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Richardson withdrawal taints Obama administration's debut
Toronto Globe and Mail


January 06, 2009

The mess of Bill Richardson's resignation as commerce-secretary-in-waiting eats up more of the goodwill Barack Obama badly needs if he is to implement his audacious agenda -- an agenda that is being undermined by petty state-level scandals.

In a statement released to the press Sunday, the New Mexico governor announced that: "I have asked the president-elect not to move forward with my nomination at this time.

"I do so with great sorrow. But a pending investigation of a company that has done business with New Mexico state government promises to extend for several weeks or, perhaps, even months."

That company is CDR Financial Products, which contributed to Richardson's past campaigns, while also winning $1.5-million in consulting contracts with the state government. A grand jury is investigating whether there was a "pay-to-play" connection in the awarding of the contracts.

Richardson protested his innocence Sunday and Monday, declaring "unequivocally that I and my administration have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact.

"But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process."

Obama said in a statement that he accepted Richardson's decision "with deep regret," adding: "Although we must move quickly to fill the void left by Governor Richardson's decision, I look forward to his future service to our country and in my administration."

Richardson's departure is an acute loss for Obama. One of the most prominent Hispanic politicians in the United States, he had served as ambassador to the UN and energy secretary before becoming New Mexico's governor, whence he launched a failed attempt at the Democratic presidential nomination, eventually dropping out and throwing his support to Obama.

And while commerce secretary is not typically the most high-profile of cabinet positions -- quick: who's the current one? If you did not correctly guess Carlos Gutierrez, you were not alone -- the commerce chief in the Obama administration will have several important tasks: selling businesses on the new president's determination to push for energy independence by promoting alternative sources; either finessing the passage of trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration that Obama has objected to, or dealing with the consequences of cancelling those treaties; contributing to the debate over how quickly and emphatically to move to fight global warming. And there is always the difficult business of the North American free-trade agreement, which Obama has said needs to be renegotiated.

As advocate for business within the administration and as a Latino, Richardson would have been a key player in an emerging issue that appears to have escaped most observers' attention. On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he had been talking with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is preparing to return to the Senate after losing the presidential election to Obama.

Reid reported that McCain is eager to revive the immigration legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the millions of Latinos living illegally in the United States. Previous efforts by McCain were frustrated by anti-immigration senators within his own party. The Democratic tilt in the Senate is now much more pronounced, however, and Reid said that he aimed to make immigration reform a priority.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration will contribute to that effort with a diminished Latino presence in the cabinet, unless Obama can find another qualified Latino candidate, and quickly.

But it is the political damage of Richardson's departure that will bedevil Obama in the short term. This is the second pay-to-play scandal attached to his incoming administration, even though neither the president-elect nor anyone close to him has had anything to do with either affair. Senate Democrats are grimly awaiting the arrival of Roland Burris, whom disgraced and soon-to-be indicted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has named to fill Obama's vacant Senate seat.

Blagojevich's alleged plans to run a pay-to-play scheme before filling that seat is the current scandal du jour in the United States. (There is, however, no suggestion of impropriety in the choice of Burris, an honest if uninspiring former state politician.)

The Democratic Senate caucus vows it won't permit Burris to take his seat. Some Democrats in Chicago accuse the senators of racism, since Burris is black and, in replacing Obama, would be the only African American in the Senate.

All of this would be good fun, except it comes as the 111th Congress convenes facing an entrenched and worsening recession and a proposal from the president-elect for an unprecedented stimulus package.

That should be taking up all of the president's attention, and everyone else's. Instead, Obama must scramble to find a new commerce secretary, while ducking accusations of scandal-by-association -- something with which his opponents will gleefully insist his administration has now been twice tainted.


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