Two Fisted Texans

A rare sit-down with the former guv and her activist daughter.

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Let the record show that except for a few weeks in 1995, progressives in Texas could count on a strong Richards woman to help fight their battles. Until she was defeated by George W. Bush in 1994, Ann Richards was the very model of a progressive governor, a tireless champion of gender equality, civil rights, and social and economic justice. She left office at the end of January 1995, but only a few weeks later her 38-year-old daughter, Cecile, a longtime organizer, began to fill her considerable shoes, founding the Texas Freedom Network. The group is dedicated to countering the politicking of the radical right. Already, the Washington Post and Texas Monthly have written her up; disciples of the right wing have taped her meetings; and she’s had to fend off a threatened lawsuit by Oliver North.

In mid-December, mother and child sat together in Ann’s law office for their first joint interview and talked about the issues that drive them to distraction.

Q: What did you think of Time magazine’s decision to make Newt Gingrich Man of the Year?

Ann Richards: If I had guessed who it was going to be, I wouldn’t have thought of Newt Gingrich. I would have said O.J. Simpson. I guess there’s sort of a parallel–sensational rather than substantive. But in truth, whether or not I like

the idea, there is no question that Gingrich has set the agenda. In that sense, perhaps, it’s appropriate.

Cecile Richards: In fact, it shouldn’t have been just him; it should have been the whole Republican leadership team, because all of them have made an impact that we’re going to be feeling for years.

Ann: I have a very clear impression that Newt Gingrich is not a man you defeat. This is the kind of guy you finally lock up on Elba.

Q: How about the president? Do you like the job he’s doing right now?

Ann: I think he pretty well has hit his stride. It’s really hard to think of going from being governor of Arkansas to being president of the United States.

Q: It’d be tough to go from being governor of a lot of places, probably?

Ann: Well, no.

Q: So Arkansas particularly?

Ann: Well, I think any smaller state. To go from there to the presidency is a huge step. I think those first couple of years were especially difficult in that the people said they wanted outsiders in there running government. So Bill took his outsiders with him–he took a bunch of very young, eager people who had not played the system before. I think those first couple of years he had a tough time figuring out how to make it function. What’s happened is that now he’s kinda got his sea legs under him. When he drew the line on health care, Medicaid, and Medicare, I think the American public responded to it.

Cecile: I think he has done a great job, actually, and I think he has finally chosen the right focus. The fight over health care is critically important. It’s where the rhetoric of the far right just doesn’t have it together.

Q: What do you think the far right is doing now to mobilize for the next election?

Cecile: You know, half of the way they operate is by being below the radar. I think that’s what happened in Texas to a large extent–we just woke up one day and realized that there’s this right-wing grassroots network that’s incredibly effective at mobilizing voters.

Q: And not always openly?

Cecile: Oh, absolutely not. In fact,

it’s been part of the strategy: By hiding their extreme affiliations, they can be elected. That’s encouraging to me. That means they can be dis-elected once people figure it out.

Q: So your goal is voter education?

Cecile: Exactly. When people know who they’re voting for and get out and vote, good people are elected. But when people don’t know who they’re voting for, or they don’t vote, that’s when extremists can take over.

Ann: Why are people vulnerable to the radical right? The economic struggle and job stress have become greater, and–seemingly–the private sector and the government are unable to produce enough good jobs. So an uneasy public is looking for a guilty party, someone to blame.

The very simple targets from the radical right have been, first, those women out there who should have been staying home and taking care of those children. My favorite thing is that they say the country went to hell because poor women stayed home, took welfare, and took care of their kids. On the other hand, the country went to hell because middle-class women didn’t stay home and went to work. They’re very artful at trying to have it both ways. And the public is all too ripe for the indoctrination they’re getting from unconscionable people who will use anything, say anything, to carry their agenda forward.

Cecile: People need reassurance. They need an explanation for why there are problems in their lives, and it helps if the explanation is that it’s someone else’s fault, whether it’s the government, the poor, or people who are different from you. But I think that when it comes down to how it affects their daily lives, people absolutely reject the kind of extremist politics that Gingrich promotes.

The Christian Coalition is the perfect example. It sounds great, you know: If you’re a Christian, why wouldn’t you be for the Christian Coalition? But once you begin to educate people and they begin to understand what the agenda is, it’s completely different.

Q: How do you feel about liberal leaders like Pat Schroeder leaving office?

Cecile: I imagine that part of the frustration of serving in Congress now is that you’re dealing with a bunch of folks to whom everything’s black-and-white. There is no dialogue. It’s all purely, “We’re the good guys, you’re the bad guys.”

Ann: What you have to understand is that there are a lot of people who don’t want to expose themselves to the kind of vitriol that comes from the opposition on the right. These people stoop to the most unbelievable levels.

Take the races here for the state school board. You have two people who literally are pillars in the community–PTA members, wonderful people–and yet campaigns are run against them showing a black male and a white male kissing on a brochure, saying this is what so-and-so believes should be taught in your public schools. There aren’t very many people who want to expose themselves to that kind of trash. And that’s becoming more and more the case in Congress. You must be a very rare person to expose yourself to this kind of hatred and viciousness.

Q: You yourself get entreaties, Governor, to run against Phil Gramm, to run again against George W. Bush, but you’ve said you don’t want to go through it again.

Ann: I don’t want to, but for different reasons. Those of us who have had our day need to allow young people to mature and to come up the ranks. I had a wonderful 15 minutes; it was an honor and I enjoyed every bit of it. Now I want to do something else.

What we’re seeing take place in the country was instigated, I think, by this economic crisis that we’re moving into more and more. Out of fear, you’re seeing a coalition of people coming together on the right. They’re coming from a point of view of religion. They’re coming from a point of view of being armed. They’re coming from a point of view of someone’s going to take their property. They’re coming from some of those old hatreds against blacks. You hear the vitriol that even suggests that there is a cartel of Jewish bankers behind it all. That kind of fear brings on a rise from the right, and it never goes away. It just goes underground or gets quiet. The scary part now is that we’re not sure how to fight it.

Cecile: Actually it’s been interesting because what I have found, at least organizing in Texas, is the number of people who are not political folks. I’ve met more people in this last year who are PTA moms or on a local school board or just unwillingly brought into this political battle against the far right. That, to me, is very encouraging, to see people who are in it not because they have always been involved in party politics but are involved because they have been alienated from their church, kicked out of their school district, kicked out of their party. You see Republicans and Democrats both.

Q: Do you see yourself running for office at some point, Cecile? Never?

Cecile: [Laughs] Maybe I’ve just seen too much up close. I’m just more comfortable being an advocate. And, really, I love to organize. I love to bring people together and advocate for stuff that I feel is important. Being in Austin for the last four years when Mom was governor really reinforced what I believe. Our office holders are only as good as we allow them to be–they can do the right thing if there are enough people out there agitating and supporting them.

Q: Now, Governor, that made you smile. Did the thought of Cecile running make you smile, or Cecile saying she wouldn’t run make you smile?

Ann: Oh, I don’t know…. I was probably just smiling out of affection. You know, I think my kids they…they’ve seen it up close and personal. And I remember when I was probably Cecile’s age–maybe a little older–I had been an advocate for so many years that I finally decided to run for public office.

Whatever Cecile does, it’s going to be great with me. Believe me, when she said she was going to start this organization, my first thought was, “Cecile, one of these days you’ve got to make a living.” I know what it’s like to sacrifice for years and years and not make a living. But I’m really proud of what she’s doing.

By the same token, I think it is really important that people of goodwill, and people who are wise, and people who are smart are willing to give of themselves in public service. If any of my kids or my grandkids decide they’re going to want to do that, I’m not going to discourage them because in the long run that really is what democracy is all about. It’s about giving of yourself.

Q: Do the two of you think you’ll work on anything together soon?

Cecile: No. Mom’s pretty busy. You have to catch her when she’s in Texas–and she’s usually not. She gives me spiritual support, which I’m realizing, in my line of work, is more and more important.

Q: It’s gotta be really interesting to be Ann Richards’ daughter.

Cecile: Mmmhmmm.

Ann: Kinda like carrying an anchor.

Cecile: Right. I’m either Ann’s daughter or Lily’s mother [her 8-year-old daughter; Cecile also has 5-year-old twins, Daniel and Hannah].

Q: But now you’ve clearly emerged as the Richards that people seem to be talking about. That’s gotta be very heartening to both of you.

Cecile: I guess we all try to make the best of Mother’s reduced sentence in public office. It was obviously a tremendous blow in so many ways, but it was also…just…everyone had to make some decisions then about the rest of their lives. Right now there’s a lot to do. But, yeah, I’m real happy there’s a life after.

Evan Smith is the deputy editor of Texas Monthly. He interviewed Jim Hightower in the Nov./Dec. 1995 issue of Mother Jones.


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