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, hanging out in union halls in Brownsville, jawing about workers’ rights.
On this steamy late afternoon in early June, while mourners jam the Capitol area to pay respects to Ronald Reagan, Richards is doing what she often does these days, which is addressing the frontline troops. In a small conference room at the AFL-CIO’s headquarters, she is speaking at a meeting of about twenty field directors and operatives for the political action committee of MoveOn.org. Largely an Internet-based organization, with 2.3 million members, MoveOn.org is one of the most influential liberal groups in the country, a prodigious fundraiser and one of the key members of Richards’s coalition. Its 527 raised crucial early money to finance a wave of technically legal “issue ads” that looked conspicuously anti-Bush. The men and women at the meeting appear to be mostly under thirty years old. They are committed activists of the American left. Within days, they will all be dispatched to different battleground states and immediately put to work in the get-out-the-vote effort.
Addressing the group, Richards is funny and engaging. Her goal, as she moves briskly through a PowerPoint presentation, is to convey to the group what all field organizers are being told these days. “I believe that this election is going to be decided on the ground,” she says. They nod. They believe. This has now become an article of faith for people on both sides of the fence. According to recent polls, less than 10 percent of voters are sitting on that fence. And though more money is being spent on campaign ads than ever before, they are increasingly seen as secondary weapons. Witness the barrage of ads that Bush put up against John Kerry in the wake of the Democratic primaries—some $85 million worth, the most expensive media attack in history. Kerry was barely grazed by it. As of the end of June, polls showed that he was leading in the seventeen states whose votes will decide the election.
That election will be won by whichever side does a better job getting its voters to the polls, mostly by various forms of old-fashioned personal contact. That is principally what the estimated $1 billion that will be raised in this election is going to buy. For Richards’s group, it means, among other things, conducting an enormous, nationwide canvass to figure out who voters are and what they believe and then sending the appropriate groups to pursue them. People with environmental concerns will be called on by Sierra Club and not the teachers union, for example. In recent times such targeting of voters was pioneered most successfully by the AFL-CIO, which increased the percentage of union household members in the electorate from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000. Those groups will, as they have traditionally done, raise and spend their own political money, though now those expenditures will be coordinated by America Votes. In their street-level efforts they will be hugely aided by America Coming Together, which aims to raise and spend $100 million of its own hard and soft money to get out the vote. Republicans tested their own version of the ground war in Senate races in Georgia and Missouri in 2002. They won those races in part by getting conservative voters to the polls. (With all of these grassroots-level efforts going on, Texas, a solid Republican state, is curiously irrelevant. It is useful only as a place to pick up money, which will be carried out by the bucketful and spent in other states.)
Richards’s PowerPoint presentation now displays a closely guarded secret: the coalition’s city-by-city, group-by-group strategy for how Dem-ocrats can get the votes they need to win Ohio, a state Al Gore lost last time by 165,000 votes. Part of the key to success, she says, is to turn out the black vote; that is what several of those in attendance today will be doing. “Ohio is it,” she says. “It is the election this year.” She closes her presentation with a computer graphic showing the results of an AFL-CIO study of direct-mail solicitations that potential Democratic voters received in 2000. “We have always done good work on the progressive side,” Richards explains to the darkened room. “But we have always done it in a disorganized fashion.” On the screen appear, in a cascading sequence, several dozen pieces of mail from different liberal groups that were sent to individual voters in the days before the election. It is a breathtaking demonstration of wasted and duplicated effort that Richards vows will not happen again. “The Republicans have a three-to-one financial advantage,” she says. “We need to make every dollar count.”
CECILE RICHARDS IS THE PRODUCT of a household even more politically charged than the one George W. Bush was raised in. “Our four kids grew up in an atmosphere where you could not eat on the dining room table because it was always full of political mailings,” says Cecile’s mother, Ann. “When they were really small, they could fold letters and stuff them into envelopes and seal them. As they progressed in their abilities, they learned how to put a stamp on them and sort them out by precinct.” While Ann labored in electoral politics and was active in the campaigns of Sarah Weddington, Gonzalo Barrientos, Wilhelmina Delco, and others (she was not elected to public office until she won the Travis County commissioner’s seat, in 1976), Cecile’s father, David Richards, was busy launching a career as one of the most active labor-union lawyers in Texas. He was even more radical, more partisan than Ann. “We represented every union in the South,” he says. “Teamsters and garment workers, plumbers and pipe fitters.” For entertainment, the family would often sit around in the evening singing old union songs like “Joe Hill.” Says Cecile: “I grew up in a very political family. Other families did bowling. We did politics.” The first dance Cecile ever attended—at the age of nine—was an event at a VFW hall in Mission, where Chicano farm workers were kicking off a protest march on the state capitol. The effect of the family’s activism on the Richardses’ eldest child was immediate and profound. As a ten-year-old she organized the first recycling station in their neighborhood. At twelve she was sent home from school for wearing an armband to protest the Vietnam War.
When the family moved to Austin from Dallas, in 1969, the Richardses found themselves in the midst of that city’s social and political upheavals. They became prominent players in both, and as a teenager, Cecile hung out at places like the Armadillo World Headquarters. She recalls one evening when Ann and David were hosting an anti-war rally at their home in West Lake Hills. The music was loud, the police showed up, and in the marshal’s report to the city council, he said he had been surrounded, as David wrote in his memoir, Once Upon a Time in Texas, “by a bunch of stoned hippies who kept screaming ‘Off the pig.'”
After graduating from Brown, in 1980, Cecile embarked on a career in the labor movement, taking a succession of union jobs, most of which involved recruiting new members. Her first was in the Rio Grande Valley, organizing garment workers; later she worked with hotel workers in New Orleans and janitors in Los Angeles. In 1982 she met her husband, Kirk Adams, who was also a labor organizer and who is now the chief of staff of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in America. The couple had three children, who are now seventeen and thirteen (twins). In 1990 the family moved to Austin so Cecile and Kirk could work in her mother’s campaign.
After Ann’s defeat in 1994—a crushing and unexpected blow—Cecile founded a grassroots organization called the Texas Freedom Network. The idea was to oppose the influence of conservative Christians in Texas politics, particularly in the election of school boards. It was a time when conservatives were making huge gains, both in state and national politics. Though no comparable organization existed then in any other state, Cecile plunged ahead, logging many hours driving across the state to make speeches. “By the time she left, three years later, we had eight thousand or nine thousand members,” says Samantha Smoot, who took over as executive director in 1998. “That is remarkable. It all started as a file box of names in Cecile’s kitchen and grew to many thousands of people.” It was a difficult fight against well-funded opponents, who often branded her un-Christian, anti-God, and anti-family. To help counter some of those charges, she recruited like-minded ministers into a political advocacy group called the Texas Faith Network, which now has five hundred members. In 1998 she briefly considered running for state Democratic party chair, a position that was thought to be hers if she wanted it. By now she had clearly moved out of her mother’s shadow, though she had benefited from the contact. “Her mother being governor opened a whole lot of doors and gave her access to a lot of people and ideas,” says close friend Patti Everitt. Says Ann of the rigors of having a famous mother: “She grew up with that. She handles it beautifully and gracefully and kindly with me. But I am also sure there are days when she is absolutely sick of it.”
Instead of pursuing the electoral career many Texas Democrats wanted her to pursue, Cecile moved with Kirk to Washington, where he had taken a job as organizing director for the AFL-CIO. She soon went to work running the Turner Foundation for Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. Her job was, as she says, “to help build the infrastructure of the choice movement in America.” She worked closely with organizations like Planned Parenthood and distributed grant money around the country. Though she had gone to Washington with no greater goal than to take her children to museums and galleries and volunteer at their schools, her career was quickly taking a new, decidedly national turn. In 2002 she became deputy chief of staff for Democrat Nancy Pelosi, of California, who had just become minority whip in Congress and was about to become minority leader. Eighteen months later, in July 2003, now with deep roots in the national Democratic party and the progressive movement, she left that job to become president of America Votes.
THAT SUMMER RICHARDS AND A handful of other Democratic heavyweights came together informally to concoct what would become the America Votes effort. They were driven primarily by the campaign-finance reforms of 2002, which shut off the unregulated giving to parties but allowed donors to give unlimited amounts to interest groups as long as those groups did not coordinate or communicate with candidates or their parties and did not run ads specifically advocating the election or defeat of a candidate. They believed Republicans were going to raise huge amounts of hard money, at least twice what Democrats could raise. The core of the strategy was to set up 527’s that could raise money and act independently of the Democratic party.
The founders of America Votes included some of the Democratic party’s most experienced hands, all of whom would help run the operation: Harold Ickes, a former deputy White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, who runs the Media Fund; Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL-CIO political director, now the CEO of America Coming Together; Ellen Malcolm, the president of both America Coming Together and Emily’s List, the nation’s largest political action committee; Service Employees Union president Andrew Stern; and Jim Jordan, formerly John Kerry’s campaign manager, who now heads up research for the group. Richards was given the task of making all of that unwieldy and disparate machinery work together. “We wanted to find a way to bring progressive groups together for the election. So we created America Votes,” says Malcolm. “It was a monster coalition, and we universally agreed that Cecile was the best person to coordinate it.”
The new organization, fueled by huge personal donations from the likes of billionaire activist George Soros, yielded immediate dividends. The 527’s—including the Media Fund and the MoveOn.org Voter Fund—allowed Kerry’s message to stay on the airwaves in March while his campaign scrambled to refill its coffers. That initiative, in fact, led to the Democrats’ principal strategic victory in a money race that Republicans are winning decisively. The GOP, which had no such strategy, believed that either the Supreme Court or the Federal Election Commission or both would declare such soft money illegal and thus paralyze the Democrats’ ability to raise and deploy it through the 527’s. That never happened. “The Democrats figured it out early and were very smart to pursue it and have a tremendous lead over Republicans in that sort of money,” says Jim Francis, one of Bush’s largest fundraisers. “Republicans are now trying to set these up but are at a disadvantage because they did not do anything until recently.”
The GOP, it must be noted, is not without its outside funding sources. In 2000, for example, the pharmaceutical industry raised and spent $30 million of 527 money to help elect Bush. And it is interesting to note the somewhat hypocritical positions of both parties: Democrats, who have long howled about the evils of soft money, became the leading proponents of the 527’s, the biggest loophole in the McCain-Feingold laws meant to stop soft money; Republicans, who have traditionally favored few or no restrictions on campaign contributions but seeing that the McCain-Feingold laws gave Democrats an advantage, sought to enforce the restrictions.
Meanwhile, Richards’ shadow party rolls forward, working in the trenches of highly contested states like New Mexico and Florida and Minnesota. She is on the road most of the time, sometimes averaging four states a week, meeting with the far-flung field operatives of her coalition, trying to get the NAACP to do one thing and the teachers union to do another. One campaign worker called it “herding cats.” With all the effort, there is still no guaranteeing that it will work, as was proved by Tony Sanchez’s campaign for Texas governor in 2002, which mounted one of the largest door-to-door efforts in history only to lose by eighteen points.
Win or lose, there are a lot of Texas Democrats who are wondering if Richards has any plans to run for office in Texas. They tried to persuade her to run for land commissioner in 2002—one poll of Democrats had her ahead of potential rivals—but she declined. “It’s always in the back of my mind,” she says. “Either because of the age of my kids or for other reasons, there hasn’t been a time when it has made perfect sense. But I know I will definitely be back in Texas at some point. I am just so grateful to be a Texan and to be from there.” Of course, if she ever ran for governor and won, she would be the leader of a state where many members of the Bush family reside, including George and Barbara, George W. and Laura, and an assortment of grandchildren. That’s all very hypothetical, and very far away, but one can imagine the Bushes fighting a Richards candidacy every step of the way. Think of it as Bush-Richards IV.
With reporting by Michael Hardy