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A Q&A With David Richards

By November 2002Comments

David Richards has certainly left his mark on Texas. From the fifties to the nineties, he was a rebel-rousing civil-rights lawyer who fought to make Texas just. Winning cases regarding everything from voting rights to labor laws, the ex-husband of former governor Ann Richards has earned his place in Texas history. Here, he talks about his newly released memoir, shares moments from his career, and discusses current issues.

texasmonthly.com: You do not reside in Texas anymore. Why did you leave?

David Richards: Partly burnout. We went to New Mexico. Santa Fe looked so wonderful, and it was a place where I could still do Texas things from reasonable proximity and view Texas from a perspective of a bunch of people who have been invaded by Texans in a variety of ways. I would have stayed in New Mexico, but I have younger kids. It was a lousy place for kids to grow up—no education. So I limped my way westward. But I still miss Texas. One thing you find out is that the only people who have fun wherever you go are from Texas. I can’t believe the difference. In Santa Fe all our friends were Tex-patriots. And out here in California, these people don’t know anything. Everyone is so politically correct on every issue. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to them to get boisterous. I’m gonna find my way back to Texas somehow.

texasmonthly.com: What compelled you to write your memoir,Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State?

DR: I had known and worked with a number of people whom had been brave soldiers in trying to make changes in Texas in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties, and related causes. It was my view that they were going to be forgotten and lost, and if I could get a book published that gave them some recognition, then that would be a worthwhile accomplishment. So that was the principal reason.

texasmonthly.com: You’ve helped bring about many important changes for Texas. What victory was most significant to you?

DR: I guess there were two. I think it was the single-member-district-legislative case, which brought remarkable changes in terms of increased minority office holders all across the state. And I think the school finance case was important too. I think it continues to have a significant impact.

texasmonthly.com: What was your most disappointing loss?

DR: I lost a huge labor case in the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a 5—4 decision. That rocked me. The redistricting case was also tough. We were all set in Travis County to put up single member districts. Then, like six weeks before the election, Justice (Lewis) Powell of the Supreme Court stayed the trial court order and kicked Travis County and a bunch of other counties back to at-large elections. It came out of the blue, and it was devastating. We ultimately turned it around, but that was two years later. So I think that’s the one that hit me hardest at the time. It was so unexpected.

texasmonthly.com: Where does your passion for social justice stem from? What were your experiences as a youth that influenced your desire to make change?

DR: I’m not at all clear about that. I’ve thought about that a good deal. I don’t think I have any deep philosophical roots, so it must be anger.

texasmonthly.com: Do you see today’s young people as apathetic? If so, what can be done to make people more socially minded?

DR: Well, I don’t think they have quite the same issues that could animate them that we had. The Civil Rights movement did it. The Vietnam War did it. There’s nothing like facing the draft to get people excited. Those things were really gripping at the time. We simply don’t have the same issues. Or maybe we do, and we’re just not recognizing them. Some days I get the feeling that the media are so enslaved in the soundbite or the quick study that they’re not advancing the issues.

texasmonthly.com: Has Texas always been a conservative state?

DR: Texas in the 1890’s was a hotbed for the Populist movement. People were angry over banks and railroad companies. It’s interesting to look back at old Texas statutes. From 1890 to about 1910, the Texas Legislature passed all kinds of reform laws. Laws protecting women. Laws protecting workers. A whole range of what we would call public welfare laws. The end of World War I and anti-red hysteria pretty much ended that. And there have not been many signs of it since.

texasmonthly.com: You once wrote, “Liberals have been little in evidence in Texas politics since 1990.” Why did their presence taper off?

DR: I don’t know. I’ve always thought that the primary between Ann Richards and Jim Mattox was so bad, and left a lot of scars. Also, the Republican Party became enormously well organized, just in the sense of putting together a sophisticated political operation. There’s evidence of that in the first Bush race when he beat Ann. I think once that happened, everyone became dispirited. The money and the victories seemed to be all on the Republican side. The Labor movement had been decimated by automation in various industries. And people suddenly drifted off. The Republican candidates realized that they could, perhaps even should, try to appeal to minorities. And they did a better job of that. So that took some of the fire and brimstone out, I suppose. It was sophistication of the enemy and the lack of clear-cut issues on our side.

texasmonthly.com: Do you predict a resurgence? What are your thoughts on the upcoming gubernatorial election and the democratic “dream team”?

DR: I don’t know. It will be interesting to see what the upcoming elections bring. I’m far away, but I stay reasonably in touch. I think the Republicans have to attack Tony Sanchez and, to some degree, Ron Kirk with such vehemence because they have to win those races. I would think that’s going to have some impact on their future ability to appeal to minority voters in Texas. And obviously, with the changing demographics of the state, they can’t be whamming on the head of Mexican American candidates for public office and then next time around think they can woo all those folks right back. There may well be fall-out from this election. And the demographics are going to be pretty dramatic.

texasmonthly.com: One of the things you fought for was voting rights. But today, many minorities are not exercising their right to vote. Why are minorities not showing up at the polls?

DR: Well, that is certainly true of the Hispanic vote. It is not true, however, of the African American vote. I think that by and large the African American vote has been, for the past decade or two, at higher levels than its economic counterparts in the Anglo community. I don’t know about Hispanic voters. Many are recent arrivals, which makes it more difficult. And of course, there’s the history of boss rule, which dominated South Texas for so many years. South Texas was pretty much a state of peonage for the most of the twentieth century. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in places like Harris and Dallas counties because the Hispanic populations are large and growing dramatically. If they can develop—and they are beginning to—local leadership, that will make an enormous difference. I mean, Henry Cisneros made an enormous difference wherever he went, and Henry Gonzales did so before him. I would assume we will see much of the same once they get off the fratricidal side of things in Dallas and Harris.

texasmonthly.com: What do you think of the job your ex-wife, Ann Richards, did as governor?

DR: Well, I think she raised issues that were important to women and minorities. She left a legacy that’s still in place in terms of advancing them and their roles in government. The reality of the governorship of Texas is that it doesn’t have any power. The only powerful governor in my memory was John Connally, who actually took on battles. I didn’t agree with many of them, but he did it. And he was sufficiently powerful to actually bring about changes. I’ve not seen someone since then or before then who played that role. The governorship has not been a source of contribution to Texas. The lieutenant governor has always had most of the power.

texasmonthly.com: What do you think of what Bush is doing in terms of Iraq?

DR: I ponder a lot about it. I’m tempted to think that the timing and rhetoric are designed, in part, to distract the public from Enron and the lousy economy. I think, to some degree, that Bush is a primitive man. That’s not necessarily bad. It strikes me, at times, that there are elements of just vengeance here. He’s even said it. The guy tried to kill his father. So, that’s a human thing. I don’t know. It’s a peculiar mess. I think people are more concerned with whether they’re going to have jobs next month. Our economy is so riveted on domestic consumer spending that if it starts really dragging, the ripples through our economy are enormous. We have not had good experience building economies on a war footing and that’s where we’re headed. It’s not a pleasant prospect.

texasmonthly.com: Are you still practicing law?

DR: A little bit, but not much. I had unfortunate experiences with the redistricting stuff this year. Voting rights have been my main area of focus for many years.

texasmonthly.com: What still needs to be done in terms of voting rights?

DR: We’ve dismantled the old system pretty successfully, in terms of access to registration and access to voting. I worry about the technology that is taking over. I think it can be unhinged and is not accountable. If you voted on a paper ballot and there were problems, you could go get the box, open it, and count them. I’ve done it. There’s nothing more reassuring than looking down at the markings. These people can hack into the Pentagon, which means they can surely get into the electronic devices counting ballots. And, unlike the paper ballot, an electronic vote is not traceable. But we’ll never go back to paper. The news media and the American public want instant results. We think whatever provides instant results, no matter how flawed, is better. I think that’s typical of American society.

texasmonthly.com: Any plans to write more books in the future?

DR: I’m thinking about trying to write a book about three remarkable black men from East Texas. I am fascinated by them. I’m not sure what to do, but I am fascinated by the fact that they existed in an utterly hostile environment, came from humble origins, and somehow persevered and did so without support. They had extraordinary achievements. I don’t know if I have the resources to delve further into this and do a decent job, but it’s on my mind.

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