Former Texas Gov. Richards dead

Published 3:33 pm Thursday, September 14, 2006

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. 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, who died Wednesday at 73 after a battle with esophageal cancer, ended her lone term as governor with a 1994 defeat to George W. Bush, who not only bested his father’s silver-haired critic but went from the governorship 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 as a University of Texas regent, the first crime victim to the state Criminal Justice Board, the first disabled person to the human services board and the first teacher to chair 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.