Ann Richards, the second female governor of Texas, was a popular figure in some circles. She was particularly popular with the Texas and national media. She partied with them and they in turn gave her unfailing good print. She was good for a sound bite, the empty phrase, and could throw out some "genuine frontier gibberish," to quote Blazing Saddles.
She did appoint many, many women, blacks and Hispanics to public office. I supported her administration, once she was elected, and I supported her re-election efforts.
Having said that, Ann Richards helped change the political climate in Texas from a Democratic Party state to a Republican state. In all fairness, she didn't do it all by herself, but she did push it along quicker.
My dear friend and mentor Jim Mattox ran against Richards in 1990. I worked on his campaign and so my thinking about Ann Richards is colored by that experience. Mattox had tremendous political credentials; he had been a congressman and attorney general of Texas. He was not liked by the Austin establishment because he often did things like sue the insurance industry for price fixing and anti-trust violations and some considered the most dangerous place in Texas to be was between Jim Mattox and a television camera. He did more for women's rights as attorney general than any governor of Texas could. Richards had been married to Mattox's first assistant attorney general and some thought she made his experiences and connections her own. Richards had been a county commissioner and state treasurer. But she got a tremendous boost by keynoting the Democratic National Convention in 1988. She looked like a national political figure; there were rumors of an offer of the vice presidency. Mattox was a workhorse, she was a media superstar.
I met Governor Richards in the kitchen of the governor's mansion. We had been invited to her birthday party which was a huge Texas literary, music, and arts affair. She had wonderful friends and many of them had drug and alcohol problems. It was part of the culture and romance that was the Austin scene.
Governor Richards had been in a bruising gubernatorial Democratic primary against Mattox. In Texas, a race for sheriff can be as bad as any bar fight. Broken glass, switchblades. An issue was raised first in letters to editors and then by Mattox himself that candidate Richards had used illegal drugs while she was a county commissioner and state treasurer. It wasn't that he had "issues" with addicts, he had "issues" with law breaking. The nuance was lost on her friends in the press who drank with her.
Richards never forgot fighting Mattox. When she had an opportunity to appoint Mattox to the U.S. Senate when Senator Bentson joined the Clinton Administration as Secretary of the Treasury, (Bentson said a Texan was perfect to run Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms!) she appointed Bob Kruger a former Texas congressman to Bentson's seat. Kruger is a decent, brilliant Shakespearian scholar who had once chaired the Duke University English Department. Not the sort that gets elected by Hispanic oil field workers in Beaumont.
Mattox was the senior Democrat in the state. He had the experience and the name recognition. But Richards was angry, had called Mattox a "venial" man and this was her opportunity to teach Mattox a lesson.
Thus we got Republicans.
When George W. ran against Richards, Richards lost because Bush was a credible candidate. His daddy had just lost the White House to Bill Clinton so there was some sympathy votes and about 3% of Texans actually believed that George Bush, not his son, was on the ballot. Richards had beaten a Republican cartoon character named Clayton Williams in 1990. It was like running against Yosemite Sam. He made a really ignorant comment to the press about how "rape was like rainy weather--sometimes y'all just have to lay back and enjoy it." Williams was so embarrassing that Republicans in urban areas like Houston and Dallas voted for Richards.
Yet, she never broadened her base. Those embarrassed Republicans were not embarrassed by George W. Bush and they voted for him. They still like him. She didn't run a good race, allowing Bush to get under her normally tough hide and she actually called him a "clown" in a public speech. Her father had died, the campaign ads weren't as good as they could have been, and her heart, some say, wasn't in it.
Richards was a lobbyist for the tobacco industry and for that she will not be remembered. She did not fight big tobacco for the school children that she had once educated, she was not anti-smoking. The rare form of cancer that killed her was due to her alcohol and tobacco use.
She should be remembered for the good she did. And she did fine. She enjoyed her later life and she gave women and minorities a place at the government table they had never had before her and certainly not since. Like Texas, she was larger than life, rough around the edges, and unique.