Bill Richardson, former N.M. governor who worked to free Americans held abroad, dies

Bill Richardson, former N.M. governor who worked to free Americans held abroad, dies

Former Democratic New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson has passed away. He was 75.

On Saturday, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, the charitable organization he founded while governor, revealed that Richardson had passed away peacefully in his sleep at his vacation home in Chatham, Massachusetts.

Richardson served for 14 years in Congress as the representative for northern New Mexico before being elected governor in 2002. He then attempted but failed to become the first Latino U.S. presidential nominee. He held the positions of energy secretary and U.N. ambassador under President Bill Clinton. 

After his time in government, he became known for his unofficial diplomacy in getting Americans held abroad released.

"He lived his entire life in the service of others," said Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center. "The world has lost a champion for those held unjustly abroad, and I have lost a mentor and a dear friend."

After finishing fourth in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 2008, Richardson withdrew from the race. Then he backed Obama, and after Obama became president, he appointed Richardson as commerce secretary. In light of a federal investigation into a possible pay-to-play scam involving political contributions in exchange for a state contract, Richardson withdrew as a nominee for the position. Richardson and his ex-aides were cleared of any wrongdoing at the conclusion of the investigation.

He became well-known for his expert hand-shaking and civic service. While campaigning for governor in 2002, Richardson broke a Guinness World Record by shaking the hands of 13,392 people in under eight hours.

He engaged in talks with infamous dictatorships. 

Richardson made repeated trips to North Korea to negotiate the release of American hostages. He mediated the release of American civilian Evan Hunziker, who had been arrested for entering North Korean waters, in 1996. 

Three political prisoners were freed after he met with Cuba's leader Fidel Castro the same year.

The diplomat's openness to negotiations with some of the world's most infamous dictatorial nations also received criticism. Some human rights leaders condemned Richardson in 2021 after his visit to Myanmar for legitimizing the country's military.

After meeting with Burmese army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who had taken control after Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government was overthrown, the former governor subsequently arranged the release of American journalist Danny Fenster.

Richardson has been nominated for many Nobel Prizes, most recently for his work to release political prisoners around the world. The Democratic senators who nominated Richardson cited his recent role in the prisoner swaps that resulted in the repatriation of professional basketball player Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed.

Richardson was optimistic about the outcome in an interview with NPR last year, before Griner's release was achieved. Bringing American hostages home requires "prisoner exchanges," which he called "unseemly."

Former Vice President and friend of Richardson, former President Biden, was mourned as a "patriot and true original."

'He grabbed every opportunity to serve and confronted every new challenge with joy, determined to accomplish the most good for his country, his beloved New Mexico, and Americans around the world,' Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement released on Saturday. Few people have served their country with as much dedication, innovation, and optimism as you have.

Bergman said Richardson's wife of 50 years, Barbara Richardson, was by his side when he passed away. He leaves behind a wife and a daughter named Heather.