SANTA FE, N.M. — Friends and admirers of former Gov. Bill Richardson mourned the hard-charging politician at a memorial in the New Mexico Statehouse on Wednesday that attracted political allies, proteges and acquaintances, including several people touched by his work to free Americans imprisoned abroad.
Richardson's casket lay in state in the Capitol's rotunda flanked by police guard and draped in the New Mexico state flag with its ancient Zia Pueblo symbol of the sun. Barbara Richardson, his wife for more than 50 years, was the first to approach and place a hand on the closed casket.
Richardson died in his sleep at his home in Chatham, Massachusetts, earlier this month at age 75.
Final memorials and funeral services are taking place in Santa Fe, the state capital where Richardson served two terms as governor starting in 2003 and is still remembered for innate political skills, soaring ambition and an ability to both clash and reconcile with rivals.
John Early, who was taken captive in Sudan while flying missions for the International Red Cross in 1996, praised then-Congressman Richardson for saving his life by negotiating his release along with two other captives under dangerous conditions.
Now 77, he said his captivity was grim and he was skeptical of Richardson, who was a stranger to Early when he arrived at an encampment guarded by child soldiers to coax a warlord into compromise.
“He said to me, 'No, you don’t understand. I'm not leaving,'” Early said. He recalled that Richardson bargained with the captors firmly and in good humor for hours, warning that he “can eat more food than you've got in this camp.”
Other mourners included Lisa Lowrey, a retired chef who brought a bouquet of carnations in gratitude for a supportive conversation she had with Richardson at a therapeutic horseback riding program for children nearly 20 years ago, when she was battling cancer.
“I was so inspired,” she said. “People in his position could dismiss someone easily, and he never did. ... He mad you feel comfortable.”
The memorial also reunited top advisors and Cabinet secretaries to Richardson in his years as governor, which were marked by splashy employment and public works projects — the creation of a commuter rail line connecting Santa Fe with Albuquerque, an aerospace “spaceport” launch facility and generous incentives to attract film productions to New Mexico in the era before “Breaking Bad.”
Richardson enacted initiatives with a Democratic-led Legislature that put an end to the death penalty in the state, eliminated sales taxes on medicine and food in efforts to combat poverty and renewed rights to collective bargaining by government workers that had expired under his Republican predecessor.
Attorney Hilary Tomkins, whom Richardson hired as general counsel to the governor's office, called Richardson a “great champion for my people — the Navajo,” citing the addition of a Cabinet secretary for Indian affairs while he was governor and, more recently, efforts to provide humanitarian supplies to the Navajo Nation that overlaps New Mexico, Arizona and Utah during the pandemic. She expressed gratitude for the governor's support for her career.
“He showed me the ropes ... how to be proud of where I came from and how to play in the big leagues,” said Tomkins, who went on to work at the U.S. Interior Department and for a major law firm in Washington, D.C.
William Blaine Richardson was born in Pasadena, California, but grew up in Mexico City with a Mexican mother and an American father who was a U.S. bank executive. He attended prep school in Massachusetts, earned degrees in international studies from Tufts University and worked as a Capitol Hill staffer before moving to New Mexico in 1978.
The state's Hispanic heritage was a good fit as Richardson campaigned for Congress and won his second bid in 1982 for a newly created district spanning northern New Mexico.
“He started out as a carpetbagger and ended up as our governor,” said David Coss, a former two-term mayor of Santa Fe, who worked on Richardson's early campaigns for Congress and attended the memorial. “He worked harder and was just extremely bright.”
Richardson resigned from Congress in 1997 to join President Bill Clinton's administration as U.N. ambassador and became secretary of energy in 1998. Richardson later sought the 2008 Democratic nomination for president but dropped out after lackluster finishes in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Former state House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe witnessed Richardson’s evolution from congressman to diplomat, Cabinet secretary and governor. He said Richardson mentored younger people at every step.
“He was also a hard-charging person,” Egolf said. “If he disagreed with somebody who was his friend, he wouldn’t back down, he would mix it up. ... But he always came back around and said, "It’s over.' ... He’d shake your hand and move forward.”
Funeral services were scheduled for Thursday at Santa Fe's downtown Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.