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Richards, Ann Willis (1933—)

Richards, Ann Willis (1933—)

Governor of Texas. Name variations: Ann Willis; Ann Richards. Born Dorothy Ann Willis in Lakeview, Texas, on September 1, 1933; daughter of Robert Cecil Willis (a pharmaceutical salesman) and Iona (Warren) Willis (a dressmaker); educated at Waco High School; Baylor University, B.A., 1954; University of Texas, Austin, teaching certificate, 1955; married David Read Richards (a lawyer), in 1953 (divorced 1984); children: Cecile, Dan, Clark, and Ellen.

Served as county commissioner, Travis County, Texas (1976–82); served as state treasurer of Texas (1982–90); gave keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention (1988); served as governor of Texas (1990–94).

Only the second woman in Texas history to be governor of the state, Ann Willis Richards won election in 1990 with a combination of intelligence, organizational skills, compassion, humor, and down-home political savvy. She was born in 1933 in Lakeview, Texas, the daughter of Robert Cecil Willis, a pharmaceutical salesman, and Iona Warren Willis , a dressmaker. Richards noticed at an early age that her parents worked constantly, and she inherited their energy, which was to serve her well. She was active on the debate team in high school and represented her school at the Texas Girls State, which taught students about the workings of state government.

After marrying David Richards in 1953, and graduating from Baylor University a year later, Richards moved with her husband to Dallas, Texas, where he became an attorney and she taught junior high school. She stopped teaching when she had her first child, and over the next years volunteered in political campaigns for Democratic politicians while raising her four children. In the early 1960s, David worked as a staff lawyer for the Civil Rights Commission in Washington, D.C., where Richards frequently watched sessions of the Senate from the visitors' gallery and met a number of important Democrats. She continued her political activities after their return to Texas in 1962, and by the late 1960s, Richards had developed a reputation as a fine campaign manager, especially for female candidates. In 1974, she managed the campaign of Wilhelmina Delco , who became the first black woman ever elected to the Texas House of Representatives.

In 1975, a group of local Democrats suggested to David Richards that he run for Travis county commissioner, a seat held by a Democrat. Instead, after David and Richards decided that she would be the better candidate, Richards announced her candidacy. With backing from many liberal and women's political groups, she campaigned relentlessly throughout the Democratic primary and won the nomination with nearly three times as many votes as the incumbent. She continued campaigning widely, using a savvy mix of newspaper and television coverage, and won the general election with 63% of the vote. The campaign gained her not only the post of county commissioner, but much favorable publicity throughout the state. Richards used the visibility of the post to push for issues she believed in, including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Richards developed a drinking problem over the years, which came to a head late in September 1980, when several of her friends and children staged an "intervention." She spent four weeks in October 1980 at St. Mary's Alcohol Treatment Unit in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After successfully completing the program, she returned to work, but her marriage began to fail, and she and her husband separated. (They would divorce in 1984.)

After four successful years as a county commissioner, in 1981 Richards decided to run for the state treasurer's office. One of her competitors for the Democratic Party nomination was Warren G. Harding, but his campaign self-destructed after he was indicted on two counts of official misconduct. Her other opponent, Lane Denton, exposed Richards' bout with alcoholism (a disease which was still not much talked about at the time), but lost his chance to score points with suspicious voters when he also falsely claimed that she still drank and that she beat her children. Richards capitalized on Denton's mistakes to win the Democratic primary, and campaigned with much support from the Texas Women's Political Caucus to easily win election against her Republican opponent. In her election-night speech she noted, "Many young women thought there were things a woman couldn't do. Tonight we showed statewide politics is open to them." She had just become the first woman in 50 years to hold state office in Texas.

Richards was a highly successful state treasurer. Until her tenure, no treasurer had ever put Texas state funds in interest-bearing accounts before paying them out for state expenditures. Her shrewd financial management helped the state earn an unexpected $141 million during one fiscal year. In addition, she was beginning to receive increasing nationwide attention, and in 1984 she was invited to second the nomination of Walter Mondale at the Democratic National Convention. In 1986, she was reelected as treasurer.

Richards' political career got a huge boost when she gave the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. George Bush, the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States, had adopted Texas as his home, and Richards was therefore the perfect Democrat to criticize him and his candidacy. Her brilliant speech brought the house down when she listed Bush's failures and then added, "Poor George, he can't help it—he was born with a silver foot in his mouth." After Bush won the election, he referred to Richards only as "that woman."

Her success as state treasurer and her triumph at the 1988 Democratic National Convention convinced Richards to run for governor of Texas. (Only one woman, Miriam A. Ferguson , had ever been elected governor of Texas, and she had been swept into the office 50 years prior by

voters who knew they were actually electing her husband, impeached ex-governor Jim Ferguson.) Once again Richards faced a nasty primary election, with much comment from her opponent and the press about her alcoholism. Rumors of drug use surfaced as well, briefly damaging her standing in the polls before her opponent was himself smeared with revelations about alleged use of illegal drugs. Richards won the nomination. During the summer and fall of 1990, she faced Clayton Williams, the Republican nominee. The gubernatorial campaign was hardfought, closely watched even nationwide, and hugely expensive for the time: the candidates' combined spending was estimated at over $46.7 million. (When Richards received contributions from San Francisco, some Republicans "smeared" her by claiming she was a lesbian out to advance gays in politics.) Plugging education as her main issue, Richards received much support from women and minorities, and her strong defense of the right to choose gained her the votes of many Republican women. Williams, meanwhile, made repeated and very public verbal gaffes, several of them particularly offensive to women, that called his judgment into question. On November 6, 1990, in what the press labeled "the biggest upset in Texas political history," Richards won the election with 50% percent of the vote to Williams' 47%.

Richards' term as governor had mixed results. As one of the few women governors in the country, and as a famously blunt-spoken politician who advanced women's causes and women in political life, she was widely praised for appointing many women and minorities to important positions in state government. She created reforms in insurance laws and state ethics, appointing Barbara Jordan as her counselor on ethics, and established the Texas state lottery to generate additional revenues. In 1992, she chaired the Democratic National Convention. However, some of her appointees failed her, her office staff grew enormously in size and cost, much to critics' vociferous dismay, and many voters complained that she spent too much time publicizing herself on the national political stage. In 1994, when she ran for reelection against Republican nominee George W. Bush, the son of the former president and himself later president, she was defeated. The following year Richards joined the Austin branch of a whiteshoe Washington law firm, where she works as a lobbyist for a number of large corporations.

sources:

Crawford, Ann Fears, and Crystal Sasse Ragsdale. Women in Texas. Austin, TX: State House Press, 1992.

Shropshire, Mike, and Frank Schaefer. The Thorny Rose of Texas: An Intimate Portrait of Governor Ann Richards. Birch Lane, 1994.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Patrick Moore , Associate Professor of English, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

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