If you didn't hear the throaty laugh first, you'd pick up on the shock of white hair at the corner table when Austin was in high politics season. Richards, then nearly 50 after years of teaching school and raising a family of four, had carved her way into Texas politics via a seat on the Travis County Commission, not a high station but a strategically placed one in the capital city. Her political roots lay with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party; she had supported the campaigns of U.S. Senator Ralph Yarbrough and Sarah Weddington, the Austin lawyer of Roe v. Wade fame. But late at night, she sat with and learned from the good ole boys.
Democrats ruled Texas at the time, so much so that Republicans, the joke went, met in a phone booth. Texas Comptroller Bob Bullock was the king of the corner table, the master of legislative budget matters. One night Bullock went on a roach-shooting rampage in the Quorum Club basement. By the next night, everyone had holstered their sidearms and recovered from their hangovers. And so it went night after night until 1980 when Richards's family confronted her with her alcoholism and she went into rehab. One year later, Bullock went off, as he put it, to "drunk school" at the Betty Ford clinic in California and when he returned by private plane a few weeks later, the lone person to meet him was Ann Richards.
The round table days were over. But when the fog of booze cleared, Richards discovered that her wit was not fueled by whiskey. The twinkle in her eyes was there to stay. In 1982, she ran for state treasurer. As one Texas newspaper coyly described it this week, she had "discovered" the old-style Democratic incumbent was under investigation by the Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (yes, the same Ronnie Earle that's going after Tom DeLay these days). "Discovery" was no doubt one of those skills she mastered at that round table. Her opponent imploded; she won handily.
Richards, a keen student of the new media age, turned the state treasurer's slot into a statewide platform and built a loyal following among the agency's bureaucracy. She did such a good job at broadening the position's reach that it later became a path to power for other female Texas politcians including U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. In 1988, half way through Richards' second term, she took that confidence and her persona to the Democratic National Convention, wowing everyone with her silver hair and stiletto tongue. Her famous poke at then Vice President George H.W. Bush "Poor George. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth" prompted talk of a national role someday and a gift from Bush in the form of a silver charm, shaped like a foot.
But politics is not about prime time and gentlemanly gestures, as Richards would find out when she took the next step on the big stage and announced a bid for governor. The Democratic primary pitted Richards against the man sometimes called the Freddie Krueger of Texas politics, then Attorney General Jim Mattox. In public Richards smiled, hugged photographers' necks and asked, "Howya doin' darlin?" But she was tough as nails in the trenches. Mattox accused her of failing to come clean on rumors that she had used cocaine. It was nasty, but she beat Mattox and went on to win over the Republican candidate sent from a Democratic consultant's heaven, rancher-oilman Clayton Williams.
Looking at old photos from Richards' campaigns, it is clear Texans of all stripes loved her. My 11-year-old niece insisted on being taken to her final campaign rally after hearing at school about a former teacher who was running for governor. Richards talked about opening doors for all Texans and she did that as governor, appointing minorities and women in unprecedented numbers to executive positions throughout state government and, in the process, laying down a marker for her successors. Her personal popularity rating went as high as 60 percent though her job approval hovered around 45 as she tackled thorny issues such as school funding with a staff short on good ole boys. When she ran for re-election 1994, her national presence boosted her coffers, allowing her to spend $2.6 million more than Republican George W. Bush but he beat her anyway, 53 to 46 percent.
In many ways, Richards embodied both the old and the new Texas. She had changed the state, but the political ground had also shifted under her as conservative Democrats fled to the fast-growing Republican Party. Her defeat was a shock to the national media. After all, she was a Texan loved beyond the Red River (though to some back home, her accent always seemed suspiciously thicker on Larry King). Most of the men around the Quorum Club table are gone, and now she is too. But the image of her there remains, as a wily woman who played the game with the best of them.