September 1, 1933– Ann Richards:
“I’ve always said that in politics, your enemies can’t hurt you, but your friends will kill you.”
In 1994, the sinister Karl Rove ran George W. Bush’s campaign for Governor of Texas against incumbent Ann Richards. In the polls, Bush was losing badly to the popular Richards, but then the whispers and the rumors started: “There’s a lesbian working for Richards”. “She’s been using state funds to visit her lover”. “Richards is gay”.
Rove had planted the seed. Bush did nothing about the rumors; he didn’t need to. Rove said just enough to get the word to the press. He told a reporter that Richards’ appointments of “avowed homosexuals” just might be a liability in her campaign for reelection. And then, the allegations were on the record, the rumors become newspaper headlines, and Bush became Governor of Texas.
You may not have heard of her, but Richards was a brilliant silver-haired Texan maverick who galvanized the Democratic National Convention in 1988 with her tart, smart keynote speech.
She was the popular 45th Governor of Texas until that underestimated challenger named George W. Bush was unexpectedly elected.
Richards was a champion of Civil Rights for minorities, women and LGBTQ people. When she first ran for Governor, Richards called for a “New Texas” that would offer more opportunity and power to those who were disenfranchised.
She was one of the strongest, most effective of the Texan progressives who controlled the state when it was largely a Democratic stronghold. Her defeat after just one term was the first sign that generations of Democratic dominance in Texas had ended.
Ironically, one George Bush ended her political career, when another George Bush brought her to the attention of the nation. At that 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, President George H.W. Bush was the bullseye for her best barb:
“Poor George, he can’t help it, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Her cheeky, folksy keynote address, in the traditional Southern vernacular, was the year’s political highlight. Richards:
“We’re gonna tell how the cow ate the cabbage…”
At the time, she was the Texas Treasurer, and not a national figure. Her speech changed everything. A working mother of four, it made her a Feminist Icon. She told the assembled delegates:
“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, and she did it backwards and in high heels.”
By the way, a variation of that line originated in a 1982 cartoon by Bob Thaves. Richards credited Texan journalist Linda Ellerbee with giving her the line; Ellerbee credits a passenger on an airplane with giving her the line.
She also addressed a wide range of issues in her speech: Social Security, HIV/AIDS, clean air and clean water, and Climate Change.
Richards defeat in 1994, was just one part of a year with Republican wins across the country. Yet, it did not dim her celebrity. She still spoke out on behalf of Progressive causes, and she became a sly, witty commentator on CNN, appeared in commercials, and promoted the Texas Film and Music industries, including Austin City Limits Festivals, and the SXSW Festival.
She was born Dorothy Ann Willis, an only child, in Lakeview, Texas. In high school, she was on the debate team where she met her future husband, David Richards. In her junior year, she was the Texas delegate at Girls Nation in Washington DC.
Richards went to Baylor University on a debate scholarship. After graduating, she and her husband moved to Austin, where she earned a teaching certificate at the University Of Texas in 1955 and she taught Social Studies while raising her four kids.
As a young woman, Richards volunteered for several campaigns for Texas Governor. In the early 1960’s, she was one of the founders of the North Dallas Democratic Women, working to give more power to women in the party. Richards:
“The regular Democratic Party and its organization was run by men who looked on women as little more than machine parts.“
In 1972, she ran her first campaign, helping elect Sarah Weddington to the Texas Legislature. Weddington successfully argued Roe v. Wade before SCOTUS.
In 1976, Richards ran for office and defeated a three-term incumbent to become a commissioner of Travis County, which includes Austin. She also began to drink a lot and her marriage ended. Richards went to rehab and stopped drinking in 1980 and later admitted that the decision to seek help saved her life and her political career. Richards:
“I have seen the very bottom of life. 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 Texas State Treasurer, receiving the most votes of any statewide candidate, and becoming the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas in 50 years. She was re-elected in 1986.
In 1990, when William P. Clements Jr., the first Republican Governor of Texas since Reconstruction, decided not to run for re-election, Richards challenged former governor, Mark White, in the Democratic primary and won. She defeated the Republican candidate, Clayton Williams, a wealthy Conservative rancher, in the general election after a particularly brutal campaign.
As Governor, she fulfilled her campaign promise to bring more African-Americans, Hispanics and Women into public office. She appointed the first Black regent to the University Of Texas and she installed the first blacks and women to the Texas Rangers, the legendary Lone Star police force. She went after tough penalties for polluters and reduced the Insurance industry’s influence over state government. Richards started a major substance abuse program for prisoners and created the Texas Lottery System to help finance public schools. She bought the first Lotto ticket herself.
In 1988, she was named chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention, which nominated William Jefferson Clinton for POTUS.
Two years later, she underestimated that young Republican challenger from West Texas for Governor, going so far as to refer to him as “that jerk”, a comment that drew considerable criticism, because, you know, she was a woman. Bush won with 53% of the vote.
On her 60th birthday, Richards got a motorcycle license. She made the cover photo in Texas Monthly Magazine wearing a fringed jacket and riding a Harley-Davidson.
Richards established the Ann Richards School For Young Women Leaders, a public preparatory school in Austin, giving priority to economically disadvantaged students. She was also a much sought-after public speaker.
After 9/11, many New Yorkers left the city, but at the invitation of her longtime Texas friend, columnist Liz Smith, Richards made the city her home for the last five years of her life.
In early 2006, Richards was diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer, a disease associated with long-term alcohol and tobacco use. She was taken by the cancer in September 2006, at her home in Austin, surrounded by her family. Richards was 73-years-old when she left this world.
Her daughter, Cecile Richards, has been the president of the Planned Parenthood since 2006, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Powerful People. Richard’s granddaughter, Lily Adams, served as press secretary for Senator Tim Kaine and an advisor on Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign.
Out and proud actor Holland Taylor toured in her one-woman play Ann. It played the Kennedy Center and the Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC in 2013. Taylor:
“She was brave, strong, and funny. Bill Clinton said she was the wittiest person he’d ever met! She ran as a liberal in conservative Texas, so I had to write a play about her four incredible years in Austin. She was ahead of Obama by about 10 years as in ‘inclusive’ leader.”
HBO released a documentary, All About Ann: Governor Richards Of The Lone Star State (2014). It’s available on HBO To Go.
After Shirley Chisolm retired from politics, it became my hope and dream that Richards would be our first female POTUS. I loved and admired her so much. I wish that she was here to take swipes on the current administration. I also nominate Richards for Gay Icon status. Drag Queens, ready your best Ann Richards for Annathon 2018.
“I learned early on that people liked you if you made them laugh.”