: The Associated Press
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Bill Richardson is becoming an “economic
diplomat” in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration and plans to
step down as governor after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Lt. Gov. Diane Denish will become New Mexico’s first female governor
when Richardson resigns to assume his duties as commerce secretary in
“With his breath and depth of experience in public life, Gov.
Richardson is uniquely suited for this role as a leading economic
diplomat for America,” Obama said Wednesday in Chicago.
Richardson joined Obama at the news conference where his appointment was announced.
“New Mexico, I will never forget you and I will forever be grateful,” Richardson said.
Denish, a Democrat, will take over for the remainder of Richardson’s
term, which runs through 2010. As lieutenant governor, she has served
as acting governor when Richardson was out of state.
Denish praised Richardson’s appointment but said she’s “ready to step in” as governor.
She and Richardson plan to meet Thursday to discuss transition
issues. Denish said they already had been working closely on
legislative and budget matters.
Richardson said he will resign as governor after his nomination is
confirmed by the U.S. Senate. That could happen soon after Obama is
inaugurated on Jan. 20. In 2001, seven of President George Bush’s
cabinet members were confirmed several hours after his inauguration.
More were confirmed a few days later.
The Commerce Department is responsible for a wide range of business,
trade and economic interests. The agency’s operations include the
Census Bureau and the National Weather Service.
Richardson disputed the notion that Obama was selecting a a team of
rivals for his Cabinet. Richardson and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who
was picked as secretary of state, ran against Obama for the Democratic
“In the worlds of diplomacy and commerce you open markets and minds
not with rivalry, but instead with partnership and innovation and hard
work,” said Richardson.
Richardson is the first Hispanic named to Obama’s Cabinet. However,
Obama made it clear Richardson’s appointment as commerce secretary was
not a consolation prize. Many Hispanic groups wanted Richardson to
become secretary of state.
“His mixture of diplomatic experience, hands on experience as a
governor, experience in the Cabinet, experience in Congress, means that
he is going to be a key strategist on all the issues that we work on,”
said Obama. “So I think that the notion that somehow the commerce
secretary is not going to be central to everything we do is
Richardson served under President Bill Clinton as energy secretary
and U.N. ambassador. Before that, he represented northern New Mexico in
Congress for 14 years. He took office as governor in 2003.
Richardson’s nomination is drawing opposition from a group of Asian
Americans because of his handling of the case of Wen Ho Lee, a former
nuclear weapons scientist once suspected of being a spy. Richardson was
energy secretary when Lee was fired from his job at Los Alamos National
Laboratory in New Mexico.
Lee was never charged with espionage. He was held in solitary
confinement for nine months, but was released in 2000 after pleading
guilty to mishandling computer files. A federal judge apologized for
“Until Richardson issues an apology about his role in this case, we
believe his confirmation to cabinet secretary should be opposed by all
Americans who believe that government officials should be persons of
excellent character, competence, and sound judgment beyond reproach,”
the group wrote in a letter to Obama, which was posted Wednesday on a
Web site founded by supporters of Lee.
Richardson will be the first New Mexico governor to resign midterm
since Republican Edwin Mechem stepped down on Nov. 30, 1962. Mechem’s
lieutenant governor succeeded him and appointed Mechem to a vacant seat
in the U.S. Senate.
Obama’s inauguration will occur on the same day the New Mexico Legislature convenes for a 60-day session.
Richardson said he plans to deliver his State of the State speech on the opening day of the Legislature.
When Denish becomes governor, she can appoint someone to fill the
lieutenant governor’s vacancy. She said it’s premature to talk about
possible candidates for the position.
“My first order of business is to ensure a smooth transition, work
closely with the governor’s office to make sure that we’re doing
everything we can over the next few weeks so that there’s no
interruption in good government,” Denish said.
In a statement, Richardson asked that New Mexicans give Denish the
“same trust and support” he had enjoyed as governor. He described her
as a “strong and insightful leader.”
Denish was Richardson’s running mate in 2002 and 2006. She planned
to run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010. Richardson
could not seek re-election to a third consecutive term.