Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton, has died. Richardson was 75.
Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center, said in a statement Saturday that Richardson had died in his sleep Friday night.
"He lived his entire life in the service of others — including both his time in government and his subsequent career helping to free people held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad," Bergman said.
"There was no person that Governor Richardson would not speak with if it held the promise of returning a person to freedom. The world has lost a champion for those held unjustly abroad and I have lost a mentor and a dear friend.”
Richardson was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last month in recognition of his work in saving detained Americans, most recently WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport when authorities found hash oil in her luggage. Griner was released last December after having been detained for nearly 10 months.
Over the past three decades, Richardson traveled the world negotiating and securing the release of Americans imprisoned overseas in Bangladesh, North Korea, Sudan, Colombia and Iraq. Richardson traveled to danger zones, including the Congo, then called Zaire in 1997, and Afghanistan in 1998 to broker peaceful power transfers and met with infamous dictators Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-il, respectively.
The Richardson Center was created to support the former governor's work facilitating dialogue and global peace, particularly between countries with strained diplomatic relations. He positioned himself and his nonprofit organization as an alternative to traditional diplomatic channels, particularly for countries averse to established diplomatic powers.
In his 2013 book, “How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator,” Richardson advised, “Respect the other side. Try to connect personally. Use sense of humor. Let the other side save face.”
Richardson was born William Blaine Richardson in Pasadena, California. He was raised in Mexico City, living with his Mexican mother. His father was an American banker.
Richardson came to New Mexico in 1978 and chose to run for political office there because of its Hispanic roots. He is credited with transforming New Mexico politics.
During his tenure as governor, he put in place a minimum $50,000 annual salary for the most qualified teachers statewide, an increase in the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 an hour, pre-K programs for 4-year-olds, and a $400 million commuter rail system between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Among other accomplishments, on the campaign trail for the 2002 gubernatorial New Mexico race, Richardson set a Guinness World record for most handshakes by a politician in eight hours: 13,392 handshakes.
Before his election in 2002 as governor, Richardson was U.S. envoy to the United Nations and energy secretary under Clinton and served 14 years as a congressman representing northern New Mexico.
In a statement Saturday, Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Richardson was a skilled diplomat who helped improve lives around the world.
"Whether in an official or unofficial capacity, he was a masterful and persistent negotiator who helped make our world more secure and won the release of many individuals held unjustly abroad," the Clintons said. "He was also a trailblazer whose career helped pave the path for other Latino Americans to serve at the highest levels of American government."
Richardson ran for president in 2008, later dropping out and endorsing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. Obama named Richardson his choice for secretary of commerce, but a grand jury investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme with a political donor who received a lucrative contract led Richardson to bow out of consideration.
State politicians praised Richardson's legacy following news of his death.
Rep. Gabe Vasquez shared a heartfelt message, calling Richardson a “titan in New Mexico and abroad.”
“I mourn the passing of this New Mexico legend, one of the most powerful Hispanics in politics that this nation has seen. Today, we reflect on his decades of service and for always proudly representing New Mexico,” Vazquez continued.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján referred to Richardson as a “giant in public service and government.”
“Here in New Mexico, we will always remember him as our Governor. He never stopped fighting for the state he called home,” Luján wrote.