AUSTIN, Texas — Former Gov. Ann Richards, the witty and flamboyant Democrat who went from homemaker to national political celebrity, died Wednesday night after a battle with cancer, a family spokeswoman said. She was 73.
She died at home surrounded by her family, according to the spokeswoman. Richards was found to have esophageal cancer in March and underwent chemotherapy treatments.
The silver-haired, silver-tongued Richards 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 said shortly before leaving office in January 1995.
She was governor for one term, losing her re-election bid to Republican George W. Bush.
Her four adult children spent Wednesday with her, said family spokeswoman Cathy Bonner, a longtime family friend.
“They’re a strong group of people but they’re broken-hearted, of course,” Bonner said.
Her family said as governor she was most proud of two actions that probably cost her re-election. She vetoed legislation that would allow people to carry concealed handguns, automatic weapons and so-called “cop-killer bullets.”
She also vetoed a bill that critics said would have allowed the destruction of the Edwards Aquifer, a major underground water system that now serves 1.7 million in people in south central Texas, including the city of San Antonio.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry described Richards as “the epitome of Texas politics: a figure larger than life who had a gift for captivating the public with her great wit.”
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk said that with Richards’ death, “We’ve lost a little bit of that mystique and that wonderfulness that so captivates the rest of this country about Texas.”
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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.
She appointed the first black University of Texas regent; the first crime victim to join the state Criminal Justice Board; the first disabled person to serve on the human services board; and the first teacher to lead the State Board of Education. Under Richards, the fabled Texas Rangers pinned stars on their first black and female officers.
She polished Texas’ image, courted movie producers, championed the North American Free Trade Agreement, oversaw an expansion of the state prison system, and presided over rising student achievement scores and plunging dropout rates.
She took time out to celebrate her 60th birthday by earning her motorcycle driver’s license.
Throughout her years in office, her personal popularity remained high. One poll put it at more than 60 percent the year she lost to Bush.
“I may have lost the race,” Richards said after the defeat. “But I don’t think I lost the good feelings that people have about me in this state. That’s tremendously reassuring to me.”
Richards went on to give speeches, work as a commentator for CNN and serve as a senior adviser in the New York office of Public Strategies Inc., an Austin-based consulting firm.
In her last 10 years, Richards worked for many social causes and helped develop the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, scheduled to open in Austin in 2007.
“She had a political instinct,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. “I wrote her a note when I heard about her cancer and she wrote me back a wonderful letter. She was upbeat and positive and I think she was going to go out with guns blazing. She’s a person that never stopped enjoying whatever there was in life that she could enjoy.”
Born in Lakeview, Texas, in 1933, Richards grew up near Waco, married civil rights lawyer David Richards and spent her early adulthood volunteering in campaigns and raising four children. She often said the hardest job she ever had was as a public school teacher at Fulmore Junior High School in Austin.
Richards served on the Travis County Commissioners Court in Austin for six years before jumping to a bigger arena in 1982. Her election as state treasurer made her the first woman elected statewide in nearly 50 years.
But politics took a toll. It helped break up her marriage. And public life forced her to be remarkably candid about her 1980 treatment for alcoholism.
“I had seen the very bottom of life,” she once recalled. “I was so afraid I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I just knew that I would lose my zaniness and my sense of humor. But I didn’t. Recovery turned out to be a wonderful thing.”
The 1990 election was rough. Her Democratic primary opponent, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox, accused her of using illegal drugs. Williams, an oilman, banker and rancher, spent millions of his own money on the race she narrowly won.
After her unsuccessful re-election campaign against Bush, Richards said she never missed being in public office.
Asked once what she might have done differently had she known she was going to be a one-term governor, Richards grinned.
“Oh, I would probably have raised more hell.”
Survivors include her children, Cecile Richards, Daniel Richards, Clark Richards and Ellen Richards; their spouses; and eight grandchildren.
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