Bill Richardson, the former Democratic governor of New Mexico and United Nations ambassador during the Clinton administration, died at the age of 75 on Friday.
According to the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, the former Energy Secretary died peacefully in his sleep at his Massachusetts summer home.
“He lived his entire life in the service of others–including both his time in government and his subsequent career helping to free people held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad,” vice president of the Richardson Center Mickey Bergman said in a statement. “There was no person that Governor Richardson would not speak with if it held the promise of returning a person to freedom.”
He added: “The world has lost a champion for those held unjustly abroad and I have lost a mentor and a dear friend.”
Richardson is survived by his wife, Barbara Richardson, and one daughter.
Born in Pasadena, California, in 1947. Richardson grew up in Mexico City, Mexico, as his father was a bank executive working in the country. At the age of 13, his parents sent him to a Massachusetts preparatory school, and he would later graduate from Tufts University.
Besides serving two terms as governor of New Mexico, Richardson spent 14 years in Congress, representing New Mexico’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his time as a congressman, he quickly assumed a leadership role and became a deputy majority whip.
Working closely with President Bill Clinton, he not only helped to secure NAFTA’s passage but was sent on several foreign policy missions. He helped secure the release of several political prisoners and hostages from Iraq, North Korea and Bangladesh. His efforts led to three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Richardson exited Congress in 1997 to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. After a year in that role, Clinton made Richardson his Secretary of Energy in 1998.
Richardson’s tenure heading up the Energy Department, however, was blemished by a scandal involving Wen Ho Lee, a scientist who was accused by Richardson and other Department of Energy officials of stealing nuclear-related documents. After being held in solitary confinement without bail for nearly a year, Lee was released with time served after the government was unable to prove its espionage case against him. The resulting scandal, which included a public apology from Clinton, ended Richardson’s hopes of being named Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election.
Following the end of the Clinton administration, Richardson held academic positions at Harvard Kennedy School and the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West. He also served on the board of directors of Peregrine Systems, before running for governor of New Mexico.
With his landslide election in 2002, Richardson was the only Hispanic governor in the United States when he took office. He was named chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in 2004. He would subsequently win re-election in 2006 by 36 points, the largest electoral victory in New Mexico’s history.
The popular governor threw his hat in the 2008 presidential race, officially announcing his candidacy in early 2007. However, after finishing a distant fourth in both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, he dropped out.
Following his second term as governor and unsuccessful presidency bid, Richardson founded the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which promotes international peace. He also continued to be involved in diplomacy, undertaking private humanitarian missions to North Korea and Myanmar to negotiate the release of hostages and prisoners.
Just last year, Richardson traveled to Moscow to negotiate the releases of WNBA star Brittney Griner and ex-US Marine Paul Whelan.
“On behalf of the countless families that Governor Richardson and his center have helped, I wanted to express our profound feeling of loss at his passing,” chair of the Bring Our Families Home Campaign Neda Sharghi said in a statement Saturday. “Governor Richardson has been a fierce advocate for human rights and the effort to bring home people unjustly held overseas.”
Richardson’s name also popped up in a civil lawsuit brought by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who claims deceased billionaire Jeffrey Epstein and socialite Ghislaine Maxwell sexually trafficked her. While Richardson was not named in the suit, Giuffre said in a deposition that was unsealed in 2019 that Epstein forced her to have sex with the ex-New Mexico governor and other powerful men. Richardson was not named in the actual lawsuit, nor charged with a crime.
A spokesperson for Richardson at the time called the allegations “completely false,” adding that Richardson had never met Giuffre or been to Epstein’s residence in the Virgin Islands. He would go on to offer his assistance to the investigation into Epstein, and his attorney said the U.S. attorney’s office informed him that Richardson was not a target or subject of any investigation.