Tuesday, November 02, 2004

ten years ago...

Ten years ago, George W. Bush defeated Gov. Ann Richards in Texas. It feels like a long time ago. Somebody emailed me a story from Texas Monthly magazine (not linkable) about that loss. It was an oral history from different players on both campaigns. I worked for Ann for ten years. I'm proud of her, and of her ideal of public service that she demanded from all of us who worked for her.

On election night in her concession speech, Ann said that it was the end of a campaign, not the end of the world. And she was right, to some extent. It was also the beginning of Texas becoming once again a one-party state, this time Republican. When I was growing up, Texas only had one party, the Democratic Party, with its conservative bourbon wing and its liberal-labor-populist wing. John Towers had slipped in as Senator, but beyond that exception, through the 1970s, the Democratic Primary decided who was chosen for public office statewide.

In the 1980s, Texas briefly had a time where both parties had access to the governor's office. Ann snuck into the Governor's Mansion in 1990 because of her charisma, and because the West Texas millionaire she ran against had scared Republican suburban women. I say snuck because she barely got elected.

She was a popular governor. Even in defeat some polls had her popularity rating in the 60s percent. But George W. Bush didn't scare the suburban women. Texas had tremendous job growth in our term -- and ironically it was the suburbs that had seen most of that growth and that is where we lost. Ann was tireless in working for economic growth and used her limited resources to recruit and keep new businesses in Texas. According to the Texas Monthly article, she had increased support in 1994, but still lost by as many votes.

In Texas, a governor can open supermarkets and smile for pictures with Miss Bluebonnet. Or they can try to craft change, or fight for good government -- but it is only a bully pulpit. After the civil war, and Reconstruction, Texas diluted its governmental bodies. The governor didn't even control the boards of all state agencies until their third year in office (and until the 1970s, their terms were only for two years). Much of the real power was split between the legislative leaders of each house.

When she was elected, almost every function of state government was under state or federal court orders. She tackled getting them back into state control. She worked on providing infrastructure to the Rio Grande Valley and its colonias -- settlements without sewerage. She opened the doors of government to lots of people who had never had access to them in terms of appointments.

The Texas Monthly article quoted Karl Rover and the Republicans making fun of her appointing an openly gay man to the Funeral Commission. That was in a time when AIDS-HIV was still untreatable and gay people were finding funeral homes to be quite difficult, both in dealing with the bodies of people who died of AIDS, and in dealing with people who had lost their partners to AIDS. She appointed five openly gay people to state commissions, out of hundreds of her appointments. Karen Hughes (who worked for the state's Republican Party at the time) led pickets at the Governor's Mansion to protest Ann Richards being immoral.

The beef at the time of her loss was that she didn't really have the fire to win that election. But I think rather it was her frustration that she had worked hard as governor and the internal polls showed that she was going to lose to a fellow who had name recognition because of his dad. For women of her generation, who had started out being ignored by the men, left to lick the stamps on mailings, and who had worked to open up doors -- in her case, running a legislative office, becoming a county commissioner and then state treasurer -- there is or was a bit of justifiable anger.

She came from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party of the 1950s, involved in labor and civil rights work. But she was a practical person and she was less impressed by abstractions than by actually solving a problem, whether it was managing the state's cash (and its cash flow) when she was treasurer to figuring out the effects of closing a state facility in a small Texas town.

She is funny and tough and one of the hardest working people I've ever met. She also believed in the high calling of public service. Respect the public. Treat them special. We were temporary custodians. As somebody who has since worked in not-for-profits, that charge still means a lot to me.

In some ways, it is a relief to leave a public office like that, in the sense that you stop worrying about a myriad of details, issues, problems, personalities. I was proud of my ten years working for her. Losing an election didn't change that one iota.


lemming said...

Don't forget her "backwards and in heels" saying - truly awesome.

Don said...

Lemmings -- One of my colleagues had on her office wall a series of photographs in sequence of Astaire and Rogers making a jumped twirling spin.

marthachick said...

Oh goodness, do I miss Ann Richards around here. I met her once -- shot a commercial with her -- and she sure is a piece of work. (In the best sense.) Charisma just oozes out of her pores.

Unfortunately, I think a large part of our election outcome today is due to a lack of charisma on the Democratic front these days, with the exception of Barack Obama. But it's a good reminder that it's not the end of the world, just the end of my "plan" for how things were gonna go from here on out. And I sure know how God responds to all my grand plans: "Thanks dear, I'll take it from here."