Former Texas Governor Ann Richards Dies

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006 10:18 AM

Ann Richards, 73, a feminist Democrat whose Texas twang, halo of white hair and quick-on-the-draw quips, helped make her an instantly recognizable national figure, despite serving only one term as Texas governor, died Sept. 13 at her home in Austin. She had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in March.

By the time Ms. Richards moved into the Governor's Mansion in Austin in 1991, she had been involved in state and local politics for years, as activist and officeholder, but she had become a national celebrity almost instantly, thanks to a one-liner she delivered as part of her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. In a voice that rang with the sounds of Waco, her hometown, she ribbed the incumbent vice president, George H. W. Bush. "Poor George," she drawled. "He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

"She was nobody's fool," then-New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen wrote the next day. "She made them listen and she made them listen good, with precisely those qualities that we often try to iron out of politicians in general and female politicians in particular: a sense of fun, irreverence and general cussedness."

East Coast columnists may have approved, but those were the very qualities that made her suspect back home in Texas. One poll found that a sizeable percentage of older women believed that "women should stay home and take care of the house, and leave running the government to men." Many male Democrats felt the same way, and Texas Republicans were almost apoplectic that she had mocked not only the vice president of the United States but also a fellow Texan. (Barbara Bush began referring to her as "that woman.")

Two years later, however, Ms. Richards survived a brawling, bruising Democratic primary, attracted a number of Republican crossover and independent voters in the general election -- including 61 percent of women voters -- and took merciless advantage of the fumble-tongued gaffes and political inexperience of her Republican opponent, West Texas rancher Clayton Williams. In the battle between "Claytie and the Lady," Ms. Richards won with 49.9 percent of the vote.

She was not the first woman elected governor of Texas. In the 1920s, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson was twice elected to the statehouse as a surrogate for her husband, Jim "Pa" Ferguson who resigned in 1917 to avoid being impeached and was barred from running for office again.

She was, however, the first woman elected in her own right. Her victory marked the zenith of Democratic Party power and influence in the Lone Star State. Four years later, Texas politics reverted to form, and she lost to the son of the man she had mocked in 1988. No Democrats have held statewide office since the late 1990s.

She was born Dorothy Ann Willis in Lakeview, Texas (now Lacy Lakeview), a bedroom community outside Waco. Her father, she always said, came from a town called Bugtussle, her mother from Hogjaw. During her teenage years, her parents moved into town, so she could attend Waco High School.

She got her first taste of politics at Girls State, an annual conference of high school students who gather in Austin and organize a shadow state government. She also attended Girls Nation in Washington, where she -- like Bill Clinton in years to come -- got to stroll through the White House Rose Garden and shake hands with the president, in her case Harry Truman. She dropped the name Dorothy.

At Waco High, she met classmate David Richards, and at age 19, the high school sweethearts married and enrolled at Baylor University in Waco, where she received her undergraduate degree in 1954. They lived in Austin while Dave Richards attended law school at the University of Texas, and Ann Richards earned a teaching certificate and taught government at a junior high school.

After a year in Washington, where Dave Richards worked for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the couple moved to Dallas. Ms. Richards became a homemaker, although she stayed politically involved by volunteering on the gubernatorial campaigns of Henry B. Gonzalez and Ralph Yarborough, as well as Yarborough's senatorial campaigns.

The Richards family, by now with four children, moved to Austin in 1969, where Ms. Richards continued to work for candidates, including the Texas House campaign of Sarah Weddington, a 25-year-old lawyer who had successfully argued the Roe v. Wade abortion rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ms. Richards described Weddington as the first "out-and-out feminist activist" she had ever met, and in 1974 she became Weddington's administrative assistant in the House.

She ran for office herself for the first time when she successfully challenged an incumbent Travis County commissioner in 1976. She was re-elected in 1980.

Smart and sassy, with a homespun charm that often disarmed her political foes, she was making a name for herself across Texas, but her personal life was in shambles. Her political involvement put a strain on her marriage, which ended in divorce, and she began drinking heavily. Her friends eventually forced her into rehabilitation, and she credited their intervention with saving her life and her political career.

In 1982, in a Democratic sweep of top offices, she was elected state treasurer. Receiving the most votes of any statewide candidate, she became the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas in 50 years. Columnist Molly Ivins, attributed her old friend's success to her "hard hair." She looked like a Republican, in other words. She was reelected in 1986.

"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards in high heels," Ms. Richards told her fellow Democrats in the 1988 convention speech. Two year later, she made it a priority as governor to appoint more women and minorities to state boards and commissions than any of her predecessors ever had. As the mother of two daughters, she was proud of the fact that she smashed gender barriers for a generation of Texas women pursuing professional careers. It was the "New Texas," she proclaimed.

Other accomplishments during her term in office included insurance reform, a statewide performance review of government agencies, creation of an ethics commission and an effort to set up programs for prison inmates addicted to drugs or alcohol. She also lobbied for a state lottery.

She was idealistic and inspiring, but also tough-minded and practical, Washington writer Celia Morris recalled. Morris, who wrote "Storming the Statehouse, " (1992), a chronicle of the 1990 gubernatorial campaign, recalled how representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union visited Ms. Richards a few months after she took office. They were there to complain about a crèche on the Capitol grounds. "You know," Ms. Richards told them, "that's probably as close as three wise men will ever get to the Texas Legislature, so why don't we just let them be."

She was still popular in 1994 and even better known around the country, but Texas Republicans refused to make the same mistake twice. Their nominee, George W. Bush, then part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, may have been a political neophyte, but he was affable and ran a smart, disciplined campaign. Ms. Richards underestimated him. That, plus a lackluster campaign on her part, resulted in defeat, 53 percent to 46 percent, to the man who would be president six years later.

Out of office, she served on corporate boards, was a senior adviser at the Washington law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand and worked for Public Strategies Inc., an Austin-based public relations and marketing firm. Still funny and down-to-earth, she also made frequent appearances on "Larry King Live" and other talk shows.

Survivors include four children, Cecile Richards of New York City, Daniel Richards, Clark Richards and Ellen Richards all of Austin; and eight grandchildren.

Washington Post Staff Writer Joe Holley served as Ann Richard's deputy press secretary while she was governor.

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