This is the first of three abridged excerpts from Jan Reid's new book, Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, published by the University of Texas Press. This is from a chapter titled "Odd Couples."
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Ann said she had no social life after she took office as governor. An Associated Press story on her first hundred days reported that she carried two hours' worth of paperwork to the Mansion every night, and according to her staff, she worked forty days straight between February and March 1991. "I try hard once a week to do something I think is fun," she told the reporter, "like go to the horse races, or go to a basketball game, or go to a movie, or something that's just what normal people do."
But she exaggerated that claim of her life being all work. At a movie matinee one Sunday, Dorothy and I saw Bud and the governor looking very much like normal people in the lobby. They were chomping handfuls of popcorn amid folks whose expressions ranged from startled to dazzled.
"How are you?" Ann greeted the ones who overcame their shyness and came up to have a word with her. She said it in a way that seemed to make them think she was raptly interested in their answers. Perhaps she was.
Yet in real ways, she had surrendered much of her freedom and privacy. She said that, at first, on Sunday mornings she would put on her bathrobe and slip outside through the Mansion grounds to get the newspapers, as she always had in her private houses. But one time when she did that, this man just appeared, looking like a derelict and talking nonstop, apparently with a gear loose. "All right, I'm going to have to have some security," she conceded.
The Governor's Mansion (which would be almost destroyed by an arsonist's fire in 2008) was ornate and gleaming — a tribute to nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century southern style. The bed she slept in had been passed down from Sam Houston, the George Washington of Texas. But Ann was not a captive of the place. She brought to the showpiece residence her own wry touches. While interviewing Ann there, Texas Monthly's Paul Burka encountered a green parrot first on top of its open cage, then hanging upside down, pecking at the bars. Ann told him, "That's Gracie. It's short for Amazing Grace." The rear stairs passed under a large print of an alleged quotation from Richard King, the frontier patriarch of the King Ranch: "People who come to Texas these days are preachers, or fugitives from justice, or sons of bitches. Which one fits you?"
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Bud Shrake was sure enough of his place on earth that he was not ill at ease or too surprised to find himself seated beside Ann in the presidential library of Lyndon Johnson at a formal dinner honoring the queen of England in May 1991. Others at Table 1 were Lady Bird Johnson; Bill and Diane Hobby; the library's director, Harry Middleton; and Ann's old friend, the distinguished historian Standish Meacham. At Table 2 were the Duke of Edinburgh; Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and his wife, Jan; the Speaker of the Texas House, Gib Lewis, and his wife Sandra Majors; the RoboCop actor Peter Weller; and Nancy Lee Bass, the wife of Perry Bass, the Fort Worth oil and gas tycoon and philanthropist. Thirty more tables were populated by the likes of LBJ's daughter Lynda Robb and her husband, Virginia senator Charles Robb; Texas treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison; former governor John Connally; the veteran CBS commentator Harry Reasoner; Ross Perot, growing more political by the day; and Ann Richards's first and only boss in politics, Sarah Weddington. President Bush and his family were not invited. That was explained as just protocol, a belief that those greetings should be arranged in the nation's capital.
At the welcome ceremony at the Governor's Mansion, the queen's visit was choreographed down to bobs and bows every five seconds. The matter of who sat where at the LBJ Library affair became an issue because a snub was perceived by the lieutenant governor's office. No offense to the Duke of Edinburgh, but the number two table? Drafted by a member of Bullock's staff, a bristly letter went out over his name to the governor's aide LaVada Jackson:
Regarding your call from Houston this morning and your and Cathy Bonner's confusion, please know that we clearly realize the Governor's lead role. It was not our intent to signify otherwise. It had been our understanding this visit was a mutual leadership function — a joint effort that involved the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker. Since you indicated that that was not the case, we regret any confusion that was caused. We do hope, however, you will consider our request for some additional seating.
This was just what Mary Beth Rogers and Paul Hobby, the past lieutenant governor's son and the new lieutenant governor's chief of staff, needed — another spat between Ann and Bullock. But as the royal visit unfolded, the principal hosts brushed that conflict aside.
Ann was in a near panic because her voice was a croak; Bullock prepared to fill in for her. But she got over the laryngitis in time to carry on. The queen arrived with her husband in a carriage with a team of richly groomed black horses they evidently transported all over the world. Ann said she and the queen had a nice chat about horses. The outdoor reception for the royal couple took place on an uncommonly windy day. It was reported that the only thing that didn't flap or flutter was the governor's hair.
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Bob Bullock had more things to be annoyed about than his secondary role in welcoming the First Brits to Texas. Suddenly, he spoiled for fights with Ann. In a story told by his biographers Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson, Ann asked Bullock and the House Speaker to come to the Mansion for Monday breakfasts so they could address pressing issues in the legislature: "After one breakfast, according to the House Speaker Gib Lewis, Bullock had about $100 worth of groceries delivered to the Governor's Mansion, along with a note: 'Next time, I'd like to be fed.'"
Bullock had nothing against the governor rubbing shoulders with movie stars and foreign royalty, if that was what turned her on. But he felt that when it came to actual governance, he was doing all the heavy lifting. Early in the 1991 legislative session, Ann had proposed a school-finance plan that would essentially be based on a statewide property tax. She dropped that like a hot rock when school boards, superintendents, and Republicans raised a howl and legislators showed no interest. And on schools and their performance, she relied on a New York educator, Lionel "Skip" Meno, to trim and reform the beast of the Texas Education Agency, which he was not able to do. Bullock scorned Ann for, in his view, hightailing it to the sidelines on public education. (And that view was increasingly shared by a parent and private citizen in Dallas named George W. Bush.)
As long as property taxes were the primary source of revenue for schools, students in the Edgewood school district in San Antonio (the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state) were never going to have the equivalent opportunity of rich Dallas kids in Highland Park. Property taxes were determined by property values — it didn't take the best tax collector the state had ever been blessed with, as Bullock perceived himself, to divine the inequity in that.
Early in the legislative session, Bullock had gone over to the Governor's Mansion to meet with her and major newspaper editors and editorial writers. He climbed a few steps up the flight of the grand staircase and told them in his resonant growl, "Texas needs an income tax."
It was definitely not what the public wanted to hear. Paul Hobby told Bullock's biographers, "We literally had two fax machines melt into the corner over the weekend." Under fierce attack, Bullock declined to back off. He sent the newspapers an op-ed explaining the logic of his position: "Full implementation of a state income tax would let us completely eliminate the school property tax on all residential property. A Texas income tax would apply to people and corporations from out of state who do business and make profits in Texas. For the first time, out-of-staters would be paying a Texas tax on the money they make here."
Bullock embarrassed Ann in her own damn house, and she let him hang out on that limb and get blistered. She said she didn't believe an income tax was necessary, commenting accurately that the chances of it getting through the legislature were "slim to none." For Texas politicians, calling for an income tax was tantamount to throwing open the doors to vampires and werewolves. The only thing as bad was to oppose the death penalty.
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Adding to the mess, Bullock's style alienated House Speaker Gib Lewis and ignited talk of a feud between the two chambers of the legislature. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman: "Lately, in addition to irking some staff members of Governor Ann Richards, Bullock has gone to chewing the behinds of several powerful House members, and they don't like it one bit." He steered Senator Carl Parker's bill creating a new Department of the Environment to unanimous Senate approval, but the House offered a quite different bill. House members heeded lobbyists' pressure to strip a provision that would keep landfills at least 500 feet from residences and 1,500 feet from schools, and the new agriculture commissioner, Rick Perry, balked at losing control over the regulation of pesticides. The Democratic House sponsor of the bill, Bruce Gibson, claimed that Bullock finally said, "Just send me something." In joking contempt for his own bill, which he did not believe would pass, Gibson branded the new agency the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission — soon called, just to make sentences possible, the TNRCC. And that soon spawned the mocking nickname "Train Wreck."
John Hall, the first chairman at the TNRCC, got high marks on his performance from Ann, the business community, and the press, but he told me about being summoned to Bullock's office and tongue-lashed. His veteran staffers called the experiences "drive-by ass-chewings." The rebukes occurred often enough that John sought advice from Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, a former Bullock aide who was once known by comptroller employees as Little Bullock. Garry told him, "You've got to hire a Bullock-ite." John found one of these mediators, and his trips to Bullock's woodshed stopped.
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With the Texas Supreme Court's ruling on school finance hanging over their heads, legislators eventually arrived at a solution in which school districts with an abundance of property-tax revenue would share some of it, under a complex formula, with districts that had an abundance of broken-down old buildings, portable classrooms, and trash-filled lots. Residents of the wealthy school districts branded the compromise "Robin Hood."
During her first year in office, the governor had to call four special sessions before she could wind up the state's business and send the legislators home. In April 1991, Comptroller John Sharp's revenue estimators had claimed that the state was $4.6 billion in debt — and the Texas constitution required a balanced budget. Ann said she would not call a special session on the budget until July, when a comprehensive audit of all agency spending was in hand. Tempers frayed. At a conference committee on the budget, according to Dave McNeely, Bullock dressed down Representative Bruce Gibson in front of legislators and lobbyists in language that was described as verbal abuse. Gibson told Speaker Gib Lewis, "I'm taking this personal. I've had it. You just don't treat people this way. I'm going to bust him." (One year later, Gibson accepted a job as Bullock's chief of staff.)
In the special session, Ann, Bullock, Lewis, and key staffers holed up in the Wynne Lodge on Matagorda Island to write a budget. There are no bridges or ferries to the preserve. Reporters and editors yelped about violation of the state's open-meetings law. Some of the journalists rented boats and tried to force their way through security. The state's leaders cobbled together a budget that featured sales and cigarette taxes, projections of escalating property taxes, and a lottery.
When they got back to Austin, according to Paul Hobby, Bullock called in lobbyists who had killed all tax proposals during the regular session, predicting that he was a sure dead-duck one-term lieutenant governor over his proposal for an income tax. He said, "The state of Texas has gone as far as it can go without additional revenue, and I am going to take a little chunk out of each of your asses and put a tax bill together. If you whine, I'm going to take a big chunk out of your asses. So you just decide what you want."
This excerpt from "Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards" by Jan Reid, copyright 2012, was reprinted with permission from the University of Texas Press.
This is the first of three excerpts being reprinted in The Texas Tribune. The second excerpt looks at her political strength after a year in office. The final excerpt looks at Richards setting a politically fateful course on guns.
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