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Big Bill gets behind a Senate candidate

May 23, 2019

It was an uncomfortable decision, but former Gov. Bill Richardson has chosen his candidate in New Mexico’s U.S. Senate race.

He is backing Congressman Ben Ray Luján over Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

Richardson’s decision boiled down to loyalty. Luján’s late father, a longtime speaker of the state House of Representatives, was a political ally. His natural instinct was to help an old friend’s son.

Still, deciding between Luján and Toulouse Oliver wasn’t easy for him.

“I don’t like this matchup because I like them both,” Richardson said.

Toulouse Oliver and Luján will be the leading candidates in next year’s Democratic primary election. With state Republicans in disarray, the Democratic nominee will be a heavy favorite to take the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Tom Udall.

Richardson, 71, is hearing from many candidates who want his counsel and help. This is as close as he comes to street-level politics after a career as a congressman, a two-term governor, a U.S. energy secretary, an ambassador to the United Nations and a candidate for president.

“I miss it occasionally, and I still love it,” Richardson said.

Then, in a throwaway line to convince himself more than anyone else, he added: “I try to stay out of New Mexico politics.”

His effort has proven to be halfhearted.

Richardson last year endorsed Michelle Lujan Grisham in the three-way Democratic primary for governor. She won in a walk.

Now, after mentioning his high regard for Toulouse Oliver, he said: “I want to see Ben Ray Luján in the Senate.”

Richardson, though, promised he’s restricting his advocacy.

He said he won’t back anyone for his old seat in the 3rd Congressional District covering Northern New Mexico. Luján holds that office today, but he is vacating it for his Senate campaign.

Richardson’s stand hasn’t stopped politicians from seeking his counsel. He said four candidates or possible candidates for the congressional seat already have spoken with him. They hope the old master will share trade secrets.

One is Robert Apodaca, a small businessman, who said he will announce his candidacy for Congress next week.

Apodaca, 48, met with Richardson while planning to move his residence from Bernalillo in the 1st Congressional District to the 3rd District that he wants to represent. Apodaca grew up in the Taos area and operates his business in Santa Fe, both of which are in the 3rd District.

“It’s my first shot running for office,” said Apodaca, who worked in Richardson’s administration and went on to serve in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under then-President Barack Obama.

Richardson called Apodaca “a very credible candidate.” He used the same words to describe others jockeying for the congressional seat, including a former spy, a district attorney and a lawyer in private practice.

Richardson won the 3rd Congressional District seat when it was established in 1982. He held it for 14 years before resigning for his ambassadorship.

The district is mostly rural, but Santa Fe remains a key to victory. It accounts for perhaps a quarter of all the votes.

Richardson said television advertising can help the candidates reach the electorate in Santa Fe and Rio Rancho. But there is no substitute for personal appearances on the Navajo Nation and in smaller towns, such as Clovis and Tucumcari.

He credited voters in Navajo country for putting him over the top in his first primary in the 3rd District. Richardson never forgot the importance of personal contact with voters.

Twenty years later, while running for governor, he received a place in the Guinness Book of Records for relentless campaigning. Bleary-eyed statisticians verified that Richardson shook hands with 13,392 people in eight hours at the New Mexico State Fair.

It was a better display of stamina than any show on the midway.

Richardson remains the most extroverted guy in any room. Luján has to hope his influence still extends to primary voters.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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