When Ann Richards was born on September 1, 1933, the governor of Texas was a woman–Miriam “Ma” Ferguson. She was the wife of former governor James “Pa” Ferguson, who had been impeached in 1917. Ineligible to run for office himself, Pa had come up with the idea that Ma should run in his stead. And she did, four times, winning twice. She was just a figurehead while he made the decisions. The Fergusons were notorious for shenanigans like selling pardons to state penitentiary inmates, and a story made the rounds that a stranger, having bumped into Ma while she was walking to the Capitol, said, “Pardon me,” to which Ma is said to have replied, “You’ll have to see my husband about that.” Wouldn’t it have been nice to know that a baby girl in Waco would grow up to be a governor who told jokes instead of being the butt of them, and who made Texans, and especially women, proud instead of embarrassed.
She was a type of politician Texas had never seen before–a good ol’ gal, sharp of tongue and quick of wit. Ann was a star, so familiar that almost everybody referred to her by her first name. She had the ability, possessed by few male politicians and even fewer women, to expand her personality to fill a room. And fill it she did. That helmet of white hair, that hearty laugh, that thick Texas accent larded onto every tale she told, left no doubt of her presence. She liked to address men by their last name, and there was always an ambiguity about whether she was putting them down or just letting them know she could be one of the boys.
My first encounter with Ann was not a happy one. It came in 1987. Democratic prospects for the future still looked bright, but then Bill Hobby, the longtime lieutenant governor, and Henry Cisneros, the mayor of San Antonio, each announced that he would not run for statewide office in 1990. The Democrats were left with a bunch of flawed second-stringers whose resumes included demerits ranging from scandal to alcoholism. I wrote a piece for Texas Monthly that predicted the death of the Democratic party. Not one letter writer complained about any of the other Democrats I had denigrated, but I received a bundle of mail protesting the inclusion of Ann, who was a recovering alcoholic. I realized that I had made a mistake, that the public viewed Ann as different from the others, and I went to her office to apologize, where I got the lecture of my life. Her message was that people can turn their lives around and I should give the benefit of the doubt to those who had tried. It was uplifting, if you weren’t on the receiving end.
When 1990 came, Ann was one of three major candidates who entered the Democratic primary for governor. The others were former governor Mark White, who had served from 1983 to 1987, and attorney general Jim Mattox. The candidates met in a debate at KERA, the Dallas public television station. I was one of the questioners. Mattox had accused Richards of drug use, and one of my co-panelists asked the question, “Have you ever used illegal drugs?” I cannot recall whether Richards was the first or last to answer, but I do remember that Mattox and White each responded, “I have never used illegal drugs.” Period. Richards, though, looked straight at the camera and said something like, “I want to address my answer to all of you out there who have had problems in your life.” She went on to say that she wanted to assure them that they could seek help for their problems without fearing that their mistakes would be brought up to them, again and again. I have never been in a place where silence was such a presence, except for her voice. A small audience was in the studio, and not even a cough broke the stillness. I thought we were watching Ann self-destruct on statewide television and that she had lost the race by dodging the question. But I was wrong, again. This was as real a moment as you will ever see on television, and the people watching knew it. She reached through that tube and grabbed them. Richards beat Mattox in the runoff and went up against oilman Clayton Williams, the Republican nominee, in the general election.
Ann couldn’t win the race, but, as it turned out, Claytie could lose it. He had wrapped up the Republican primary early with great television spots. The one everyone remembers was about getting tough with drug dealers: teach them “the joy of busting rocks.” Claytie was as good-hearted a man as ever ran for public office, but as a politician, he was untrainable. He committed gaffe after gaffe, starting with a rape joke in front of reporters he had invited to visit his West Texas ranch. Speaking of the weather, he said it was like rape: There’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy it. Later, he refused to shake Ann’s hand at a joint appearance. Having frittered away most of what had started as a thirty point lead in the polls, he volunteered that he had paid no income taxes in a year during which a lot of Texans had gone bust. By that time it was apparent that Ann stood proudly for the future and Claytie stood just as proudly for the past. Republican women deserted him in droves, and Richards won by around 100,000 votes. When she claimed victory, she held up a T-shirt featuring the Capitol and the slogan, “A woman’s place is in the dome.”
Every politician has her reasons for seeking office, and for Ann I thought two were uppermost. One was to be a role model to show young girls what was possible. The other was to prove to the boys club that dominated the Capitol that the girls could govern the state as well as the boys did. She could, but too many of those around her could not. Her mostly inexperienced staff caused her untold problems with the boys, particularly Lieutenant Governor Bullock; never comfortable with strong women, he treated her with unpardonable rudeness. Still, she was popular with most legislators. Full of energy, she frequented the halls of the Capitol during her first legislative session. I know of at least two Republican House members who sent her roses. Texans liked having a star as governor, and she had an approval rating in the sixties for most of her time in office. She was a superb representative of Texas wherever she went. One of her foremost achievements was getting General Motors to keep open a plant in Arlington. She had the misfortunate to take office soon after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional, and the issue dogged her administration for four years. The voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to fix the inequities in the system, and eventually the Legislature, still Democratic in those days, resorted to the plan that came to be known as “Robin Hood.” Her administration produced little else in the way of landmark legislation–an insurance reform bill and a moratorium on the disposal of hazardous waste were her two major initiatives. She backed a bill establishing the lottery and opposed a proposal to allow Texans to carry handguns.
It is conventional wisdom that the handgun issue led to her defeat, because she vetoed a bill that would have authorized a statewide referendum on the subject, but I don’t agree. The veto was a mistake, to be sure–why not let the people vote and put off the issue itself for two more years, until after the election?–but that wasn’t why she failed to win reelection. She lost for three reasons: 1) Demographic change was remaking Texas into a suburban state, and suburbs are breeding grounds for Republicans; 2) The only Republican who could have beaten her, George W. Bush, decided to get in the race; and, most important, 3) Ann was worn down and dispirited by the shortcomings of her staff (particularly after the departure of her original chief of staff, Mary Beth Rogers, and her sharpest political adviser, Jane Hickie) and some of her appointees.
The turning point for Richards, I believe, was the Lena Guerrero debacle in 1992. She had appointed Guerrero, an Austin legislator, to fill a vacancy on the Texas Railroad Commission. This was just the kind of appointment she ran for office to make. Guerrero was young, smart, hardworking, and politically talented, with a resume that touted her degree from the University of Texas and her membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Guerrero was running for election to her seat when Republicans found, by chance, that her resume was a lie. She had never graduated from UT, and she was not a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Guerrero’s candidacy collapsed. I don’t think Ann ever got over the betrayal. A few weeks later, Lloyd Bentsen resigned his Senate seat to become Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton cabinet, and she had to find a replacement. The obvious choices were Cisneros, Hobby, state comptroller John Sharp, and Houston congressman Mike Andrews. Hobby didn’t want the job. Cisneros was known to be having an affair with his chief fundraiser. Sharp was pro-life and none too keen about going to Washington. Andrews was in dutch with labor. I thought she should have appointed Sharp or Andrews anyway, but she settled on Bob Krueger, another railroad commissioner, who was a decade and a half past his prime (1978), when he narrowly lost the Senate race to John Tower. Krueger served a few months and lost a special election to Kay Bailey Hutchison.
I saw Ann in the Capitol during the 1993 legislative session, and she didn’t look like the same person I had watched two years earlier. The ebullience of that first session was gone. Later, I had occasion to mention to her my observation of this change of attitude, and she said, poignantly, “If you mean, am I sadder but wiser, the answer is yes.” I will never forget that moment. By then, the younger Bush had emerged as a possible opponent in 1994. The first poll, taken around November of ‘93, showed Richards with just a single-digit lead over someone who had nothing except a famous name. I sensed then that she was in trouble, but I think Ann knew it all the time. There was something fatalistic about her leap into the national spotlight coming at the expense of the father–“Poor George,” she said of the Republican presidential nominee-apparent at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth”–only to see him avenged by the son.
With Bush officially in the race, Texas Monthly decided to do profiles of the two candidates in the spring of 1994. My assignment was Richards. I went down to the Rio Grande Valley in February to see her appear in La Joya, a small town that had been overwhelmed by immigration. The school district had had to build several new schools to accommodate the children of the newcomers, and the cost of paying off the bonds was a heavy burden on the largely working class population. Richards spoke in a school cafetorium, and the place was overflowing. All the tables were full, all the wall space was occupied, and people were standing in open doorways. “I wish I could help you,” she told the crowd, “but I just can’t.” I knew then that she would lose. It is rule one of politics that you always leave people with the hope that you can do something for them–“I’m going to go back to Austin and fight for you,” she could have said–but she was too honest, and, yes, too dispirited, to lead them on. Her heart wasn’t in the race. The headline for my story wrote itself: “Sadder but Wiser.”
Without her, we’re sadder too. And less wise.