Ann Richards, known for her sharp tongue and shock of white hair, was the forty-fifth governor of Texas. She was born Dorothy Ann Willis in Waco in 1933, the only child of Cecil and Iona Willis. At age nineteen, while attending Baylor, she married David Richards. The couple moved to Austin where Richards worked as a schoolteacher while David attended law school. The family moved to Dallas, where David worked as a civil rights lawyer as Richards raised their four children and held court with other progressives.
“Wherever the couple lived, they formed the center of a charmed circle. . . . Their Dallas home became a haven for the disenfranchised, everyone from carpenters to poets to politicians,” executive editor Mimi Swartz wrote in 1990 during Richards’s first gubernatorial campaign. “Ann, pretty and sharp-tongued, became their star. She could cuss and laugh as loud as any man, and she could argue civil rights as well as she could make tamales.” The family moved back to Austin in the early seventies, and she quickly found her niche among Austin’s liberal Democrats. “Everybody wanted to be with her, around her,” one old friend told Swartz. “You didn’t dare sleep late or take naps because you’d miss something fun.” But while Richard had a charming exterior, she also had her demons. In 1980, after a family intervention, she entered treatment for alcoholism and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. But the demands of politics and her alcoholism placed a strain on her marriage, which unraveled. The couple divorced in 1984.
Richards’s political career began in 1975, when she ran for county commissioner and ousted a three-term incumbent. She quickly took to the office, and would “out-bubba the bubbas by picking her teeth with an ivory toothpick and cleaning her fingernails with a Swiss army knife during commissioners’ meetings,” Swartz wrote. At the urging of former land commissioner Bob Armstrong, Richards ran for state treasurer in 1982, again beating the incumbent. Her political star rose in 1988, when she delivered a winning keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and became the darling of the Democratic Party overnight. Her speech was peppered with zingers, including her famous line, “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
In 1990 she ran for governor. After giving Jim Mattox a drubbing in the Democratic primary, she faced a tough fight against Clayton Williams, who fell off in the polls after making a rape joke and refusing to shake Richards’s hand at an event in Dallas. Richards had a high approval rating two years into her term, and she enjoyed legislative successes, including the creation of the state lottery and new environmental protections. But her popularity was rooted not in her legislative accomplishments as governor but in “her style and the specifics of who she is: a 58-year-old woman, a mother, a former schoolteacher, a former county commissioner, and a survivor of divorce and alcoholism,” contributing editor Jan Jarboe Russell wrote in 1992.
But by the 1993 session, Richards seemed to have lost her zest. When senior executive editor Paul Burka saw her in the hallways of the Capitol during that session and remarked that she didn’t seem to be enjoying her time there as much as in 1991, she replied “If you mean, ‘Am I sadder but wiser?’ The answer is yes.” Her 1994 reelection campaign against George W. Bush was characterized by that apathy and resignation, and she ended up losing by 500,000 votes.
Richards died of esophageal cancer in 2006. Her daughter Cecile Richards is the president of Planned Parenthood.
Ann Richards Is The President of the Magnited States of America
The Alamo Drafthouse #DontTalk PSA bracket has a winner, and we talked to the director of the spot.
Alamo Drafthouse Founder And CEO Tim League On The Story Behind The Top Eight #DontTalk PSA’s
Learn about how Ann Richards would prank Drafthouse customers, and what the lawyers said when they heard the Magnited States of America voicemail.
Vote For Your Favorite Alamo Drafthouse PSA In Our #DontTalk Challenge Bracket
The iconic “don’t talk” PSAs get broken down and voted on—by you.
Seriously, Don’t Mess With Texas Women
A roundup of some of the most notable recent displays of gumption from women around the state.
It’s a Good Time for Ann Richards
A documentary called “All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State” premieres tonight on HBO and resonates in some ways with the Wendy Davis story.
Phantom of the Opry House
Sixteen photographs of some of the cooler moments of Austin history, as taken by Scott Newton, the longtime official photographer of “Austin City Limits.”
Blue Skies Smiling at Me
Yes, there is good news for the Democrats in 2014.
Behind the humor of Ann Richards’ Democratic keynote address lay the calculation of an ambitious politician.
The Renaissance of Ann
Nearly six years after her death, Ann Richards, who is the subject of a new documentary, book, and stage play, still casts a long shadow.
A Q&A With Jan Reid
Senior editor John Spong talked with Jan Reid about his new Ann Richards biography, ‘Let the People In.’
The Last Liberal
As Jan Reid’s new biography makes clear, Ann Richards was one of the most magnetic politicians of the past thirty years. So why didn’t she leave much of a legacy?
Thirty years after he took his first photograph for us—of charming kook Stanley Marsh 3—contributing photographer Wyatt McSpadden looks back on his extraordinary career and tells the stories behind some of our favorite images.
She was our governor, but she was my friend.
Little Did We Know…
. . . that the 1994 governor’s race would have such far-reaching consequences. If George W. Bush hadn’t won . . .
How W. Can Lose
What are George Bush’s weaknesses as he heads into the fall campaign? We asked six Texas Democrats— a former governor, a former lieutenant governor, two wannabes, and two wiseacre pundits—to make the case against him. They pulled no punches.
Ann Richards ads it up.
He’s the front-runner even before he has officially entered the race, but sky-high expectations are the least of the obstacles George W. Bush faces in his quest for the White House.
Pics and pans: Reflections on our one hundred best photos
Red McCombs, still on the sidelines
To be a truly major player in the ad game, GSD&M needed a car account. When Mazda’s came up for review, the brash Austinites sprang into action.
Texas Primer Who’s been on our cover the most times? Ross is boss.
George W. Bush and the New Political Landscape
How the Republicans took over Texas—and what it means.
Is Ann Richards planning a historic move from the statehouse to the White House?
Meet the Governor: Ann Richards
Revealing profiles of Ann Richards and Clayton Williams raise the question: How about none of the above?