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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 771

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This is the grave of Ann Richards.

Born in 1933 in Lakeview, Texas, Dorothy Ann Willis grew up in Waco. She graduated from high school there and then went to college in town at Baylor University, making her probably the best thing ever associated with that school. She married her high school boyfriend while there. They moved to Austin. Already determined to have her own life, Richards did not stay at home and raise their four children. She went to work as a social studies teacher.

Despite going to Baylor, Richards was a staunch liberal at a time when this was still a piece of the Texas Democratic Party, before the Republicans became the White Man’s Party. Texas Democrats were a complicated bunch in the early to mid twentieth century. More so than most of the rest of the South, there was a strong strain of left-liberalism, even if it was a minority position for sure. Conservatives such as John Nance Garner definitely controlled the state party. But then pretty left figures such as Maury Maverick could become real power players. Lyndon Johnson had tapped into this as a congressman, even if he then played it down when the conservative politics of the postwar era became dominant. By the 1950s, with civil rights and anticommunism major political issues, those Texas liberals were under a lot of strain. But the young Ann Richards was active in those circles in Austin. She was a big supporter of Ralph Yarborough for instance, actively campaigning for his elections to the Senate.

In the 1970s, Richards herself became a rising star in the Texas Democratic Party. She was a good campaigner, even if she hadn’t done it for herself yet. She was particularly focused on getting women elected to the state legislature, a pioneering thing still at that time. She started giving campaign workshops throughout the state on how particularly to elect women. She decided to run herself in 1976, for the Travis County Commissioners Court. She won that race easily. Her career nearly ended because she was a real heavy drinker in these years. It broke apart her marriage, or was at least a piece of that. But in 1980, she dried out, found treatment, and moved on with her life and her career.

Richards’ political career kept rising. She won election as Texas State Treasurer in 1982 and again in 1986. She modernizing the office, which had been using the same methods and accounting tools for decades. She gave one of the nomination speeches for Walter Mondale in 1984, a sign of her rising star. Of course Reagan crushed Mondale in Texas that year, but that hardly was a point against Richards given the larger context.

In 1988, Richards reached the point of political popularity that she gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. This was the most famous moment of her life. Her legendary “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth” is one of the greatest disses of modern politics. Of course Bush won the election and Texas in doing it, but that was again no fault of Richards, who did as much to define Bush as the rich plutocrat elite that he was as anyone possibly could. In fact, let’s watch that.

This was such an overwhelmingly popular speech that she soon planned for higher office. In doing so, she made the classic ambitious move–she wrote a book. Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics and Other Places was published in 1989 with co-author (and probably actual author mostly) Peter Knobler. And then in 1990, she ran for governor of Texas.

Looking back, it’s amazing that Ann Richards, an outright liberal, a woman who knew never to shut up, a real progressive hero, actually became governor of Texas. But, at the state level, the transition of the South from Democratic to Republican was a long process and Democrats could still win statewide in Texas. She didn’t win by much. It was a brutal match, with Richards attacked by conservatives in the primary and her hard-right opponent Clayton Williams in the general. Richards’ support for abortion rights was a major piece of these attacks. But she won the general 49-47 over Williams.

As governor, Richards did not say, “well, Republicans are a rising power so I am going to run the state like Jimmy Carter ran the nation and govern to the right.” No, she just did her thing. She worked hard to reform the state’s awful prison system, including introducing substance abuse programs for inmates. She tried to bring Texas out of the economic doldrums and engaged in a lot of bureaucratic reforms to do this. She supported limitations of gun sales. Texan to the core, she was a huge promoter of Texas culture and did a lot to publicize Texas music and film to the world, helping at the political and funding level to make the state a world class destination for the arts. That included being a major supporter of the Texas Film Hall of Fame, lobbying studio execs in LA to film there, supporting the SXSW and Austin City Limits music festivals, etc. She even played herself in an episode of King of the Hill in 2001.

School financing was a huge issue for her and she signed into law the bill for the Texas Lottery in order to fund the schools. Yes, the lottery is a deeply suboptimal regressive taxation, albeit one that anyone can opt of if they just don’t play the lottery, but we all know how that works in reality. But nearly every state was introducing these things during this time and I’d rather have the money going to schools than just about anything else. She also fought hard for what became known as the Robin Hood plan. Implemented in 1993, it significantly undermined the ability of school districts to only fund themselves, which of course created vast inequality in education. The law took local property tax money and redistributed it to poor districts, much to the anger of rich Texans. The one huge black mark on her tenure is that despite her stated support for gay rights, she signed into law a revised Texas penal code that codified gay sex as a Class C misdemeanor.

In the end, there’s probably not much Richards could have done to win reelection. George W. Bush beat her in 1994 and in that state and in that year, forget about it. She was openly disdainful of Bush, which perhaps didn’t help, but he was such a fundamentally unserious figure at this or any time that it’s utterly amazing he became not only governor but president.

Ann Richards remains the last Democrat elected governor of Texas, a situation that may end someday. Or it may not.

In the aftermath of her electoral defeat, Richards, still a quite famous political career, did a variety of senior political things. She starred in a Doritos commercial with Mario Cuomo.

Richards also taught at Brandeis, became a lobbyist, served on corporate boards, all the normal stuff old elite politicians do. She also suffered from osteoporosis later in her life and became the public face of that condition, doing a lot of work to publicize it. She campaigned for Democrats and lived long enough to see her daughter Cecile became president of Planned Parenthood in 2006, shortly before Ann died that September. She was 73 years old. It was esophageal cancer that killed her. She chalked it up to her massive smoking and drinking when she was younger.

Ann Richards is buried at Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas. I can’t imagine this icon anywhere else. I’ve been holding onto this grave since 2018. Figured it was time to publish it.

If you would like this series to visit other iconic women in politics, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jeannette Rankin is in Missoula, Montana and Patsy Mink is in Honolulu. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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