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

Former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson speaks to reporters after a news conference in New York in 2021.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
Former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson speaks to reporters after a news conference in New York in 2021.

Updated September 2, 2023 at 6:43 PM ET

Bill Richardson, a former Democratic governor of New Mexico who went on to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has died. He was 75.

Richardson died in his sleep at his summer home in Chatham, Mass., the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit foundation started by the former governor, confirmed on Saturday.

Before he was elected as governor in 2002, and later ran an unsuccessful bid as the first Latino U.S. presidential nominee, Richardson served 14 years as a congressman representing northern New Mexico. Under President Bill Clinton, he served as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary.

After his career in government, he cemented his legacy as an unofficial diplomat through his volunteer work in securing the release of Americans detained overseas.

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

Richardson sought the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination but dropped out of the race after placing fourth in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. He then backed Obama, who as president-elect named Richardson as his secretary of commerce. Richardson withdrew as a nominee for the post amid a federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving campaign contributions in exchange for a state contract. The probe ended with no charges against Richardson and his former aides.

As a public servant, he also made his mark as a pro handshaker. During his 2002 gubernatorial race, Richardson set a Guinness World Record — one that still stands — for shaking 13,392 hands in eight hours while on the campaign trail.

He negotiated with notorious autocratic governments

Evan Hunziker of Tacoma, Wash., waves upon his arrival at the Yokota Air Base in Japan on Nov. 27, 1996. Hunziker,  was jailed for three months in North Korea on spy charges, was freed and arrived at the air base with then U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., left, who negotiated his release.
Katsumi Kasahara / AP
/
AP
Evan Hunziker of Tacoma, Wash., waves upon his arrival at the Yokota Air Base in Japan on Nov. 27, 1996. Hunziker, was jailed for three months in North Korea on spy charges, was freed and arrived at the air base with then U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., left, who negotiated his release.

Richardson visited North Korea on multiple occasions to broker the release of Americans held there. In 1996, he successfully negotiated the release of Evan Hunziker, an American civilian arrested after crossing into North Korean waters.

That same year, his talks with Cuban leader Fidel Castro had led to the release of three political prisoners.

The prolific diplomat's willingness to negotiate with some of the world's most notorious autocratic governments also drew some critics. After Richardson's visit to Myanmar in 2021, some human rights leaders criticized him for giving its military legitimacy.

Days later, the former governor successfully negotiated American journalist Danny Fenster's release after holding meetings with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese army general who seized power after ousting the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Last week, Richardson was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his global efforts to free political prisoners — one of multiple Nobel Prize nominations. The Democratic senators who nominated him noted Richardson's recent role in the releases of professional basketball star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed, both of whom were repatriated in prisoner swaps with Russia.

Before Griner's release was secured, Richardson expressed optimism about the outcome in an interview with NPR last year. "Prisoner exchanges are unseemly, but sometimes you have to do them in order to bring American hostages home," he said.

President Biden mourned Richardson, a onetime colleague, calling him a "patriot and true original."

"He seized every chance to serve and met every new challenge with joy, determined to do the most good for his country, his beloved New Mexico, and Americans around the world," Biden said in a statement on Saturday. "Few have served our nation in as many capacities or with as much relentlessness, creativity, and good cheer."

Richardson's wife of 50 years, Barbara Richardson, was with him at the time of his death, Bergman said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 7, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Bill Richardson had a daughter.