Ann Richards, RIP
Former Texas Governor Ann Richards, perhaps most famous for her quip that former president George H.W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” passed away Wednesday at the age of 73 after a six-month fight with cancer. It’s not often that a one-term governor makes as large a splash on the national political scene as Richards did, but she had the good fortune to be around as the Democratic Party was increasingly promoting its female office-holders and championing its declining band of white officeholders in the South. And, despite her partisan swipes over the years, she governed Texas from the center:
In four years as governor, Ms. Richards championed what she called the “New Texas,” appointing more women and more minorities to state posts than any of her predecessors had.
She appointed the first black University of Texas regent; the first crime victim to join the state Criminal Justice Board; the first person with a disability to serve on the human services board and the first teacher to lead the State Board of Education. Under Ms. Richards, the Texas Rangers pinned stars on their first black and female officers.
She polished Texas’s image, courted movie producers, championed the North American Free Trade Agreement, oversaw an expansion of the state prison system and presided over rising student achievement scores and plunging dropout rates.
UPDATE (James Joyner): Steven Taylor, who lived in Texas much later than I did, offers his recollections of Gov. Richards.
Some excerpts from Rick Lyman’s NYT obit:
Ms. Richards was the most recent and one of the most effective in a long-line of Lone Star State progressives who vied for control of Texas in the days when it was largely a one-party Democratic enclave, a champion of civil rights, gay rights and feminism. Her defeat by the future president was one of the chief markers of the end of generations of Democratic dominance in Texas.
“Poor George, he can’t help it,” Ms. Richards said at the Democratic convention in 1988, speaking about the current president’s father, former President George Bush. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Her acidic, plain-spoken keynote address was one of the year’s political highlights and catapulted the one-term Texas governor into a national figure. “We’re gonna tell how the cow ate the cabbage,” she said, bringing the great tradition of vernacular Southern oratory to the national political stage in a way that transformed the mother of four into an revered icon of feminist activism.
In 1976, Ms. Richards defeated a three-term incumbent to become a commissioner in Travis County, which includes Austin, and held that job for four years, though she later said her political commitment put a strain on her marriage, which ended in divorce.
She also began to drink heavily, eventually going into rehabilitation, a move that she later credited with salvaging her life and her political career. “I have seen the very bottom of life,” she said. “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.”
In 1982, she ran for state treasurer, received the most votes of any statewide candidate, became the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas in 50 years and was re-elected in 1986.
In 1990, when the incumbent governor, William P. Clements Jr., decided not to run for re-election, she ran against a former Democratic governor, Mark White, and won the primary, then later fought a particularly brutal campaign against Republican candidate Clayton Williams, a wealthy rancher, and won.
Among her achievements were institutional changes in the state penal system, invigorating the state’s economy and instituting the first Texas lottery, going so far as to buy the first lotto ticket herself on May 29, 1992.
Two years later, she underestimated her young Republican challenger from West Texas, going so far as to refer to George W. Bush as “some jerk,” a commend that drew considerable criticism. Later, she acknowledged that the younger candidate has been much more effective at “staying on message” and made none of the mistakes that her campaign strategists had expected. She was beaten, 53 percent to 46 percent.