By G.W. Schulz
I’ll never forget the first time I stood in the presence of Ann Richards.
Years ago during the late 90s when I lived in Austin, I worked at a little natural foods grocery store on the west side of town. Richards used to come into the deli quite frequently. Although she was a short woman, there was something about her stature that simply commanded respect. Plus, she was the widely revered former governor of Texas. She just exuded principled toughness. I was sad to learn this week that she had succumbed to cancer at the age of 73. One thing the Democrats can't afford to lose right now is anyone with a sense of humor.
She struck me as a woman you weren’t supposed to trifle with, not because she would necessarily destroy you, but because she was fearless and confident. This in a state that has by no means always appreciated fearless and confident women (ask Molly Ivins).
Richards was the governor of Texas during a time when I was learning about what it meant to be skeptical of free trade. She supported NAFTA, and she was a Clintonian Democratic (not to mention, she expanded the state’s prison system and Texas hardly needs more prisons). I was young and wide-eyed. I always wanted more than what the establishment was offering. And back then, there was an incredible amount of energy in Austin to make it a more truly progressive city to live in, despite the state’s overall politics.
Nonetheless, Richards did things in Texas that were simply remarkable, most notably, appointing women and other minorities to real positions of power in state government. Texas is a curious political beast. Watching sessions in the capitol building can sometimes be more entertaining than anything on television – fistfights, screaming matches, drunken antics. It was a great education for a young political junky. And to see a confident woman like Ann Richards boldly penetrate it all from the starting point of a stay-at-home mom with a wicked sense of humor was an important lesson.
I’ll never forget when Bush won the governorship defeating Richards (with a considerable amount of help from Karl Rove). And I’ll never forget the first time he suggested from the backyard of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin that he might be running for president. We used to ride by the mansion late at night on our bikes coming home drunk from the bars on Sixth Street and spew obscenities at the front gates. It changed nothing, of course. But we were drunk, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I often wonder what would have happened if Richards had won that second term. Could Bush possibly be president today? With Richards at the helm, might Texas have inspired a populist-progressive surge in the Midwest strong enough to overcome what was then, and is still now, one of the strongest forces in national politics: Christian fundamentalism?
I’m not sure. But I do know Ann Richards gave it her best shot and often overcame the seemingly impossible. There's no reason it can't happen again.