Friday, September 15, 2006
September 14, 2006
Ann Richards, Ex-Governor of Texas, Dies at 73
By RICK LYMAN
Ann W. Richards, the silver-haired Texas activist who galvanized the 1988 Democratic National Convention with her tart keynote speech and was the state’s 45th governor until upset in 1994 by an underestimated challenger named George W. Bush, died Wednesday at her home in Austin. She was 73.
The cause was complications of esophageal cancer, a family spokeswoman, Cathy Bonner, said. She said the illness was diagnosed in March.
A champion of civil rights for minorities, gays and women, Ms. Richards first ran for governor calling for a “New Texas” that would offer more opportunity and power to those groups.
She was the most recent and one of the most effective in a long line of Lone Star State progressives who vied for control of Texas when it was largely a Democratic stronghold. But her defeat after one term by the future president was a strong signal that generations of Democratic dominance in Texas had ended.
“Poor George, he can’t help it,” Ms. Richards, then the state treasurer, said at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta, speaking about the current president’s father, former President George Bush. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Her saucy, plainspoken keynote address, borrowing from the great tradition of vernacular Southern oratory, was one of the year’s political highlights. “We’re gonna tell how the cow ate the cabbage,” she said at one point.
It transformed her into a national figure. And it made her, a mother of four, an admired champion of feminism. “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did,” she told the national audience. “She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Her defeat in 1994, coming in a year of sweeping Republican success at the polls nationwide, did not dim her celebrity on the national stage. She continued to speak out on behalf of liberal causes and appeared in national advertising campaigns, including one for snack chips.
She also went to work as a lobbyist for the public relations company Public Strategies and as a senior adviser for the national law firm Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, which after a series of mergers is now DLA Piper. She also served on the boards of J.C. Penney, Brandeis University and the Aspen Institute.
Dorothy Ann Willis was born Sept. 1, 1933, in Lakeview, Tex. She graduated in 1950 from Waco High school, where she showed a special facility for debate and met her future husband, In her junior year, she attended the Girl’s State mock government program in Austin and was one of two delegates chosen to attend Girl’s Nation in Washington.
Ms. Richards went on to enroll at Baylor University in Waco on a debate scholarship. After graduating, she and Mr. Richard moved to Austin, where she earned a teaching certificate at the University of Texas in 1955 and taught social studies for several years at Fulmore Middle School. She reared her four children — Cecile, Daniel, Clark and Ellen — in Austin, and they were with her at home when she died, their family spokeswoman said. Ms. Richards is also survived by eight grandchildren. Cecile Richards, who became president of Planned Parenthood this year, lives in New York. The other siblings live in Austin.
As a young woman, Ann Richards volunteered in several gubernatorial campaigns, in 1958 for Henry Gonzalez and in 1952, 1954 and 1956 for Ralph Yarborough. She then helped Yarborough’s senatorial campaign in 1957.
In the early 1960’s, she and a handful of other young Democrats founded North Dallas Democratic Women in an effort to give more power to women in the party. “The regular Democratic Party and its organization was run by men who looked on women as little more than machine parts,” she said later.
In 1972, she ran her first campaign, helping elect to the Texas Legislature Sarah Weddington, who had successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the United States Supreme Court.
In 1976, Ms. Richards defeated a three-term incumbent to become a commissioner in Travis County, which includes Austin. She held the job for four years. She also began drinking heavily, becoming alcoholic and putting great strain on her marriage, she said later. It ended in divorce. After going into rehabilitation, she stopped drinking in 1980 and later said that the decision to seek help had saved her life and salvaged her political career.
“I have seen the very bottom of life,” she said. “I was so afraid I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I just knew that I would lose my zaniness and my sense of humor. But I didn’t. Recovery turned out to be a wonderful thing.”
In 1982, she ran for state treasurer and received the most votes of any statewide candidate, becoming the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas in 50 years. She was re-elected in 1986.
In 1990, when Gov. William P. Clements Jr., the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction, decided not to run for re-election, Ms. Richards challenged a former Democratic governor, Mark White, in a primary and won. She went on to defeat the Republican candidate, Clayton Williams, a wealthy rancher, in the general election after a brutal campaign.
As governor, among other achievements, she fulfilled her campaign promise to bring more blacks, Hispanics and women into public office. She appointed the first black regent to the University of Texas and installed the first blacks and women on the state’s legendary police force, the Texas Rangers. She also pushed for harsher penalties for polluters and gained control of the state’s insurance board in a drive to reduce the industry’s influence over state government.
Ms. Richards oversaw an expansion of the state’s prison system, increasing the space for prisoners by a third, and cracked down on the number of prisoners being paroled. She also instituted a major substance abuse program for prisoners. And she championed the creation of the Texas lottery as a source of public school financing. She bought the first scratch-off ticket herself on May 29, 1992.
The same year, she was named chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention, which went on to nominate Bill Clinton for the first time.
Two years later, she underestimated her young Republican challenger from West Texas, George W. Bush, going so far as to refer to him as “some jerk.” The comment drew considerable criticism. She later acknowledged that Mr. Bush had been more effective than she at “staying on message” and that he had made none of the mistakes that her campaign strategists had expected. She was beaten 53 percent to 46 percent.
Ms. Richards was a co-author of several books, including “Straight From the Heart: My Life in Politics and Other Places” (1989, Simon & Schuster), with Peter Knobler, and “I’m Not Slowing Down: Winning My Battle With Osteoporosis” (2003, E.P. Dutton), with Richard U. Levine.
On her 60th birthday, she got a motorcycle license, an event that was commemorated with a cover photo in Texas Monthly showing Ms. Richards’s head superimposed on the body of a woman in a fringed jacket atop a Harley Davidson beneath the headline “White Hot Mama.”
In recent years, Ms. Richards has worked to establish the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, a public college preparatory school in Austin. It is set to open next year, giving priority to economically disadvantaged students. She was also a sought-after commentator and speaker whose observations had lost little of their tart humor since her emergence as a national figure two decades ago.
As she once explained, “I learned early on that people liked you if you made them laugh.”