Today (Sept. 13) marks a decade since former Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ death, and it’s become apparent that the politics surrounding both her election in 1990 and her re-election defeat to George W. Bush four years later foreshadowed some of the defining characteristics of the current political movement in Texas and the United States.
Most obvious, Richards became the last Democrat to win the governorship, beginning a streak of Republican electoral dominance that continues today. But Richards’ career also points toward a deeper pattern in partisan change in the state, as well as the emergence of a style of partisan politics that has become more or less the norm.
Richards’ loss to Bush in 1994 signaled a point of no return in the lopsided partisan politics of Texas, but it was also a mile marker on a long road that Richards had been on for years. The early years of her life were spent as a Democratic activist in the liberals’ running fight with the conservative wing of the party, putting her in the center of historical changes in the state.
“Some of the liberal Democrats, of which I was one, did everything in the world that we could to help the Republican Party grow in Texas because we thought there should be a two-party system,” she told me in an interview in 2003. “We wanted them out of the Democratic Party – and they got out in spades.”
Her tone and her face spoke volumes to me about the political context of our conversation, when Republicans had just captured both houses of the Texas Legislature and returned Rick Perry to the governor’s seat that he had inherited when Bush was elected president.
Richards ended her career as an elected official embroiled in the style of politics that would come to dominate the 21st century, losing in a mutually nasty political campaign with Bush’s political team, led by Karl Rove.
Those in that campaign still point to the other side’s nastiness as defining – Richards’ verbal belittling of Bush as “a jerk” and “shrub,” and the allegations that the Bush campaign was behind whisper campaigns about her personal life. This was not, of course, the first campaign to get personal, but it pushed the boundaries of partisan warfare in ways that echo through the current presidential campaigns.
Richards should also be rightly remembered as dedicated to the causes that were important to her. Most personally and importantly, the fight for equal rights for women and racial minorities that defined her generation of liberal Democrats.
I asked her in our 2003 conversation to reflect on whether she was satisfied with the progress made in the status of women as of the early 21st century. She bristled and replied: “Oh, I’m hardly satisfied. I’m outraged most of the time at how the progress seems to stall, how difficult it is for young people to realize that their very freedoms are in jeopardy if they’re not willing to fight for them.”
Richards’ view of progress during her decades in politics was conditioned by the political tide she was so clearly swimming against in her home state. Still, after expressing her outrage, she allowed for some balance in her accounting of the status of women. “You also have to look back,” she said. “And accept and be pleased that things have changed.”
Looking back, I remain struck by her balance of outrage with a nostalgia-free assessment of the scope of what she had fought for most of her life, particularly in the midst of yet another in a series of political campaigns in which unalloyed outrage, whether real or manufactured, is the approach of choice for some of the loudest voices in politics.
Had she lived to see the 2016 campaign, the elevation of Donald Trump’s brand of politics, and the presidency within the reach of her longtime friend Hillary Clinton, her reaction would be predictable.
There’s no doubt she would relentlessly support Clinton in a campaign embroiled in the kind of negative campaign Richards herself fought in Texas, albeit raised to an exponential level by the Trump campaign. She surely would meet Trump’s outrageousness with her own outrage – and her willingness to fight.
James Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin. His 2003 interview with Ann Richards can viewed here.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.