Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat known for her freewheeling oratory who famously branded the first President George Bush as being “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” died Wednesday night after a battle with cancer. She was 73.
A family representative said Richards died at home in Austin, Texas, surrounded by her family. She had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed in March with cancer of the esophagus.
The silver-haired, charismatic Richards became a well-known national political figure with her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Richards, at the time Texas’ state treasurer, took aim at the elder Bush, vice president at the time and the presumptive Republican candidate for president.
In the address that July night at the Omni in Atlanta, she zinged Bush, declaring: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Bush went on to win the election that November. But Richards also advanced politically, winning a come-from-behind battle for governor two years later over Republican millionaire rancher Clayton Williams and serving two years after that as chairwoman of the Democratic convention that nominated Bill Clinton for the presidency.
Still, her political comeuppance came two years later when she ran for a second term and was defeated by George W. Bush, putting him on the political trajectory that took him to the White House.
Richards, instantly recognizable with her white hairdo, was still a political question mark to most of her listeners when she delivered her 1988 keynote address. But she went on to become one of the most prominent women politicians in the United States.
“I wanted Ann to be more than she was, but for her generation she was something special,” said Garry Mauro, a longtime friend of Richards who ran and lost against Bush in the 1998 Texas gubernatorial campaign. “When a young girl heard Ann Richards speak, she became a believer in her own ability to succeed in America. She was the icon for women with any doubts about their own self-image.”
Her victory in the 1990 governor’s contest against Williams was one of the most brutal, dirty campaigns in Texas history.
Despite winning, she was bruised politically and was reluctant after that to pursue national office.
During her term as governor, Richards developed a reputation for fighting for expanded rights for women and minorities. She also worked to streamline government and reform the education system, while establishing the Texas state lottery as a means to fund the public schools.
She also sought to change the Texas prison system by creating inmate substance abuse programs and by releasing fewer violent criminals.
Richards always emphasized her country roots, often expressing criticism with the phrase “that dog won’t hunt.”
Richards grew up in Lakeview, a small town outside Waco in central Texas, the daughter of a pharmaceuticals salesman. In those days, she went by Dorothy Ann Willis and in her autobiography, “Straight From the Heart,” she said her parents put more stock in personality than scholarship.
“I learned early on that people liked you if you told stories, if you made them laugh,” she wrote.
Richards’ family moved to Waco for her high school education and she had only to go across town to enroll in Baylor University, the nation’s largest Southern Baptist institution, where she won a debating scholarship.
At 19, Richards married David Richards, whom she had dated since high school. For the next two decades, she was a wife and mother of four who taught high school to put her husband through law school.
In 1975, while the family was living in Austin, a group asked David Richards to run for county commissioner. Her husband wasn’t interested, but Ann Richards was.
She won the election with ease in 1976 and remained in public office until she was defeated by Bush.
Richards’ marriage of almost 30 years ended in divorce in 1984, prompted in part by her longtime struggle with alcoholism. She underwent a monthlong treatment at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis and had remained sober afterward.
In 1982, Richards was drafted to run for state treasurer and won handily, becoming the first woman to hold a statewide office in Texas in 50 years. Her reelection four years later was even more resounding, which set the stage for the 1988 speech in Atlanta and her gubernatorial victory in 1990.
Survivors include her children, Cecile Richards, Daniel Richards, Clark Richards and Ellen Richards; their spouses; and eight grandchildren.
The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.