Mary Beth Rogers has a perspective on the Texas Capitol that few others in history can claim. As campaign manager and chief of staff for Governor Ann Richards, she remembers that the reaction to Richards’s female support staff moving into the Capitol, in 1991, was puzzlement. “All of a sudden, here comes this ragtag group of women,” she said. “It was both exciting and extremely challenging.” Though women are no longer the curiosities they once were in Texas politics, the Richards years marked a high-water point for women in Texas’s most prominent public offices. “Prince Philip said he thought women were running Texas,” Rogers said. “Every major city had a female mayor. Dallas had Mayor Annette Strauss, Lila Cockrell was mayor of San Antonio, Kathy Whitmire was mayor of Houston, Ann was the governor. We haven’t really reached that level since that time.” In her newest book, a memoir titled Hope and Hard Truth (University of Texas Press), out September 1, Rogers reflects on her life in politics and her adventures that followed. She spoke to us from her home in Dallas.
Texas Monthly: What got you interested in politics?
Mary Beth Rogers: I grew up in Dallas, in the fifties, in the middle of the red scare. It was a very volatile time, and you couldn’t help but be affected by it. My mother was interested in politics. She was a confirmed Democrat and never a big-time player, just one of those volunteers, and it was the breakfast and dinnertime conversation.
TM: What was it like when you started working for Ann Richards?
MBR: You know, it was a very different time. It was rare for a woman to have any sort of political power in a world that had been so dominated by white men, by men who had power and money. And all of a sudden, here comes this ragtag group of women. It was both exciting and extremely challenging.
TM: What was the reaction from the men?
MBR: It was puzzlement. “Oh, well, what do we do now?” kind of thing. When a lobbyist would come calling on Ann, he never quite knew what to expect. But Ann did something really interesting: she would always personally serve them coffee. I think that helped put some of these guys at ease, like, “Oh, okay, oh, she’s not going to bite our heads off.” And many of those who came to see her figured out that “My God, if I’m going to see Ann, maybe there ought to be a woman working in my firm.” There was a mini affirmative-action program going on—particularly among a lot of the longtime lobbyists in the Capitol. Many of them began hiring knowledgeable, smart women to be part of their process, whether they were liberal or conservative. Ann’s governorship benefited women across the board.
TM: You write about how easily some changes can be undone. You began working with Ann when she was the campaign manager for Sarah Weddington’s successful run for Texas’s House, right after Weddington argued Roe v. Wade. What has been your reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision?
MBR: There’s nothing you do in politics that can’t be ultimately changed. It just depends on who’s in power. In terms of the court overturning Roe v. Wade, I was like most women of my generation: profoundly shocked, saddened, angry, and outraged. In that order.
TM: How would you describe the recent history of women in power in Texas?
MBR: Oh, look, I mean, you’ve got some really interesting women on the horizon who have leadership ability. And we’ll see how they do. I look at Lina Hidalgo in Houston and I just think: oh, okay, these are young women worth watching; they’re going to bring a different perspective and a different kind of authentic politics to Texas.
Ann was unique for her time, but there were a number of women who came along at the same period. On the Republican side, Kay Bailey Hutchison followed along in Ann’s footsteps. We could work very easily with Kay.
A friend of mine had posted some photos from when the queen of England came to visit Texas in 1991. Ann had a reception for the queen and Prince Philip at the Governor’s Mansion. Prince Philip said he thought women were running Texas. Every major city event had a female mayor: Annette Strauss was mayor of Dallas, Lila Cockrell was mayor of San Antonio, Kathy Whitmire was mayor of Houston, and Ann was the governor. Women haven’t really reached that level since that time.
TM: You say that your previous book, Turning Texas Blue, upset some folks.
MBR: I was critical of the state Democratic party. I thought there were so many missed opportunities. You have to be aware of changing demographics. You have to be aware of a change in cultural perceptions. You have to be aware of what people deal with in their everyday lives. I just thought the Democratic party was out of touch; the Wendy Davis campaign was out of touch. And there were people who put their heart and soul into all of that. My somewhat critical analysis is not always welcome.
TM: You also write about teaching in the nineties in a newly democratic Poland, which has recently been flirting with authoritarianism.
TM: Are you seeing a similar desire for autocracy in the U.S.?
MBR: I think it’s the same kind of rightward movement. There is this—and it’s not even hidden—surge of anti-Semitic politics. It’s profoundly disturbing, particularly after what I saw and experienced in Poland. It’s a move to the authoritarian right. We’re living in a dangerous time, if you’re looking at democracy and the rule of law and how easily they can be flouted. So, yeah, there’s reason for concern, but it’s not a reason to despair, because these things can be fought. They can be overcome. You just have to learn how to do that, and you have to be aware of the best way to go about it.
TM: Is that what Dallas felt like when you were growing up? A rightward vibe?
MBR: It was terribly oppressive, oh, yeah. There’s a book that I just picked up. It’s called Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy by Edward H. Miller. It’s about Dallas in the fifties and the atmosphere here leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy. A cadre of extremists were basically running Dallas. H.L. Hunt and other wealthy reactionaries were financing radio shows. General Edwin Walker was distributing John Birch Society material. People like Alex Jones have picked up on the same kind of inflammatory rhetoric, full of lies. And after the assassination, the Dallas powers that be figured out this is not good for business. Things began to change in Dallas.
When I was young, I couldn’t wait to leave Dallas and go to the University of Texas at Austin. When I moved back to Dallas in 2004, all my friends who remember the old days said, “Oh, you’re going to hate it.” But Dallas was a totally different place when I returned. It had an openness to it. It had wonderful neighborhoods. And of course, it has started voting Democratic. Dallas had been solidly Republican since the mid-sixties, and all of that was shifting. There were people who had new ideas. Golly, this is not the Dallas I left.
TM: You write a little bit about the rise of Karl Rove. How do you size him up, in retrospect?
MBR: Well, I think he was very perceptive. He observed a shift in demographic trends. It was already underway by the time Ann became governor, and we were unaware of it, but he spotted it in the returns of the election Ann won. The population of Texas was growing. You had an influx of new Republican voters into the suburbs all around the state. Then there was a reaction against affirmative action and cultural changes that were underway: you had all of these uppity women coming into power. I think Rove spotted those factors earlier than we did. Then he found the genial face of George W. Bush to put in front of a kind of vast extremism, which ultimately took over the state of Texas.
TM: Do you still visit with your former colleagues?
MBR: We haven’t done it in a while. For a long time, we stayed on the board of the Foundation for Women’s Resources. We would gather at least once a year for an in-person board meeting. But we passed the mantle on to a younger generation of women, which was the right thing to do. I’m very happy to see these younger women take over. They have ideas that I never had. They have courage that I never had. It’s exciting to keep up with them.
Hope is a muscle that’s inherent in our human nature. But it also requires a leap of imagination, because if you have hope, you’re able to imagine a future that would be different or better, and that propels you to do something about it.