POLITICO - Over the span of just three months, Bill Richardson has gone from being on the shortlist for secretary of state to late-night punch line, a breathtaking descent that has tarnished his once-sparkling career.
Since withdrawing as the nominee for secretary of commerce in early January amid questions surrounding a federal grand jury investigation, New Mexico's Democratic governor has seen his political fortunes crater. Once unmatched in his power and popularity in Santa Fe, Richardson's grip on state politics has been weakened by the whiff of scandal, and home state opponents have been emboldened by his plummeting approval ratings - numbers that have dropped below 50 percent, according to a recent SurveyUSA poll.
"He's had a pretty rough go of it since he withdrew," said Timothy Jennings, a Democrat and New Mexico's Senate president pro tempore. "His popularity has really declined in the state."
The heart of the problem is a federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving Richardson's political action committee, Moving America Forward.
A grand jury in New Mexico is currently investigating whether the financial services company CDR funneled more than $100,000 in campaign contributions to Richardson's PAC in order to win state bond and construction finance projects. Several other financial firms and banks, including UBS, are also accused of contributing to the PAC in order to gain contracts.
Richardson's office has been subpoenaed to hand over correspondence with the Democratic Governors' Association, which received contributions from UBS during Richardson's time as DGA chairman that alone total more than $400,000.
And the governor's former chief of staff was recently identified in another alleged pay-to-play scheme; the allegations are that a Chicago investment firm was awarded a contract to handle the state's pension fund because it contributed $15,000 to Richardson's PAC. The fund lost $90 million under the company's watch.
In addition, Richardson has come under criticism for awarding state contracts to political allies. Local news outlets have chronicled how one local firm stacked with Richardson allies has been awarded $7.8 million in state auditing contracts since he became governor. In the five years prior to his 2002 election, the firm received $274,000 in such contracts, according to the New Mexico Independent.
Richardson has not publicly addressed any of the investigations, though when he withdrew his Cabinet nomination, he insisted he is innocent.
"Every time you turn on the TV or open a newspaper, you see 'Richardson' and 'scandal,'" said University of New Mexico professor Gabriel Sanchez, a veteran Richardson-watcher. "The public now looks at him much differently. New Mexicans don't like to constantly see their state being negatively identified in the media."
Richardson's predicament has even captured the attention of late-night comedians, who now mention him in the same breath as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-lll.), who was removed from office following an impeachment trial last month.
David Letterman, host of CBS's "Late Show," jokingly paraphrased Richardson's announcement that he was stepping down from Obama's Cabinet: "You know what, I've been doing some stuff that may be too illegal to be in the Cabinet but just about right to keep me as governor of New Mexico. So if you don't mind, I don't want any Blagojevich trouble."
Letterman's riff ended with a quick video segment mocking Richardson for having an affinity for Taco Bell that concluded: "Bill Richardson: Mmm hungry!"
"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno also got in on the act during a Feb. 7 stop at the Buffalo Thunder casino in Santa Fe. According to a report on the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper's political blog - and independently confirmed to Politico by a member of the audience - Richardson was in attendance when Leno began asking audience members what they do for a living.
When one audience member said he was an investigator, Leno responded: "Better watch out, the governor is here." Following Leno's retort, the audience began chanting, "Guilty, guilty."
Even lesser comedic talents have found Richardson an irresistible target. At the Washington Press Club Foundation's recent Congressional Dinner, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) promised to keep her remarks "as short as Bill Richardson's tenure as commerce secretary."
Richardson's travails represent a remarkable turn of events for the former Democratic presidential candidate with a sterling résumé of government experience.
In the days after Barack Obama's election as president, Richardson drew mention as a top contender for the Foggy Bottom post. When he was tapped to be commerce secretary in December, he was still one of the most popular and influential governors in state history.
But now, term-limited and plagued by reports of scandal, he no longer commands the same level of fear and respect in the state Capitol.
The Democrat-controlled state Senate, once stacked with Richardson allies, has rejected the governor's attempt to push through tax rebates and health care reform this year. And his relationship with Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish has been strained, in part because Denish had already created a government-in-waiting in anticipation of Richardson's departure to Washington.
"She was doing pretty well for a while when she had a transition team until all of a sudden that went away," said Jennings. "There's an obvious antagonistic role between the two of them."
Rather than return to her role as Richardson's second in command, Denish has pushed her own political agenda independent of the governor as she readies for an expected 2010 gubernatorial run.
"It's a little bit surreal out here. Gov. Richardson has been a very forceful governor," said state Senate Minority Whip William Payne, a Republican. "Everybody knows what's going on, but we're all waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Richardson's diminished stature has also created a sense of uncertainty in state politics for the first time since he won election in 2002.
"There are a lot of people scared about what's going on," said Jennings. "A lot of people wonder where their allegiance should lie."
Republicans, who haven't had a majority in the state House or Senate in more than 80 years, contend that Richardson's troubles will work to their political benefit.
"His administration and all the Democrats around him are definitely weakened by the investigation and everything else that is coming after the fact," said New Mexico Republican Party Communications Director Whitney Cheshire. "Democratic candidates seeking the governor's office in 2010 are very weakened by his scandal."
Richardson's office disputes the notion that the governor's clout has been diminished in any way.
"Based on progress so far this session, the governor's influence over the Legislature and control of state government is as strong as ever," said Pahl Shipley, Richardson's communications director. "The governor has already helped to forge a bipartisan budget revision package that passed in record time and has a number of other important initiatives that are moving forward. We expect this will be a very successful legislative session for the governor and for the people of New Mexico."
Indeed, in his Jan. 20 State of the State speech, Richardson glossed over the controversy swirling around him. He spoke as if he still had a national platform, advocating an economic stimulus plan, a broad response to climate change and support for a restructured energy grid.