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A Year In, Gov. Richards Was Riding High

After her first legislative session, Gov. Ann Richards was on top of the political world, Jan Reid writes in Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards. This excerpt looks at her political aides measuring her strength and preparing for her next moves.

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The following is the second of three abridged excerpts from Jan Reid's new book, Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards. This is from a chapter entitled "Favorables."

* * *

In late October 1991, Morley Safer chortled, just beside himself, through a 60 Minutes profile of this new sensation, the governor of Texas. The liveliest exchange came when the veteran newscaster had Molly Ivins hooting and reminiscing about Ann with the Governor's Mansion in the background. The governor burst out the front door waving her arms and laughing as she approached, but there was a hint in her words of the tension between the two women. "Don't talk to her," Ann yelled. "She makes it up! I'll tell you, Molly Ivins and I've been through a lot together. When she tells a story I know she was there, but it doesn't bear any relation to what happened."

Safer cracked up. "Ann, just a minute here, I'm trying to get a little bit of the truth — "

The governor looked about in mock wonder, as if to the people who voted her into office. "Well, y'all — he wants the truth and he's asking Molly!"

Paul Burka started his critique of the program with a jeer. "What a puff piece!" It sure was that. But give Ann credit for knowing how to score some payback on prime-time national television, and it didn't cost her a dime. The creeping frostiness between Ann and Molly may have been simple jealousy over turf — which one was the grande dame of Texas liberals?

That same year, in addition to the three or four newspaper columns a week that Molly continued to churn out, she became a national figure in her own right with her surprise bestseller Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? There was plenty of ego and sarcasm at play in the relationship of Ann and Molly. Also, after the divorce, David Richards was a much closer friend of Molly than Ann was. In 1993, she devoted one of her columns to her admiration of him.

One of my favorite David Richards cases was the tuba player who taught at the community college in Dallas. He had one tuba student for one hour a week and was paid all of $3.50. In those days, we had a lot of wiggy, leftover laws from the McCarthy era — in order to teach, or even attend, a Texas college you had to sign a pledge saying you were not now and never had been a member of the Communist Party, despite the fact that the Communist Party was perfectly legal. Now Richards' tuba player was not a communist (I think he was a Methodist), but he felt strongly that he shouldn't have to make any kind of political commitment to teach tuba. (Given our Lege in those days, we're lucky they didn't outlaw being a Republican: Come to think of it, not a bad idea.) The college wouldn't give the tuba teacher his $3.50, so David took the case (I assume for a handsome contingency fee, like half of the $3.50.) And lo, at long last, at the end of the legal process, Richards triumphed and got this silly little menace to freedom of thought removed.

On the greater arc of his legal career, Molly wound up that column:

Richards has not only fought for freedom himself; he has inspired a generation or more of young lawyers to go and do likewise. During Jim Mattox's first term as attorney general, Richards was his top hand, and that office almost crackled with energy and idealism. Everyone who was there seems to remember the speech Richards made at a farewell party they gave for him. He closed with a favorite line from one of the Mexican revolutionary leaders, who had been offered a share of the spoils, a big hacienda, when it was over: "I did not join your revolution to become a haciendado."

Anyone reading Molly's columns on Ann's performance as governor would not sense the rift between them. Molly was generous in her praise, sparing in her criticism, and she made no bones about their being on the same side in the partisan trenches. But in private, they were no longer the soul sisters of popular perception, if they ever had been.

* * *

About the same time the 60 Minutes profile aired, Mary Beth Rogers received a memo from a young pollster at Jack Martin's firm, Public Strategies, Inc., named Matthew Dowd. Martin had assigned Dowd the task of analyzing a poll of 1,000 likely general-election voters in 1994, which had been conducted by Harrison Hickman. Dowd wrote:

Overall the numbers look very good for Governor Richards. Her favorability rating is 63 percent positive to 22 percent negative which is nearly 3 to 1. (One week before election day 1990 Richards' favorability rating was 39 percent positive and 51 percent negative.) Richards' job performance and favorability are strong among Democrats and Independents. Moreover, she has a net positive of 11 percent among Republicans.

Concerning expectations, 39 percent said Richards has done much or somewhat better than expected, 48 percent about as well as expected, and 12 percent somewhat or much worse than expected. Thus more than 3 to 1 say she has exceeded expectations. Also in rating past governors, 11 percent say Richards is one of the best, 25 percent say Richards is above average, and 4 percent one of the worst. Again, these are very strong figures.

These numbers contrast somewhat with the "re-elect" question where 45 percent of the electorate said they would either definitely or probably vote to re-elect Richards as Governor; 40 percent said they would definitely or probably vote for someone else. The 40 percent basically consists of Republican men and women who, even though they have a favorable image of Richards, say they will vote for someone else. There is no gender gap among Republican men and women — Richards does not garner a significant portion of either vote.

But she still polled eight to ten points higher with Democratic and independent women than with men of the same persuasion, and that margin had been a crucial part of her victory over Clayton Williams. In not quite a year, Ann's performance as governor had raised her favorable rating by twenty-four points and decreased her unfavorable rating by twenty-nine points. This despite the haggles in the legislature over school finance, the lottery, and the budget; the appearance of ineptness caused by being forced to call multiple special sessions; and the overriding specter of President Bush, who was at the height of his popularity after leading a rout of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the First Gulf War. Bush's expected blowout of whoever surfaced as the Democratic presidential nominee would spell trouble for Democrats everywhere, especially in Texas.

The Hickman poll, wrote Dowd, indicated that likely voters believed the governor had done well in providing strong leadership, passing her programs through the legislature, appointing competent people, dealing with the lottery question, and fighting for average people: "Voters see Richards as a strong and decisive leader who has ideas to improve government. They believe she stands out in front on important issues, presents a good image of Texas to the rest of the country, and is active and aggressive. The areas of concern are: a slight majority believe Richards is 'just another politician' and no more honest than other politicians."

On the issue she believed in most of all, a whopping 59 percent of the sampled voters supported a woman's right to choose, while 30 percent opposed it. But there was an element of distrust, or perhaps just of misreading her, as well. Forty-three percent of the sampled voters believed she supported a state income tax, while 39 percent said she opposed it.

In the preceding twelve years, neither Bill Clements nor Mark White had come close to matching her popularity. "Basically you are in great shape," Mary Beth Rogers started a cover letter with Dowd's report, "held in affection and respect by a majority of Texas voters." The reversal of her positive-negative poll numbers, she exclaimed, was a "remarkable achievement! ... But the poll also shows that voters are waiting for you to produce results. To date, they have not seen their insurance rates go down, or new jobs come to Texas, or the early release of criminals stopped, or the cutting of waste in government. While we know that it is too early to produce these results, the voters do not yet measure you as effective in these areas. And in truth, although we have set in motion efforts to solve some of these problems, we don't know if we will actually be able to succeed."

Rogers continued:

January, 1992 to January, 1993 is a critical time for your administration. It is the true "governing" period, where results have to be the goal. But the year is also the time for some essential base building for the 1994 election. This includes raising $8 million (to reach our goal of $10 million in the bank) by the fundraising cut-off in December 1992 . . .

You are experiencing extraordinary demands from important people for your time and energy. Legislators, lobbyists, business leaders, friends and staff — all want you to operate on an agenda that is important to them. You could spend all of your time responding to these requests (as we are doing in October, November, and December), and make some key people happy, perhaps even achieve a few good things. Following this path, however, will drain your energy and leave an unclear and uncertain legacy for your administration . . .

Instead of having 14 or 15 goals (insurance, education, crime, jobs, energy policy, higher education, expanding the power of the governor, reorganization, environment, etc.), we should have two or three, with a major emphasis on only one. The most important question is: What do you want to be remembered for? [Rogers's emphasis]

. . . This background leads us to a checkpoint for you to reaffirm or reconsider the most important decision you made last January: DO YOU WANT TO RUN FOR REELECTION?

If you do, we must follow a course in 1992 that focuses on producing some very specific results and we must carefully "market" the results to the target audiences you need to win reelection.

A reelection decision will involve staying closer to home, with a significant amount of in-state travel and carefully orchestrated events, such as town meetings, built around the issues identified in our poll and the limited goals you want to achieve. It will also involve paying very close attention to the budget and tax situation, including developing a revenue strategy that will head off a major tax bill in the 1993 session . . .

The reelection campaign begins immediately after the 1993 legislative session. As you look at the attached calendar for 1992, you can see that the available time for base-building and fundraising activities is limited. . . . I would suggest only one major foreign trip in 1992. Also, a high-profile national Democratic presidential campaign role — both at the convention and during the general election — could be risky for you in Texas, particularly if George Bush wins decisively in November. That, plus a difficult legislative session in 1993, could create a hard reelection campaign.

If you decide you don't want to run for reelection (a decision only Jack, Jane, Kirk [Adams, her son-in-law and trusted adviser] and I need to know about), you have a wider range of options for both politics and pleasure next year.

You could concentrate on becoming a national political player, including taking a shot at the 1992 vice-presidential nomination — which quite possibly could be yours if you want it.

Or, you could choose to simply enjoy the remainder of your term, doing what you consider to be important, without undue concern about the political consequences. Unfortunately, this is the only option that allows much time for a personal life.

There the choices lay for Ann, her options outlined with great frankness. She could win the reelection her polls seemed to indicate or strike out for national office — the vice presidency or even, in time and with great luck, the presidency — or have a personal life. (One of her show business fans, Bill Cosby, inscribed a photo of them together with the line that Ann was going to be president whenever "she's damn well ready.") On the March 1992 calendar, she had trade meetings lined up in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In September, there were trade talks in Spain, Germany, France, and Britain, and then in November, talks in Canada. To run and win, said her most trusted adviser on both politics and policy, Ann needed to give up all or most of that, and by that time in her life she was a dedicated world traveler.

Mary Beth urged her to keep a low profile at the Democratic National Convention, this one scheduled in glorious New York City. But Ann's answer was like the one she gave to the question of what had prompted her to run for the office in the first place: too many people were counting on her — she felt she had to be there. Plus, the spotlight she first discovered in Atlanta in 1988 was terribly hard to give up. As her political advisers in the 1990 campaign found, she was quite taken with being a celebrity. In the end, she tried to be a successful regional politician and a superstar in the national Democratic Party and the celebrity mills of New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. And also nourish a midlife (which really means later-in-life) love affair.

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 second of three excerpts being reprinted in The Texas Tribune. The  first excerpt looked at Richards' spats with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. The third excerpt looks at Richards setting a politically fateful course on guns.

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