Photo By Dennis Myers At the Nevada Women’s Summit, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (seated) was introduced by Reynaldo Martinez

The minds of Nevada Democrats are very much on the subject of a running mate for John Kerry these days, and they’re hoping for one who will help the ticket in the West. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is figuring more and more in their calculations.

The proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is a principal factor in Nevada Democrats’ reckoning, since it’s the only Nevada issued being discussed in the presidential campaign.

George Bush won the state with a majority in 2000, but he signed the Yucca dump plan in 2002—though federal regulators and the courts must still approve it—and that may be an issue in this election.

The most awkward vice presidential choice for state Democrats would be John Edwards, who voted for the dump in Congress in 2000 and 2002. Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan says if Edwards is on the ticket, Democrats will have to do “some dancing in Nevada.”

Among candidates opposing, Democrats have more choices. Their dream running mate is Gen. Wesley Clark, the only presidential candidate who said he would “use the full force of the presidency to kill this dangerous project” altogether. But Clark has faded as a prospect because party leaders believe Kerry, as a war hero, does not need Clark’s military credentials on the ticket.

U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt is also attractive to Silver State Democrats. He’s done more than vote against Yucca. He has spoken against it at rallies in his Missouri home district and urged his constituents to organize against it. However, he is hampered by two failed presidential bids.

Richardson is focusing the minds of Nevada Democrats because he brings a different kind of opposition to the Yucca issue, and it’s backed up with other assets that play well in the West. While some contenders opposed the dump as legislators, Richardson did it in the executive branch—as Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, he supported a cautious, careful site suitability process for the dump, giving Nevada valuable time.

“I still believe that Yucca Mountain should not be the receptacle for waste,” Richardson says. “My position was that high-level wastes should be placed at existing [power plant] sites.”

Richardson’s wider strength as a vice presidential candidate is that he is what University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato has called “a three-fer, or a four-fer, or a five-fer.” He was a member of Congress, cabinet member, U.N. ambassador, governor. He is a governor in the Bush era, separating him from what Sabato calls the “mess in Washington.” He’s from the West, a longtime GOP stronghold where Democrats have shown strength in recent presidential elections. He has foreign-policy experience. And he’s Latino.

Nevada’s Latino population has been growing furiously. Today more than a fifth of Nevadans are Latino. In addition, Richardson, as the son of a Latina, offers strength in some key electoral vote battlegrounds.

In the conservative magazine National Review, columnist John Miller argues that the Latino factor is negligible: “If no Hispanics had voted four years ago, the election results in only two states would have changed: Florida would have gone for Gore and New Mexico would have gone for Bush.”

However, Bryan says that doesn’t allow for the rise in turnout that would result if a Latino were on the ticket. “As a Hispanic, he would certainly energize the Hispanic base in the state.”

DePauw University professor Ken Bode, a former CNN and NBC political correspondent who once managed a Nevada U.S. Senate campaign, says Richardson would put many states into play, and not just the expected ones, such as the Southwest and California.

“Iowa has a lot of Latinos,” he says. “New York, Illinois—it’s a burgeoning population, and for the most part it would be the target of the election. It’s the biggest floating bloc of voters that are not committed to one party or the other.” Richardson’s nomination, he says, would provide “an opportunity to cement Latinos in the Democratic Party” while giving Democrats a leg up this year in states like Nevada.

“In turnout, it would be the equivalent of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and ‘88 candidacies, or Harold Washington running for mayor of Chicago. Now, the Latino vote is not monolithic. Certainly Cubans are not going to abandon the Republican Party. But it would be a different matter in other segments of that community.”

The Latino community is certainly following Richardson’s fortunes closely. When the Washington Post last fall ran a long profile of Richardson, it was reprinted in the Puerto Rico Herald, and the frequent mentions of Richardson for the vice presidency are showcased in Spanish newspapers around the country.

If Richardson were vice president, Nevada would have a pipeline into the White House of a kind it has not had since Nevada U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt’s friend Ronald Reagan was president. Richardson is a close political ally of Nevada U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a relationship Richardson says extends to personal friendship.

“Senator Reid and I are personally very close,” he says. “We came into the Congress together in 1982. And we’ve become—we’ve always been close friends, besides being close politically.”

He also admires his fellow governor, Kenny Guinn, notwithstanding their opposing party affiliations.

“And I have a good relationship with Gov. Guinn. We’re pals. When I was secretary of energy, and he was governor, we worked together to keep the waste out of here. I like him. He’s a good guy.”

Nevada’s Reynaldo Martinez, a respected player in national politics since his time as Midwest coordinator for Jimmy Carter, says Richardson would also bring to the race a record of having helped Nevada during his years in Congress. Martinez, a boyhood friend of Reid’s who served for 16 years as Reid’s chief of staff, says, “A lot of the things Congressman Reid got done we owed to Congressman Richardson.”

Bode says Richardson has another asset—a “fabulous resume.” At a time when George Bush’s competence is being called into question by the Sept. 11 hearings and Richard Clarke’s testimony, Richardson’s nomination would mean that among the four national candidates (Bush, Cheney, Kerry, and Richardson), the least experienced would be—Bush.

Richardson’s principal handicap is any lingering effect from an issue that torpedoed his chance for the vice presidency four years ago—problems at the U.S. Energy Department during his tenure in the cabinet, including allegedly lax security at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory and a flawed prosecution of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. And Bryan says Kerry may want a running mate with more strength in such industrial states as Ohio and Pennsylvania that are hemorrhaging jobs.

The Democrats may have one other problem—Richardson says he doesn’t want the job.

“I am not interested because I am governor of New Mexico. I have only been on the job 14 months, I’ve got an unfinished agenda, and I also happened to make a pledge to my constituents that I would seek reelection and that I would stay for a full term. But that doesn’t stop the speculation, that doesn’t stop people from not believing me.”

Bode says, “Bill Clinton told the voters of Arkansas he wasn’t going to run for president, too. It doesn’t matter what you tell journalists until you’re asked [by the presidential nominee].” Many candidates have offered vice presidential demurrals over the years, only to accept the nomination when party leaders said, “We need you.”

Asked about the difficulty of saying no to such appeals, Richardson still insists, “I would not be able to accept.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...