AUSTIN – Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, the witty and flamboyant Democrat who went from homemaker to national political celebrity, died Wednesday night at her home surrounded by her family after a battle with cancer, a family spokeswoman said. She was 73.
Richards was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in March and underwent chemotherapy treatments.
The silver-haired, silver-tongued Richards had said she entered politics to help others, especially women and minorities who were often ignored by Texas’ male-dominated establishment.
“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,’ ” Richards told an interviewer shortly before leaving office in January 1995.
Richards served as Texas governor for one term before losing an re-election bid to Republican George W. Bush.
She grabbed the national spotlight with her keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she was the Texas state treasurer. Richards won cheers from delegates when she reminded them that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, “only backwards and in high heels.”
Richards sealed her partisan reputation with a blast at a fellow Texan, Bush’s father, George H. Bush, then-Vice President: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Four years later, she chaired the Democratic convention that nominated Bill Clinton for president.
Richards rose to the governorship with her come-from-behind victory over millionaire cowboy Clayton Williams in 1990. She cracked a half-century male grip on the Governor’s Mansion and celebrated by holding aloft a T-shirt that showed the state Capitol and read: “A woman’s place is in the dome.”
In four years as governor, Richards championed what she called the “New Texas,” appointing more women and more minorities to state posts than any of her predecessors.
She 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.
She polished Texas’ image, courted movie producers, championed 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.
She even took time out to celebrate her 60th birthday by earning her motorcycle driver’s license.
Throughout her years in office, her personal popularity remained high. One poll put it at over 60 percent the year she lost her re-election bid to Bush.
“I may have lost the race,” Richards said after that defeat. “But I don’t think I lost the good feelings that people have about me in this state. That’s tremendously reassuring to me.”
Richards went on to give speeches, work as a commentator for Cable News Network and serve as a senior adviser in the New York office of Public Strategies Inc., an Austin-based consulting firm.
Richards grew up near Waco, married civil rights lawyer David Richards, volunteered in campaigns and raised four children. She and her husband later divorced.
In the early 1960s, she helped form the North Dallas Democratic Women, “basically to allow us to have something substantive to do; the regular Democratic Party and its organization was run by men who looked on women as little more than machine parts.”
Richards served on the Travis County Commissioners Court in Austin for six years before jumping to a bigger arena in 1982. Her election as state treasurer made her the first woman elected statewide in nearly 50 years.
But politics took a toll. It helped break up her marriage. And public life forced her to be remarkably candid about her 1980 treatment for alcoholism.
“I had seen the very bottom of life,” she once recalled. “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.”
The 1990 election was rugged. Her Democratic primary opponent, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox, accused her of using illegal drugs. Williams, an oilman, banker and rancher, spent millions of his own money on the race she narrowly won.
After her unsuccessful re-election campaign against Bush, Richards said she never missed being in public office.
Asked once what she might have done differently had she known she was going to be a one-term governor, Richards grinned.
“Oh, I would probably have raised more hell.”