Q&A: As Public Policy Scholar, Bill Richardson Talks Politics

Since last fall, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has been senior fellow for Latin America at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. In this role, Richardson offers direction on scholarly research about Latin America by enhancing the institute’s policy focus on such issues as immigration and energy and natural resources.

Since leaving public office, Richardson has been a speaker at the University of Texas at Austin, Yale University and other institutions. He has also been a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. One of the most prominent Hispanics in American politics, Richardson formerly served as U.S. secretary of energy, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

This week, Richardson shared with Diverse his thoughts on the presidential race, the DREAM Act, policy issues affecting Hispanics, and the national controversies over state laws affecting voter rights.

DI:  The U.S. Department of Justice has spent months reviewing new laws in many states requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls and imposing restrictions on voter registration drives. How concerned are you about the prospect of voter suppression in November? 

BR:  Voter suppression seems to get stronger with every election cycle, and I’m extremely concerned. I hate to sound partisan, but this is the Republican Party trying to curtail the voting rights of minorities. This is a direct effort in many states to suppress Hispanics, Native Americans and Blacks and challenge their credibility.

I commend the Justice Department for taking on this issue; it’s important that the federal government assert itself. But I wish the Democratic Party would get more active on this issue rather than the Justice Department and non-governmental voting rights groups lead hard-charging efforts by themselves. The right-wing groups seem better funded and this could affect the Election Day outcome in heavily Hispanic states like Florida where not only Cuban-Americans are emerging among the electorate but also Haitians and Central Americans.

DI:  Now that presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has added U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, what do you think this ticket portends for Hispanics?

BR:  Ryan’s budget plan, which cuts entitlement programs, devastates Hispanics in education, civil rights, immigration and job creation. Under the Obama administration, 150,000 more Hispanic students are getting Pell grants and 2 million more Hispanics are getting health care.

As negative as Ryan’s voting record has been on Hispanic issues, there is a small silver lining when it comes to articulating on wedge issues. For instance, if someone says they support the state of Arizona’s “Show me your papers” immigration law, you can glean something about the person if he uses harsh language when voicing his support of the law. I haven’t seen nor heard Ryan use harsh language the way so many others do.

I’m pleased Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s Cuban-American, wasn’t picked as Romney’s running mate. I don’t think a selection of Rubio would cost President Obama the election, but Rubio would siphon off some Hispanic votes. A potential selection of Rubio had been making me nervous.

DI:  Since leaving public office more than a year and a half ago, you’ve had the opportunity to work more with college professors, meet more students and sometimes lead discussion groups on campuses. Tell us your observations of the college landscape.

BR:  I have developed a greater appreciation for higher education and how crucial college degree attainment is in the development of every person. That includes community colleges as well as opportunities in online education.

Today’s students are enormously talented, especially how they use social media. It’s terrific that students and faculty have larger pools of information within reach. Students have an impressive political and social awareness because of the Internet. My concern is that, in the rush to utilize social media, the face-to-face interaction between students and faculty has diminished a little. Also, I hope embracing technology doesn’t come at the expense of continuing to teach and learn the humanities, the arts, the social sciences.

Now that I’m a private citizen, I see things from a different perspective, such as the budget needs of a university and the increasing importance of public-private partnerships in order to keep programs afloat. I have become more aware of students’ financial struggles and the growing loan burden. That’s worrisome because we need to ensure that people can financially access a college education without mortgaging their entire future.

DI:  When you joined the Baker Institute, you were quoted in news reports as saying that Latin America merits more attention from policymakers than it generally receives. What do you think causes policymakers to prioritize in this manner?

BR:  The Middle East and Asia are the U.S. priorities in terms of our national security and most vital strategic interests. That said, Republicans and Democrats alike have, unfortunately, ignored Latin America. It’s a shame because there are enormous political, economic and cultural interests in our hemisphere, and Brazil is emerging as a superpower. Meanwhile, our problems with Cuba have become needless irritants.

DI:  What do you think are the most pressing policy issues affecting Hispanics?

BR:  The DREAM Act needs passage. I mainly blame Republicans for filibusters and negative tactics, but the Democrats need to step up more. The recent “DREAM announcement”—young people getting relief from deportation under certain circumstances—is better than nothing, but I still want to see the DREAM Act passed.

We need comprehensive immigration reform. By that, I mean enhanced border security, and we need to penalize those who hire people who are here illegally. However, we also need to provide pathways to citizenship for the undocumented Hispanics already here if they pay back taxes, learn English, pass criminal background checks and generally become part of the American mainstream.

DI:  You have predicted that Obama will win re-election by a narrow margin and that the deciding factors will be states like Florida and New Mexico with large Hispanic populations. At this point, what would have to occur—or fail to occur—that would change your prediction?

BR:  Voter suppression is a serious problem, but I’m hoping it doesn’t determine the Election Day outcome. Otherwise, I still think Obama will eke out a win as long as U.S. gas prices don’t get too high and the European and international economies don’t falter too much.