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Bill Richardson, Looming Large
The Democrats' Hot Property Is Everywhere but on a Ticket
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2003; Page D01

The evening before the Richardson Debate finds the governor collapsed on a chair in his state office in Santa Fe. Over the course of 45 minutes, he hits on, among other topics, his brief career as a minor league baseball pitcher, his quarterhorse (Sundance), his perennial diets, his channel-surfing habits, his ability to sleep on planes and his favorite sport, boxing.

His office is huge, clean and decorated with colorful art from the state collection. He keeps a humidor stocked with Cuban cigars ("from my U.N. days") in a corner closet. "You see my Cabinet chair?" he says, showing off the chair he used when he was energy secretary. "You know I had to buy this." It cost $1,300.

Then he repairs to his big greenroom with his arm draped around Joni Gutierrez, the state Democratic Party chairman. He settles into a plush chair next to a lighted mirror and demands a cigar.

The scene in the greenroom unfolds with a kind of manic cinematography. There are quirky characters, offbeat conversational rhythms and jarring background noises such as Gutierrez's cell phone, which rings in the sound of a cat's loud MEOW!

"Joseph, what the [expletive] is wrong with you?" the governor says, turning to Chief of Staff David Contarino, whom he inexplicably calls "Joseph." Richardson keeps rolling up gum wrappers and flicking them at executive assistant Elizabeth Korsmo (the attorney and makeup artist). He sips a Starbucks double latte, one of the six or seven cups of coffee he drinks a day. He begins reading from a draft of the brief introduction he will deliver before the debate. He chews multiple pieces of gum, taps his black cowboy boots on the linoleum floor and tries to concentrate.

MEOW!

"Who wrote this?" Richardson asks about the six-paragraph introduction. "It's [expletive]."

"What exactly don't you like about it, sir?" asks Contarino.

"Paragraphs 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6."

MEOW!

'I Gotta Be Neutral'

"Hey, John Edwards!"

Richardson is romping his way through a pre-debate reception, with waiters carrying trays of white wine and chocolate eclairs. Richardson has no significant history with the North Carolina senator. But Richardson thanks Edwards for all of his nice notes and thoughtful phone calls. Richardson can't endorse anyone because of his role as convention chairman, but tells Edwards, "Your courtesy means a lot."

Richardson returns to his greenroom at 5:15 p.m., 45 minutes before the debate. He sits in his big chair, studying his one-minute remarks while Korsmo sponges his face with makeup. Al Sharpton calls to say his plane is grounded in Atlanta and he won't make the debate. But he wanted to thank Richardson for his help in trying to arrange a flight. They're old friends.

McAuliffe bursts into the greenroom, shouting:

"ARE YOU READY, GOVERNOR? ARE YOU GETTING PUMPED UP? YOU DID SUCH A GREAT JOB.

"REMEMBER, VICE PRESIDENT."

Then he leaves, and Billy Sparks, Richardson's ponytailed press secretary, tells the governor that he needs to thank McAuliffe in his welcoming remarks. He also reminds him that he'll be doing interviews in the media "spin room" after the debate.

"Yeh, I guess I gotta be neutral, right?" Richardson says. "I should say something like, 'It was a spirited debate, everyone did well' or some [expletive] like that, right?"

"Right."

The governor fans himself with a stack of papers while Korsmo mists him with hair spray. Kerry walks by in the hall, then Lieberman and Richardson head out at a few minutes to 6.

He is quiet on his short walk to the stage except for two firings (Korsmo and a police officer). He walks onstage to an ovation, does his welcome, then heads to a big chair backstage to watch the debate.

"Elizabeth, cut me a cigar!"

Richard Gephardt is on TV calling the Bush administration a "miserable failure."

"I call him Geppy," Richardson says of his old friend from Congress. "I try to give nicknames to all the guys." Such as: "I call Kerry 'Johnny,' but I don't think he likes it too much. We don't know each other that well."

Kerry is speaking. "He's got that little smirk, doesn't he?" Richardson says. "Bush has one of those, too. But Kerry looks good. Presidential. I love his ties, too. Hermes."

Korsmo presents Richardson with the cigar he requested and an executive order to sign. He sips Perrier and exhales a massive yawn while Dennis Kucinich tries to say something in Spanish.

Geppy is on again. He is about to make the governor's week.

"Bill Richardson was my chief deputy whip in Congress," Gephardt says. Richardson grins and holds two fists triumphantly over his head.

"Yeah, Geppy," he says.

When Richardson is asked later in the spin room who won the debate, he gives the obvious answer.

"Gephardt, because he mentioned me."

Winding Down

At 10:30 that night, Richardson is back in his SUV, contemplating dinner at the leisurely pace of 90 miles per hour.

"Who's hungry? Who wants steak? I'm getting a big steak. This is where my [expletive] diet goes to hell."

Richardson instructs Korsmo to order four steaks and four Greek salads from Yanni's, a restaurant he frequents in Albuquerque.

When Richardson and entourage arrive, they take over a table in the middle of the quiet restaurant. The governor looks tired and wired, the satisfied party host in a vacated house. His shirt is untucked. He leans back in his chair, waiting for his rib-eye.

"Joseph," he says, "I want to appoint Jimmy to the MFA board." Jimmy is Yanni's co-owner James Daskalos, who is getting a seat on the state's Mortgage Finance Authority. "Do that, okay, Joseph?"

Korsmo, 34, shows off a tattoo on her shoulder and a piece of jewelry in her bellybutton. She opens a cigar box and Richardson picks out a small Cohiba.

"Walter Mondale came out and campaigned for me once," Richardson is recalling. "And after a long day of campaigning, he smoked a cigar. And I thought that was really cool. So I started doing it."
 
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