Ann Willis Richards (born 1933) was elected Democratic governor of Texas in 1990, the second woman ever to hold that position in the state's history.
Ann Willis Richards was born in a one bedroom frame house in Lakeview, Texas, located eight miles from Waco. She was an only child of lona Warren and Cecil Willis. When her father, who worked for a pharmaceutical company, was drafted during World War II, the family moved to San Diego to be near him. After the war they returned to Texas and moved to Waco. While attending Waco High School, Richards participated in debate and represented her school at Girls State, an annual gathering in which two representatives from each Texas high school came to Austin and set up a mock government. Fascinated by the elected officials whom she heard speak, Richards got herself elected to Girls Nation, the national equivalent held in Washington, D.C. Upon graduating from high school in 1950, Richards attended Baylor University on a debating scholarship. Following her junior year at Baylor she married David R. Richards, a high school sweetheart. They had four children: Cecile, Dan, Clark, and Ellen.
Ann Richards graduated from Baylor in 1954 and moved to Austin so her husband could enroll in law school at the University of Texas. She earned her teacher certification at the University of Texas and taught social science studies at Fulmore Junior High School during this time. In addition, she became active in the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party. The couple moved to Dallas in 1957, where David Richards joined Mullinax, Wells, Morris & Mauzy, the premier labor law firm in the state of Texas.
After a brief stay in Washington, D.C., the Richards returned to Dallas in 1962. Ann divided her time between family and Democratic politics during these years. She serve as president of the North Dallas Democratic Women, and she helped organize the Dallas Committee for Peaceful Integration. Richards left Dallas in 1969 and returned to Austin with her husband and children. There she successfully managed Sarah Weddington's campaign for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. In 1974 Richards joined Weddington's staff as an administrative assistant and worked for her for one legislative session. That same year she also participated in Wilhelmina Delco's successful campaign to become the first Black to represent Austin in the Texas legislature.
In 1975 Richards ran for the post of county commissioner in Travis County. Her effective grass-roots organization helped her to win the Democratic primary and to beat her Republican opponent easily. She continued to serve in that capacity until 1982. During her years as commissioner, Richards served on a variety of committees. On the state level, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby placed her on the Special Committee on the Delivery of Human Services; while on the national level, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the President's Advisory Committee on Women. Richards also played an active role in the National Women's Political Caucus.
During the early 1980s Richards experienced some personal turmoil but also achieved political success. In 1980 she sought and successfully completed treatment for alcoholism. She and her husband of 26 years also separated that December. They divorced four years later. Despite these setbacks, Richards successfully ran for state treasurer of Texas in 1982, becoming the first woman to win a statewide office in 50 years in Texas.
As treasurer of Texas, Richards helped modernize the Treasury to earn the greatest possible interest for the state of Texas. According to one estimate, the Treasury under Richards made more than $1.8 billion for the state of Texas, a vast improvement over the past. During this time she also gained a reputation as a witty, engaging speaker and one of the most intriguing figures in Texas politics.
Richards also proved an effective state leader in formulating plans to bring water and sewers to the impoverished communities of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. For her public service efforts she was named to the Texas Women's Hall of Fame in 1985.
Richards came to national prominence in 1988 when she gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Two years later she secured the Democratic nomination for the governorship of Texas in what the New York Times called an "extraordinarily bitter campaign that revolved around allegations of drug use and personal attacks." To secure the Democratic nomination, Richards defeated former Governor Mark White and State Attorney General Jim Mattox. Strong support from the state's two largest urban centers, Houston and Dallas, gave Richards 57.1 percent of the vote against Mattox in the Democratic primary runoff.
In the general election in November of 1990, Richards defeated the Republican candidate, West Texas oil man Clayton Williams, in another rough-and-tumble campaign. Her narrow victory made her the only Texas woman governor besides Miriam A. (Ma) Ferguson, elected in 1924 as a stand-in candidate for her husband and former governor, James (Pa) Ferguson. She was known for her hands-on approach to governing. When asked about leading the state she said "I'm not afraid to shake up the system, and government needs more shaking up than any other system I know." After her election she marched into two state agencies unannounced and demanded resignations from what she deemed inept management. This was followed by unannounced midnight bus rides to nursing homes to get state agencies to improve a much neglected and scandalized state problem. Defeated by George W. Bush (son of President Bush) in 1994, Richards devoted time to her family, traveling and serving on corporate boards. In 1997 she was working with her daughter Cecile in the Texas Freedom Network to publicly denounce the extreme right.
Richards was known for her quick wit and humor. She once described President Bush as being "born with a silver foot in his mouth." In an interview with Evan Smith, appearing in Mother Jones (March-April 1996) Richards was asked about Time magazine's decision to name Newt Gringrich as Man of the Year. She replied, "If I had guessed who it was going to be, I wouldn't have thought of Newt Gringrich. I would have said O.J. Simpson." She was also known for her sincere and honest concern for the people of her state. In an interview appearing in Texas Monthly, Richards was asked about her memories of the Governor's Office, she said "Most of all, I remember those children in the classrooms and those kids who grabbed me around the knees, and I think of the old people who really need a voice when they're trapped in wheelchairs in dirty nursing homes. The person in this office really must have a conscience to know that how they direct this government dramatically affects the lives of those people."
Further Reading on Ann Willis Richards
More information about Richards' life can be found in her autobiography, Straight from the Heart (1989). For information on her early months in office see Richard Woodbury, "Winds of Change Sweep the Lone Star State" (TIME, April 29, 1991) and David Maraniss, "With 'Bubba' Mind" (The Washington Post, July 15, 1991). Articles on the former governor can be found in Texas Monthly.