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Published: 9/19/2006

A Texas-sized loss

A VOICE that set Texas politics on notice that the status quo was off the table has been silenced. But former Gov. Ann Richards, who lost her battle with esophageal cancer last week, inspired a boisterous chorus of voices to press on in her absence.

That was the late 73-year-old's legacy, of course. When Ann Richards, wife and mother of four, decided to barge into politics over 40 years ago, she was all about changing the way things had always been done in the Longhorn State.

Ms. Richards aimed to go where no woman or minority had ever gone before in local and state politics. And no male bastion of Texas politics would stop her. She was a tough old bird - disguised as a disarming silver-haired grandmother - who absolutely delighted in besting the male-dominated establishment.

The flamboyant Texan had a way of utterly captivating the public with her wit. In 1988, as state treasurer, she seized national attention with her memorable quip at the Democratic National Convention.

"Poor George," she drawled in her keynote address put-down of then Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, "He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

To be sure, her political comeuppance would occur later when the elder Bush's son, George W., would deny her a second term as governor of Texas. She had won the top post in 1990 as a longtime champion of women and minorities in government.

Before leaving office in 1995, the chief executive noted her successful drive to open doors historically closed to blacks, women, and the disabled.

"I did not want my tombstone to read, 'She kept a really clean house.' I think I'd like them to remember me by saying, 'She opened government to everyone.'•"

At the very least, said Ron Kirk, the black former mayor of Dallas, "She set the table so somebody like me could become mayor of Dallas." After leaving public office, the charismatic Ms. Richards was highly sought after as a celebrity Democrat making the rounds on talk shows, giving speeches, and consulting.

In the last 10 years of her life, the woman famous for her freewheeling oratory, who survived bruising political battles, longtime bouts with alcoholism, and divorce after 30 years of marriage, still took on social causes.

Close to her heart was a project she helped develop but never lived to see to fruition. The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders is scheduled to open in Austin next year.

A fitting and hopefully lasting tribute to a gutsy role model who made believers out of the disenfranchised and left her beloved Texas a better place.



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