WASHINGTON — Bill Richardson — 2008 presidential candidate, former governor of New Mexico, former secretary of energy and ambassador to the U.N. during the Clinton administration, and member of Congress — died Friday in his sleep at his residence summer in Chatham, Massachusetts. He was 75 years old.
During his career as a politician and diplomat, Richardson rose to prominence for his role in freeing hostages and other wrongfully detained Americans. President Bill Clinton helped give him the nickname “Undersecretary to Thugs.”
Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, said “Governor Richardson passed away peacefully in his sleep last night.”
“He lived his entire life in service to others — including his tenure in government and his subsequent career helping to free people taken hostage or wrongfully detained overseas,” Bergman said. “There was no one Governor Richardson wouldn’t talk to if he promised to set a person free. The world has lost an advocate for those unjustly detained abroad and I have lost a dear mentor and friend.
In recent years, he has spent much of his time as a private diplomat representing the growing number of American families seeking to free their loved ones wrongfully detained overseas. He filled an entire biography with accounts of his high-stakes encounters with tribal leaders and tyrants, writing about brokering deals with Fidel, Saddam, Hugo and “a Kim or two.”
More from USA TODAY: Bill Richardson’s Relentless Efforts to Free Americans Held Abroad
Neda Sharghi, president of the nonprofit Bring Our Families Home campaign, was one of many people who reached out to Richardson for advice. His brother, Emad Shargi, who spells his name differently, is an American businessman detained in Iran since 2015 and is the subject of talks over a possible prisoner swap. “On behalf of the countless families that Governor Richardson and his Center have helped, I wanted to express our deep sense of loss at his passing,” Sharghi said. “Governor Richardson has been a strong advocate for human rights and efforts to bring home those wrongfully detained overseas.
“Governor Richardson was a mentor of mine and will be missed by many, including and especially the countless families he helped over the years. My prayers go out to Barbara and her family,” said Jon Franks, who worked with Richardson to secure the release of Americans detained overseas, including Trevor Reed, a former Marine detained in Russia in 2019. Barbara is the wife of Richardson.
Bill Clinton and Bill Richardson
Richardson’s reputation as an “undersecretary to thugs” is one that President Bill Clinton helped establish for him, years before Richardson ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Richardson had just returned from Sudan, where Sudanese rebels had taken Red Cross workers and a New Mexico citizen hostage. They were held in a reed hut for a ransom of $2.5 million. Richardson flew in an old cargo plane to meet the rebel leader and managed to negotiate a release in exchange for rice, radios, four jeeps, a health survey and a promise of work to resolve the conflict in the region.
On Richardson’s return, The Washington Post said, “The once low-key lawmaker is now the Clark Kent of Capitol Hill.” »
Shortly after his return from Sudan, President Clinton appointed him Ambassador to the United Nations.
“President Clinton used to say Bill knew all the thugs,” Barbara, Richardson’s wife, told USA TODAY in an interview earlier this year. “He had a knack for it. And I think he enjoyed the adventure. And it’s sort of a growth from there.
However, the two politicians subsequently formed a deep divide, which Richardson says was the result of his decision not to back Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. He instead lent his backing to Barack Obama.
“The Governor”: Bill Richardson and New Mexico
Even at 75, Bill Richardson’s staff and many others called him “The Governor,” a title he hadn’t held in over a decade.
U.S. Representative Gabe Vasquez, Democrat of New Mexico, called Richardson “a titan in New Mexico and abroad” on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“I mourn the passing of this New Mexico legend, one of the most politically powerful Hispanics this nation has ever known,” Vasquez said. “Today we reflect on his decades of service and how proudly he still represents New Mexico.”
Richardson continued to live in New Mexico, driving an aging Jeep Wrangler to a modest downtown Santa Fe office where he led the Richardson Center’s efforts, speaking by phone to contacts around the world.
Richardson’s role in freeing Brittney Griner
Richardson was instrumental in efforts to broker a deal for the release of Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who spent 10 months in a Russian prison after being arrested for alleged possession of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner was eventually traded for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The exchange shed light on the obscure but pivotal role Richardson could play in such deals.
Only the US president can authorize such high-profile prisoner swaps, but after Griner’s release in December 2022, his family issued a public “special thank you” to Richardson.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, previously told USA TODAY, referring to Richardson and his Richardson Center manager and second-in-command, Mickey Bergman, “We took no major action without consulting them.” Griner’s wife or representatives “spoke with Mickey almost daily”.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Former New Mexico Governor and UN Ambassador Bill Richardson Dies