Two years before she was elected governor of Texas, Ann Richards electrified the 1988 Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech in which she joked that the Republican presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush, had been “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
A longtime champion of women and minorities in government who was serving at the time as Texas state treasurer, she won cheers when she reminded delegates that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, “only backwards and in high heels.”
Richards died Wednesday at 73 after a battle with esophageal cancer. Her single term as governor had ended in a 1994 defeat to George W. Bush, who went from besting his father’s silver-haired critic to the governor’s office to the presidency.
A homemaker before she entered politics, Richards cracked a half-century male grip on the governor’s mansion and celebrated by holding up a T-shirt that showed the state Capitol and read: “A woman’s place is in the dome.”
She told an interviewer shortly before leaving office, “I did not want my tombstone to read, ‘She kept a really clean house.’ I think I’d like them to remember me by saying, ‘She opened government to everyone.'”
Whether or not she succeeded at that, there was no question she cracked open the door.
As governor, Richards appointed the first black University of Texas regent, the first crime victim on the state Criminal Justice Board, the first disabled person on the human services board and the first teacher to lead the State Board of Education. Under Richards, the fabled Texas Rangers pinned stars on their first black and female officers.
Ron Kirk, the black former mayor of Dallas, said Richards helped him get his first political internship during a state constitutional convention in 1974 and later, as governor, made him secretary of state.
“She set the table so somebody like me could become mayor of Dallas,” Kirk said.
She also polished Texas’ image, courted movie producers, campaigned for the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, oversaw a doubling of the state prison system and presided over rising student achievement scores and plunging dropout rates.
Throughout her years in office, her popularity remained high. One poll put it at over 60 percent the year she lost her re-election bid to Bush.
Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry described Richards as “the epitome of Texas politics: a figure larger than life who had a gift for captivating the public with her great wit.”
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said Richards never lost her zest for life.
“I wrote her a note when I heard about her cancer and she wrote me back a wonderful letter. She was upbeat and positive and I think she was going to go out with guns blazing,” Hutchison said Wednesday night.
Richards was diagnosed with cancer in March and underwent chemotherapy treatments.
Her four adult children spent the day with her before she died Wednesday night at her home in Austin, said Cathy Bonner, a longtime family friend and family spokeswoman.
Born in Lakeview, Texas, in 1933, Richards grew up near Waco, married civil rights lawyer David Richards and spent her early adulthood volunteering in campaigns and raising four children. She often said the hardest job she ever had was as a public school teacher at Fulmore Junior High School in Austin.
In the early 1960s, she helped form the North Dallas Democratic Women, “basically to allow us to have something substantive to do; the regular Democratic Party and its organization was run by men who looked on women as little more than machine parts.”
Richards served on the Travis County Commissioners Court in Austin for six years before jumping to a bigger arena in 1982 when her election as state treasurer made her the first woman elected statewide in nearly 50 years.
But politics took a toll. It cost her a marriage and forced her in 1980 to seek treatment for alcoholism.
“I had seen the very bottom of life,” she once recalled. “I was so afraid I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I just knew that I would lose my zaniness and my sense of humor. But I didn’t. Recovery turned out to be a wonderful thing.”
After her re-election defeat, Richards went on to give speeches, work as a commentator for Cable News Network and serve as a senior adviser in the New York office of Public Strategies.
In her last 10 years, Richards worked for many social causes and helped develop the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, scheduled to open in Austin in 2007.
Richards said she never missed being in public office. She grinned when asked what she might have done differently had she known she would be a one-term governor.
“Oh,” she said, “I would probably have raised more hell.”
Associated Press writers Suzanne Gamboa in Washington and Anabelle Garay and Matt Joyce in Dallas contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press