On a hot Atlanta evening in July 1988, Ann Richards emerged from deep in the heart of Texas to address the Democratic National Convention as the keynote speaker. The Texas treasurer’s rousing and pointed speech—sprinkled with her characteristic one-liners—brought her national attention. It served as a turning point in her political career. Only three years later, Richards stood at another podium, this time in Austin, taking her oath of office as the forty-fifth governor of Texas.
Born Dorothy Ann Willis on September 1, 1933, in Lacy Lakeview, Richards developed an interest in civic engagement and public speaking from a young age. As a student at Waco High School, where she graduated in 1950, Richards actively participated in the debate team and in the Girls State (and Nation) program where she practiced politics in a mock government. That fall, she entered Baylor University on a debate scholarship. While at Baylor, she married fellow Wacoan David Richards and continued to hone her oratory skills. She and David graduated in 1954.
Moving to Austin expanded the young couple’s involvement in politics. While her husband studied law, Richards earned a teaching certificate from the University of Texas and worked as a social studies teacher at Fulmore Junior High School. In the mid-1950s, they also canvased for progressive candidates like Ralph Yarborough and honed ideas amongst the Young Democrats. After her husband took a job practicing labor law in Dallas in 1957, Richards kept house, raised their four children, and maintained her involvement in politics. During the 1970s, now back in Austin, the Richards’ home served as a hub for progressive Texas politics and the place where Ann organized political campaigns for female candidates like Sarah Weddington. Still, she never intended to run for office herself.
However, after David declined running for Travis County Commissioner, their friends urged Ann to consider. Relying on the networks and skills she spent years cultivating, she routed the longtime incumbent and took office in 1976. She served another term as a county commissioner before her 1980 election as Texas State Treasurer. During her two terms at that post, Richards streamlined Texas’ financial system. Her political acumen, oratory skill, and straightforwardness garnered the notice of the Democratic National Committee who invited her to give the keynote speech at the 1988 convention. Richards appeared on the rise.
But her political ascendency obscured a rapidly disintegrating personal life. For decades, alcohol lubricated the social and political circles in which Richards ran. Her heavy drinking turned her caustic wit mean and, while appearing to make her the life of the party, also endangered herself and others. In 1980, family and friends staged an intervention. Within the day she traveled to an out-of-state rehab facility. While improving many aspects of her life, Richards’ newfound sobriety could not repair the longstanding fissures within her marriage. She and David separated by the end of the year, divorcing in 1984. Whether astute recognition or self-fulfilling prophecy, Richards’ initial fears about the negative affect of her political career on her marriage came to pass. She spoke with candor about both experiences for the remainder of her political life.
With her rousing performance on the Atlanta dais in 1988, Richards opened a new avenue for herself. The political capital she garnered enabled her to mount a successful campaign for governor of Texas. While in office, Richards diversified holders of government appointments so they more accurately reflected the state’s demographics. Controversially, she banned the concealed carrying of handguns and limited access to assault weapons. Fiscal, education, and prison reform constituted significant portions of her agenda. Though popular, Richards lost in her 1994 reelection bid to George W. Bush.
After she left office, Richards worked as a political consultant, continuing to campaign for liberal causes and candidates. She also served as visiting professor at UT–Austin and Brandeis University. Richards died on September 13, 2006, after a brief battle with esophageal cancer. The spirited debater from Waco made her mark on Texas politics. Her election as state treasurer in 1980 marked the first time in half a century that a woman held a state-level position. To date, she remains the last Democratic governor of Texas and the first duly elected woman to hold the office.