THE MOST MEMORABLE quote of the 1988 Democratic National Convention came from Ann Richards, then the Texas state treasurer and one of the party’s brightest rising stars. “Poor George,” she said in the keynote address, referring to George H. W. Bush, then vice president of the United States. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The line became instantly famous. Richards was elected governor of Texas two years later, and the irony was lost on no one when, after four years in office, she went down in bitter defeat to the son of the man she had so mercilessly derided.
That election ended her electoral career, launched W. toward his own elaborate political destiny, and might well have been the last anyone heard about Bush versus Richards. But the story does not end there. As it turns out, the silver-tongued Ann, like the silver-footed forty-first president of the United States, also has an ambitious, successful, and highly partisan eldest child. Her name is Cecile Richards, and she is the proximate political antipode of George W. Bush, as pure a creature of the Democratic left as he is of the Republican right. She is 47 years old, a striking six-footer and longtime labor organizer with a bright, explosive laugh who can stop a room when she walks into it just as her mother can. A full decade after W. beat Ann at the polls, Cecile, who like George W. made her first big political splash in Texas in the nineties (and like him went to a fancy private school and an Ivy League college), has become one of the key leaders of an unprecedented $250 million campaign being waged outside the Democratic party whose sole purpose is to drive George W. Bush from office. Think of it as Bush-Richards III.
Cecile Richards is president of America Votes, a Washington-based coalition of 32 of the biggest, richest, and most influential unions and liberal interest groups in the country. They include the AFL-CIO, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, and the American Federation of Teachers. Together they represent some 20 million members. They also include the new wave of powerful independent political committees—so-called 527’s, named for their IRS designation—such as America Coming Together, the Media Fund, MoveOn.org Voter Fund, and Victory Campaign 2004, that are raising and spending large amounts of unregulated, unlimited “soft” money that political parties can no longer accept because of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform of 2002. (The other kind of money, “hard” money, is strictly regulated by federal law: Donations to national candidates are capped at $2,000 and to political parties at $25,000.) They have come together under the banner of Richards’s organization for two main reasons. First, the campaign-finance laws forbid any contact between outside groups that take and spend such soft money and parties or candidates. And second, coalition members are attempting to do what they have never done before but now perceive to be a dire necessity: coordinate their vast get-out-the-vote efforts, which include everything from TV ads to door-knocking, canvassing, direct mail, and phone banks in the seventeen battleground states. This sort of politicking—and not the huge national ad campaigns being run by Democrats and Republicans—is now thought by experts on both sides to be the key to this election.
Richards’s job is to run what amounts to the war room of the unofficial campaign, enforcing cooperation and accountability among the groups and preventing duplication of efforts. “With America Votes, we really have a way now to settle who is in which neighborhoods, who is taking which precincts,” she says. “And the role of our state directors is to hold those folks accountable for what they said they’d do.” The effort being mounted by the America Votes coalition is, in its scope and resources, huge by historical standards. It is the equivalent of a full presidential campaign. Measured by money—both hard and soft—it is nearly as big as the entire campaign waged by Al Gore in 2000.
All of which leaves Richards as one of the most prominent field marshals in a desperately close, do-or-die battle to bring down her mother’s old nemesis. When asked about her personal feelings about George W. Bush, she comes right to the point. “I want to be totally clear,” she says. “I have been involved in politics a lot longer than President Bush. I have been involved in organizing all my life, and the things I am working on I worked on way before he ever got involved in politics, and I will be involved long after he is out. This is so not about him.”
NONE OF THIS VAST and historic campaign for the heart of the American voter is visible in the modest, somewhat stripped-down office Cecile Richards occupies in downtown Washington, D.C. The action is elsewhere, out in the great American beyond suggested only by a dog-eared map of the country hanging over her desk. The headquarters of America Votes is on Sixteenth Street, a 3-wood across Lafayette Square from the White House, in a neighborhood dominated by big labor and big liberal interest groups. The looming bulk of the AFL-CIO is directly across the street. America Coming Together, the giant new non-party apparatus whose purpose is to get Democratic voters to the polls, is down the hall. For independent organizations of the left, this is Middle Earth.
The first thing you notice about Richards is that she does not look like the labor organizer she was for many years—like someone who stands at plant gates at unearthly hours in godforsaken places on the Texas border trying to persuade garment workers to become union members. She is tall, elegant, and rail-thin, a successful genetic cross of her handsome parents, and in a gray pinstripe pantsuit and pearl earrings looks more like the Brown graduate she is than the underpaid organizer she used to be,