Praise and expressions of sympathy poured in Thursday for former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who died Wednesday night at her home in Austin after a battle with esophageal cancer.
Richards, 73, was surrounded by her four adult children when she died.
In a statement issued by the White House, the president said he and first lady Laura Bush "are deeply saddened by the passing of Governor Ann Richards of Texas."
He said Richards "loved Texas, and Texans loved her," and that "as a public servant she earned respect and admiration."
The president said Richards "became a national role model, and her charm, wit and candor brought a refreshing vitality to public life."
Gov. Rick Perry Thursday ordered flags flown at half-staff at state buildings until sunset on Sept. 18 in Richards’ memory.
"Ann Richards was the epitome of Texas politics,” Perry said, “a figure larger than life who had a gift for captivating the public with her great wit.
“She was an endearing and enduring figure in Texas politics. She paved the way as a leader and a role model for women who aspire to the highest levels of leadership. Anita and I are saddened by a loss that will be felt by many. Ann Richards left Texas a better place,” he said.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, called Richards a trailblazer.
She was fun, and funny, and irreverent and loved life. My thoughts are with her family at this sad time,” Hutchison said.
And Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, said he will always cherish the memory of Richards’ bringing 3,000 of her friends to his 40th birthday party at the Waco Convention Center.
“With a sense of humor and a love of Texas, Ann Richards led our state through a time of economic growth, prosperity, and opportunity for all,” Edwards said.
“She gave Texas a lot, but perhaps her greatest gift was to help us all laugh at ourselves.”
Richards was a Waco High School and Baylor University graduate, and Baylor extended its sympathy to Richards’ family and friends Thursday.
“Whenever she came back to Baylor, she provided inspiration, encouraging young men and young women to consider a life of public service,” Baylor President John Lilley said.
“Ann Richards was a generous alumna who was dedicated in her service to Texas and to her alma mater. The entire Baylor family mourns her loss.”
Richards was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in March and underwent chemotherapy treatments.
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. She lost her re-election bid to Republican George W. Bush.
She grabbed the national spotlight with her keynote address at 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 George H. Bush, a fellow Texan who was vice president at the time: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
Four years later, she was chairwoman of the Democratic convention that nominated Bill Clinton for president.
Richards rose to the governorship with a 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 up 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.
Dorothy Ann Willis was born in Lakeview, Texas, as the only child of Robert Cecil Willis and Mildred Iona Warren. She grew up in Waco, Texas, and graduated from Waco High School in 1950, participating in Girls State. She received a bachelor's degree from Baylor University while on a debate scholarship. She married high school sweetheart David Richards and moved to Austin, Texas, where she earned a teaching certificate from The University of Texas. David and Ann Richards had four children, Cecile, Daniel, Clark and Ellen.
Richards taught social studies and history at Fulmore Junior High School in Austin from 1955 to 1956. She campaigned for Texas liberals and progressives such as Henry B. Gonzalez, Ralph Yarborough,and Sarah T. Hughes.
By the 1970's, Ann Richards was an accomplished political leader, helping elect Sarah Weddington and Wilhelmina Delco to the Texas Legilsture and presenting training sessions throughout the state on campaign techniques for women candidates and managers. She helped lead Texas efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1976, Richards ran against and defeated a three-term incumbent on the Travis County, Texas Commissioners Court; she was re-elected Commissioner without opposition. The conditions of politics put a strain on her marriage and she and her husband were divorced. As the effects of social drinking became a problem, she was successfully treated for alcoholism in 1980. She then was elected State Treasurer in 1982, becoming the first woman elected to statewide office in more than fifty years. In winning the Democratic nomination for treasurer, Richards ended the career of a Texas politician with the same name as a president (but no relation), Warren G. Harding. In 1986, she was re-elected treasurer without opposition.
Richards's keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention put her in the national spotlight when she uttered the famous line, about the wealthy, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush, "Poor George, he can't help it...He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." The speech set the tone for her political future; she was a real Texan who established herself as a candidate who appealed to suburban voters as well as to the traditional Democratic base that included African-Americans and Hispanics. In 1989, with co-author Peter Knobler, she wrote her autobiography, Straight from the Heart.
Texas's Republican governor, Bill Clements, decided not to run for re-election in 1990. Richards painted herself as a sensible progressive, and won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Attorney General James "Jim" Mattox of Dallas and former governor Mark White. Mattox ran a particularly abrasive campaign against Richards, accusing her of having been a cocaine user and a reformed alcoholic. The Republican nomination for governor passed to multi-millionaire rancher Clayton Williams. After a brutal campaign, Richards narrowly won the election on November 6, 1990 by a margin of 49-47%, and was inaugurated governor the following January.
The Texas economy had been in a slump since the mid-1980s, compounded by a downturn in the U.S. economy. Richards responded with a program of economic revitalization, yielding growth in 1991 of 2% when the U.S. economy as a whole shrank. Richards also attempted to streamline Texas's government and regulatory institutions for business and the public; her efforts in the former helped to revitalize Texas's corporate infrastructure for its explosive economic growth later in the decade, and her audits on the state bureaucracy saved $6 billion.
Ann Richards as an oratorAs governor, Richards reformed the Texas prison system, establishing a substance abuse program for inmates, reducing the number of violent offenders released, and increasing prison space to deal with a growing prison population (from less than 60,000 in 1992 to more than 80,000 in 1994). She backed proposals to reduce the sale of semi-automatic firearms and "cop-killer" bullets in the state.
The Texas Lottery was also instituted during her governorship - advocated as a means of supplementing school finances; Ann Richards purchased the first lotto ticket on May 29, 1992. However, most of the income from the lottery went into the state's general fund rather than specifically to education, until 1997, when all lottery net revenue was redirected to the state's Foundation School Fund, which supports public education. School finance remained one of the key issues of her governorship and of those succeeding hers; the famous Robin Hood plan was launched in the 1992-1993 biennium which attempted to make school funding more equitable across school districts. Richards also sought to decentralize control over education policy to districts and individual campuses; she instituted "site-based management" to this end.
She was unexpectedly defeated in 1994 by George W. Bush, winning 46% of the vote to Bush's 53%, even after outspending the Bush campaign by $2.6 million. The Richards' campaign had hoped for a misstep from the relatively inexperienced Republican candidate, but none appeared, and Richards created one of her own in calling Bush "some jerk," recalling missteps that cost Clayton Williams the election in 1990. Richards would later commend Bush's oratory and attributed her loss in 1994 to Bush's ability to "stay on message." Other people attribute her loss to the fact that she vetoed the Concealed Carry Bill that would have licensed law-abiding citizens to carry guns for self defense inside of churches, stadiums and restaurants without the permission of the owner. This veto may have killed Ann Richards' political career. The key campaign issues in the Texas gubernatorial election were mainly crime and gun control; Richards suffered when her stances on both issues became viewed as weak.
Since 2001, Richards has been a Senior Advisor to the communications firm Public Strategies, Inc. in Austin, Texas and New York. From 1995 to 2001, Richards was a Senior Advisor with Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, a Washington, D.C.-based international law firm. Richards sat on the boards of the Aspen Institute, J.C. Penney, and T.I.G. Holdings. She campaigned tirelessly for Democratic candidates throughout the United States.
One of her daughters, Cecile Richards, also a liberal activist, became president of Planned Parenthood in 2006. Ann Richards has demonstrated interest in social causes such as equality, gay rights and women's rights.
Book since osteoporosis (written in 2004)
She was diagnosed with osteoporosis in 1996, having lost 3/4 inch in height and broken her hand and ankle. She changed her diet and lifestyle, which has stabilized her bone density. She spoke frequently about this experience, advocating a healthier lifestyle for women at risk of the disease. In 2004, she authored, I'm Not Slowing Down, with Dr. Richard U. Levine, which describes her own battle with osteoporosis, and offers guidance to others with the disease.
In the 2004 presidential election, Richards endorsed Governor Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination, and campaigned on Dean's behalf. Richards later stumped for Democratic nominee John Kerry, highlighting the issues of health care and women's rights. Some political pundits mentioned her as a potential running mate to Kerry; however, she did not make his list of top finalists and he selected North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Richards for her part has said she is "not interested" in any degree of a political comeback. Notably, she has also stated that she expects to see a female president (of the United States) within her lifetime.
In 2006, the Austin Independent School District announced "The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders," a college preparatory school for girls, with grades 6-12 which will open in the fall of 2007. The intellectual focus will be math, science and technology, while the physical focus is building strength through good nutrition, exercise and other wellness strategies. The school will accept applications for grades 6 and 7 and hopes to reach students living in low-income neighborhoods.
In March 2006, Richards said that she had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and will be seeking treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. The disease has a five-year survival rate of 25 percent. Richards was notably absent in May 2006 at the memorial service of fellow Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. She died on Septemer 13, 2006 at the age of 73.
Under state law, Texas Governors do not have the power to commute death penalty sentences, only to briefly postpone an execution pending further review by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Bowing to the reality of the pro-death penalty Texas Legislature, Ann Richards was not a vocal critic of the Texas death penalty law while Governor. While campaigning for Governor, she was asked if she supported or opposed the death penalty. She said, "I will uphold the laws of the State of Texas." The reporter then asked, "But what would you do if the Legislature passed a bill repealing the death penalty?" to which she replied, "I would faint." Her practical stance disappointed various human rights groups including Amnesty International. Among other death penalty cases, those executed while Richards was Governor were Johnny Frank Garrett, a man who Amnesty cited as being "extremely mentally impaired, chronically psychotic and brain-damaged." The organization further states that a mental health expert described Garrett as "one of the most virulent histories of abuse and neglect...I have encountered in 28 years of practice."