‘92 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION : My, How She’s Grown: Richards Rises From Footnotes : Chairwoman: Since her 1988 keynote blast against Bush, she’s won a scrappy Texas battle for governor.


When Ann Richards stood on the podium of the Democratic National Convention four years ago, she was more like a blind date than an old girlfriend.

Well-known as she was inside her own Texas, the snowy-haired Richards, with her beehive do and acid tongue, was still a question mark to most of her listeners as she prepared to make her keynote address in Atlanta. At best, she was thought of in somewhat vague terms--a politician on the rise, a comer, a state treasurer with a future, a very funny woman. And then she wowed the delegates with her now-legendary description of George Bush as a man “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Now Ann Richards returns to the Democratic National Convention, when it opens in New York on Monday, as its chairwoman. But instead of Ann Richards the newcomer, it is Gov. Ann Richards, arguably the most prominent woman politician in the United States, a seasoned infighter whose name was mentioned often as a possible running mate with soon-to-be nominee Bill Clinton before she pulled herself from contention.


“You’ve got a woman governor from one of the largest states in the country, somebody who, by virtue of her 1988 speech, is well-known and well-respected,” said Jim Desler, a convention spokesman, in explaining the choice of Richards to chair the convention. “This role of making things work smoothly suits Gov. Richards perfectly.”

A smooth-running convention need not be a sleepy one, Richards suggested Saturday. During an appearance on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s CNN television talk show, Richards said she planned to use her role as chairwoman to enliven the gathering.

“I hope we have a good time . . . (and) get a little spirit into the party and in the American people,” she said. “I think we’re really tired of being down, and we need leadership to lift us up.”

Several sources close to Richards said she wanted to take a less significant role at this year’s convention and that Clinton operatives had to prevail on her to take the chairwoman’s role. That would be in keeping with her actions of the past several months, during which she displayed a definite reserve in the game of presidential politics.

Though other Democratic leaders were quick to jump on the endorsement bandwagon, Richards waited until May before casting her support to Clinton--a full two months after he won a commanding victory in the Texas primary. George Christian, a longtime political analyst and friend of Richards’, said she held back in hopes that Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the state’s Democratic patriarch and a 1988 vice presidential candidate, might somehow come to the fore.

And she was quick to make it clear that she had no aspirations this time around for a vice presidential slot.

The source of Richards’ hesitancy has to do with what happened to her during the years between conventions. She was elected governor in 1990 after one of the most brutal, dirty campaigns this no-holds-barred state has ever seen. After taking on the primary field and then Republican Clayton W. Williams Jr., Richards emerged victorious but badly battered. And she knows she would have to go through an even more vicious electoral round if she went into politics on a national scale.

“The Republicans would skin her alive, or try to,” said Christian.

Instead, as pollster George Shipley put it, Richards is “tending to her own knitting” these days, working on the Texas agenda with the certain knowledge that she could easily be tossed out of office in 1994 if the state is not on course. Garry Mauro, the state land commissioner, said Richards has ended what had been a longstanding war between the legislative and executive branches of state government.

“She has created the atmosphere that allows things to get done,” he said.

Among her accomplishments are a state lottery, insurance reform, the streamlining of state agencies, the creation of an environment department as well as a state ethics commission. She has also made more appointments of women and minorities to committees and commissions than any other Texas governor, though some of them have smacked of old-style patronage.

For her trouble, she is now enjoying a popularity level in the state that has not been seen for decades--a striking contrast to the Administration of her predecessor, Republican Bill Clements.

“Ann has become the most popular governor since John Connally, if we believe the polls,” said Shipley. “She has absolutely charmed the electorate by the force of her personality. She has made deep inroads into the Texas Establishment, and she has made substantial efforts in bringing new jobs to Texas.”

Richards does have her detractors, though, primarily Republicans who say she is in for rough sledding in the last two years of her term.

“Right now she’s riding high because she’s avoided controversy,” said conservative political strategist Karl Rove. “People who avoid controversy ride high in the polls. But when the crash comes, she’ll fall hard, and it won’t be a pretty sight. She’s a do-nothing, do-little governor.”

That kind of sentiment was echoed by Texas Republican Party Chairman Fred Meyer, who cited the looming problems of schools and prisons as examples of issues that will be Richards’ downfall.

“I’d give her an A in political acumen and a D in leadership and performance,” he said.

One certainty is that Richards’ most difficult days are, indeed, ahead of her. In the next legislative session, lawmakers will have to deal with a deficit that could run as high as $6 billion. They also have less than a year to figure out an equitable way to distribute school funds throughout the state, an issue that has been mired in the courts for years now.

But for now, she finds herself looking out from a doctored picture on the cover of Texas Monthly magazine, attired in white-leather jacket and pants and astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The accompanying article is a fawning piece suggesting Richards could well run for President in 1996. She’s been profiled in Vogue and on the television program “60 Minutes,” and she was selected by American Photo magazine as one of 100 famous Americans--along with Cher and Madonna.

“She likes being governor,” said Christian. “She feels challenged. She feels like she is making her mark on the way we do business in this state. She’s building a legacy, and that’s what she wants to do.”