Thursday, September 14, 2006

Governor Ann Richards, 1933 - 2006

She breezed into the slightly run-down ballroom of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio. It was the Young Democrats' state convention in the spring of 1982,toward the end of the gathering.

She was running for State Treasurer, and one of her primary opponents, a fellow from Waco, had made comments about her alcoholism -- she had been in recovery for a few years.

"Whatever you do in politics," she told us, "live your life with responsibility and accountability." She talked about public service being a calling -- that we enter politics not for the fun or the game, but for the impact it has on making the world a better place. I don't remember much else from that convention; I have long forgotten the names of the other folk who were there.

But I remember her. It was the introductory lecture in the Ann Richards School of Public Service.

We met at political events in Waco when she came through on the campaign. She was elected Treasurer. Two years later, during a campaign stop in Waco during the 1984 campaign, she asked me to sit down and talk to her in the storefront building we were using as the county's Democratic campaign headquarters. She sat down in a brown metal folding chair, took her shoes off and put her feet up on another chair.

"Sit down," she said, as she pulled out a Virginia Slims cigarette and lit it. "What are you going to do when you grow up?" she asked.

"Get out of Waco," I said. I had ended up back in my hometown after graduate school, and I was afraid I was going to get stuck there.

"I may have a job for you," she said. I thought she was just being nice to me. Somebody interrupted, and I got up and left them as they talked.

Two days later I got a call from Austin asking me to come to the State Treasurer's Office for a job interview. I started working at the State Treasury on January 2, 1985 in the midst of an unusual snow storm.

Gail, Ann's hairdresser, once said that, in setting and styling Ann's hair, they defied gravity. The hair was a trademark: white; tall; not as big as some Texas hair, but in a time when big hair was over, it was noticeable. In 1992, when she chaired the National Democratic Convention, I often sat in the highest balcony, just below the skyboxes next to the cable TV folk (like Al Franken and Dr. Ruth). Looking down onto an arena floor filled with people, the light caught her hair and I could find her easily. It was true in most crowds. She was easy to spot.

But her most beautiful feature were her eyes, a deep blue color. As she sat at her desk with a pair of reading glasses on, those piercing eyes appeared even larger -- and actually a bit unsettling. When she talked to you, her eyes focused on you intensely. And her eyes always mirrored her moods, showing either curiosity about some detail, delight at some odd or ironic detail, or the dark clouds of anger and impatience.

When it came to government, Ann was, for the most part, impatient. I think some of this must have derived from her ability to grasp issues quickly. One of our staff attorneys told me that almost always she immediately asked them the one hard question they didn't want to answer. Details mattered -- we always took the extra step in everything we did, because sloppy didn't count.

And there were certain excuses you knew would upset her, "Could someone tell me why this is being done this way," she would ask, and only the dumb and unsuspecting tried to defend with the bureaucratic response that, "it's always been done that way."

She believed in her higher power. AA was a weekly part of her life -- all four years she was in office as Governor she attended a closed session. Accountability is a big part of AA, and on that front I think she was harder on herself than anybody else. People thought she was sympathetic to folk struggling with their addictions, but she was often tougher with them than others. "They have to make the decision to move on with their lives. I can't make it for them," she would say. Yet every now and then a new employee would be added to the staff, and only later you would discover that they were in AA, too. Knowing that 95% or so of all Texas inmate's had substance addictions, she wanted to introduce AA into the prison system, and she set up a pilot program. Governor Bush dismantled it when he got in office.

If she had an incredible sense of humor, she also had anger -- the low-grade ire of many women of her generation, who went to college and then were expected to be good wives. Women who left things like politics to the men and were called on only to stuff and lick envelopes.

For years, it was traditional for the Texas Governor to personally greet the Miss Bluebonnet Queen (or some other beauty pageant winner) at the Governor's Mansion. I think Ann did it once -- her first year in office. She didn't participate after that.

One regular feature of life in the Governor's Officer was the photo-op reception, where groups of people came through and had their picture made with the Governor in the ornate Governor's reception room. This was something Ann didn't enjoy, but had to do. At one of these session early in her term, the Apache Belles, the drill team from Tyler Junior College, came for their annual picture with the governor. They came into the room wearing their standard issue 1950s costumes, complete with tilted cowboy hats, tight green bloomers, and short-short skirts, breasts and butts squeezing out vulgarly top and bottom.

They lined up across the room, beaming their bigtrademark painted-on smiles. The Governor looked at them and said, "Girls, I hope that you are all studying hard and taking classes that will help you when you leave college, because..." She paused for a moment as they continued to smile at her. "...because someday gravity will do to you what it did to me, and you'll have to live on something other than your looks."

I think the trademark smiles sagged a bit at this comment. They hadn't expected this from a woman who had such a wrinkled face.

When little girls were afraid to ask Ann a question, deferring to their moms to ask for them, she would look at the child and say, "you need to ask me. Don't be afraid to ask questions."

For years, she attended Girls' State, an American Legion program created to teach high school girls about the political process. She always told them that they had to learn to be responsible for themselves because "these days Prince Charming is riding a motorcycle and he expects you to make the payment." She didn't want them to think someone else would take care of them.

The superstar photographer Annie Liebovitz took pictures of Ann for Vanity Fair magazine. In one photo she is dressed in chaps, looking like a dignified and defiant Barbra Stanwyck. Another photo was a large profile of Ann's face, every wrinkle showing. Those pictures hung in our outer office. I don't know what Ann thought about her wrinkles, but I'm sure she was not afraid of them. They were a part of her beauty that she didn't hide by cosmetic surgery. It was who she was.

When she entered the Governor's office, almost every function of state government was under some court order at the federal or state level. The powers of the governor were limited (deliberately so by Texas' reconstruction-era constitution) and nobody else seemd to have the political will to regain state control of these services. The courts stepped in because the State had neglected its duties.

She was very proud of the progress we made to restore state control. I think this was rarely mentioned after she left office, but in a Washington Post story on Governor George Bush when he was running for president, it was noted that Governor Richards had left Bush an office where major problems, particularly ones related to criminal justice issues, had already been dealt with.

She said she wanted to open the doors of state government. Nearly half of all her appointments were of women and minorities. And she appointed five openly gay people to government positions. Bob Bullock, the Lieutenant Governor who always felt that Ann was not deserving of office, said that he thought that appointing gay people was her downfall. But she wanted government to represent the people it served. Ann thought that, if people had an investment, a voice in the system, they would see that they are part of government and would make it more responsive.

When Ann ran for governor the first time, she had one of her last political rallies on the road in Waco, both our hometowns. When I saw her that afternoon in Austin she told me what she was thinking while they were introducing her. "I looked around that crowd and I thought to myself, 'thank God I got Don out of Waco!'"

Working for her was like having a front row seat to the world. Through the doors of the Governor's office walked Bill Clinton, ZZ Top, Erma Bombeck, Maya Angelou, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Jackson, Ernie Banks, Kevin Kostner, Gloria Steinem, and many more. I even I shook hands with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

When Carlos Salinas, the President of Mexico, made a visit, Ann and Mr. Salinas rode the small private elevator up to our office. The entire entourage of aides were left behind, waiting for the elevator to return. So these two political giants stood next to my desk, waiting for the rest of the party. "Mr. President, let me introduce you to Bonnie (another office assistant) and Don." We shook hands.

She called herself a two headed cow -- a woman in a man's world, different enough to get people's attention. And she used that attention to get companies to move to Texas, to lobby on behalf of federal projects, and to pinpoint issues that normally weren't the focus of Texas governors.

She was afraid of ethics violations. About once a year or so, she would grill staff on how we were reporting gifts to her. Office staff didn't do political work in the Governor's Office. At the Treasurer's office, Barbara Jordan led day-long seminars on ethical behavior in public office.

The same went for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane or tornado hit, were we prepared? About every six months or so the state's emergency people came in and were grilled. What about this? What about that?

We didn't represent "the people," we worked for them. Our jobs were temporary. Our responsibilities were great. Being innovative, being efficient, running the race faster -- those were our goals to make Texas and its government a better place for its people.

Once, when she was thinking about running for Governor, she met with a group of labor leaders at the Capitol. She called me to give her a ride back to the office afterward. She was ablaze. "They told me they thought I was not tough enough to be governor."

I don't think anybody thought that once she was in office.

After we left office I received a small cowboy boot that had been part of the crystal collection on the credenza behind her desk. I also have pictures that she inscribed to me. I learned a lot from her, and I am deeply proud that I had the privilege of working for her and with so many other wonderful colleagues. We lost because, in fact, Texas was trending back to being a one-party state. The only reason we ever got into office was because the 1990 Republican candidate was so scary to women, and even Republican women of Dallas voted for Ann. And because Austin had an incredible turn-out. We barely slipped in.

She said on the night we lost that it was the end of a campaign, not the end of the world. And frankly, after we left office, we all felt a little relief at no longer being responsible to and for so many people. There was life after political office.

I saw a few times after we left office. The last time was at a reunion for old staffers, ten years after the 1990 election. She was always kind to me, encouraging. I never felt the need to be her best friend or to have a personal relationship with her, but I am grateful to have known her and to have worked with her.

And I am grateful for my colleagues, funny, hardworking, fellow students in an incredible experience. I miss them.

When we were in the Treasurer's Office in the 1980s, Ann went to a behavior modification class to quit smoking. I rarely traveled with her, but was asked to fly with her on a Saturday morning to Dallas for the funeral of civil rights leader Juanita Craft. As a young housewife, Ann had worked with Juanita in protesting segregation in Dallas area businesses. After we got on the plane, Ann pulled out a cigarette and started talking to it.

"I hate you. You are dirty, nasty, and have done terrible things to my body."

And then she lit up. I kept looking at her, and she said "It's part of the process. I am on my last pack."

When we got to Texas State Fairgrounds for the memorial service, we listened to several dignitaries, and then she got up to speak. We were in the large art deco Hall of Heroes, with bigger than life murals of Texas legends.

Ann talked about her personal experiences with Juanita. And then she referred to the Depression-era paintings surrounding us. They were all men. All white. "When I think about the heroes of Texas," she said, "I see the Juanita Crafts and the other women throughout the state's history who are invisible in places like this hall, but who made a difference."

May you rest in peace, dear Governor Richards, and may light perpetual shine upon you this day.


Maggie said...

Don - did you know that I was one of those little girls that deferred to her mother? Maybe that's what you were referring to in your post. When we met her at Breed & Co. my mom asked her if I could have her autograph. She looked me right in the eyes and said, "No. And I'll tell you why, Maggie. If you want anything in this world, you have to learn to ask for it yourself." I choked out a meek request for her autograph and her face immediately lit up and she said, "Why, of course, honey!" It is one experience I hold close to me and I actually told a close friend about it just last week.
Love you and thought of you and her today when I saw the news.
love, Maggie

Don said...

Maggie -- I forgot about that story. It happened a lot, actually, but now I remember about you in the store with her. Thanks for commenting. I hope all is well.

Mark said...

Don- a wonderfully written tribute to person special to many people. Thanks for sharing.

lfspansyliz said...

A great story....thanks for sharing.

i have always admired Gov. Richards. Running into your page today is a definite 'God Thing'. i have ties to Indy and have so liked Richards.

LFS, liz

Lyco said...

This was a fantastic post. I was not familiar with Gov. Richards (being from GA), but I very much enjoyed your tribute. Thank you for sharing.

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) said...

Don, what an absolutely wonderful post. This is one of the best thing I've read this week on Ann. The flags have been at half-mast throughout Austin. We're sad she's gone but she lives on in memories such as yours. Thank you so much for sharing.

Annie in Austin said...

MSS has spoken rightly as always - thank you for writing this lovely piece.

The memorial service was broadcast live on our local stations - did other parts of the country have access? I especially liked hearing 19-year old Lily's words about what it was like to be Ann Richards' granddaughter.

bill said...

Great post Don. This is one of the best pieces I've read on Ann this week. She was one of a kind.