Interviews: Texas Politics: The Myth vs. the Reality

Ann Richards

Paul Stekler: Describe the myth versus the reality of Texas politics.

Ann Richards: If you ask me if you can put a stamp on Texas politics, I can tell you that there are screen images in advertising that appeal to Texans more than other images. Just like you would probably do, maybe surfboards and sand in Southern California, we still like to see men on horses with big hats. We still respond to John Wayne music from his films. So, there is that stripe in an advertising sense. But in reality, Texas is a very urban state. It has shifted from the oil fields and the agricultural land to the cities and the suburbs.

Texas certainly is a perfect example of the South and the Southwest. Because, you know, the way the elections go in the United States is that you fight over that big middle of Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas. Because, by and large, they -- with the exception of California being far to the left, New York being just to the left -- the South and the Southwest are voting more and more Republican because it is becoming more and more urban. It has an influx of less established people who don't really have an identity. They can't tell you that they're a Texan or that they're a Yankee, or anything else. They're a very mobile society. And for some reason, those mobile voters always tend to have less faith or less interest in government, which is a Republican attitude. I don't really know why that is true. But I think an identity with place is important in one's life. It has something to do with the preservation of community. Not just your own family but of your neighbors. Now, the mobility of people is such that a lot of times they don't even know their neighbors, [laughs] much less care about what happens to them or the community in which they all live.

Stekler: How did Texas evolve from being a Democratic state to a Republican one

Richards: Well, it's an interesting thing this question of party identification, and the shift that a state takes from having been all Democratic to all Republican. The reality is that the Republicans were always here in Texas. They were in the Democratic Party. We didn't have a Republican Party that was active. And, the truth is that the Democrats, the left of center Democrats, the loyalist Democrats, thought that the Republicans ought to get into their own party, hold their own primary and stop dominating the Democratic politics. And we set out to drive them out of the Democratic Party and into their own party and we were very successful [laughs].

So, what has really happened in Texas is two things. One is that the Republican Party itself came into existence -- and with the election of John Tower into the United States Senate -- it was suddenly OK to be a Republican. Because you had a guy in office that you had to appeal to if you were going to get anything done in your town and get the federal government to do it, you know, you had to go talk to him. You had to go talk to Lloyd Bentsen. So, you had to be Democrat and you had to be Republican if you were a civic leader. The second thing that happened was that we had this enormous influx of people from other places. They came here from the Midwest, they came here from the East, and they were Republicans. Or they were from states that were dominated by Republicans or at least where it was O.K. to be a Republican. And, as a consequence, they added to the stability and the good name of the Republican Party.

Now, what's the stripe of Texas? Texas still, despite its change in its demographics and despite its change in its culture from rural to urban, Texas is still a frontier state. It's still a Wild West mentality. Even people who move here are not here -- I get so tickled. These guys come in. They're not here a week before they're wearing boots. They want to be a part of that romantic time when guys fought wars, rode horses, drove cattle. And they think of this state as having such an entrepreneurial spirit, a risk taking spirit. And, very much I think that is still true of us. Not as many of us are on horseback, but we are way out there on the edge of chips and technology and space. And whatever is next, we want to be part of that.

Stekler: What is the role of the 2002 Democratic ticket in the transformation of Texas politics

Richards: Well, interestingly enough, I get really emotional about it. It's hard for me to talk about it without tearing up. This represents a period of time in Texas politics that I fought all my life to see. When we were trying to outlaw the poll tax. You know, I come from a time when I sat at card tables at grocery stores selling the right to vote to black people. When we were a part of the marches of the farm workers in the first real rise of the Hispanic movement in this state, I was part of that. I've been a feminist, of course, all my life. But the fact that everything that we thought should transpire as a result of the civil rights movement is now coming to blossom. [clears throat] Whether or not we're successful this time or not really doesn't, to me, minimize what's happening. Because it is a recognition that the Hispanics have earned a place on the ticket, that the blacks have earned a place on the ticket, that the women are a political force, although people are not really sure how [laughs] to get to them or how to appeal to them. I think if not this year, it's going to happen. I just hope it happens with Democrats. We've not always been the best or the most receptive to the people who have supported the Democratic party. And we've allowed the Republicans to co-opt our position for political purposes. And shame on us for that.

Stekler: What do you think of Ron Kirk's chances of winning this election

Richards: Ron Kirk is one of the most natural politicians I've ever met. Short of Bill Clinton, he's as good as there is. He enters a room and he owns it. The people in the room, regardless of who they are -- Democrat or Republican -- just naturally gravitate to him. They just want to be next to him. They want to hear what he says. They want to be recognized by him. They want to be his friend. He did a remarkable job when he was mayor of Dallas in bringing a lot of disparate groups who had spent years quarreling with each other together. He can speak to businessmen about their concerns and he can speak to women with empathy about their children and their right to choose and women's independence. He's a remarkable guy. If Texas is lucky enough to have him in the United States Senate, he will be a national star in a very short time.

The reason Ron Kirk has a chance in winning is just his sheer personality, for one thing. Secondly, because the black population has been loyal in its Democratic support for a long time and it's their time to have a star candidate. He can win because he can cross those racial barriers, because he can talk to whites as well as blacks. And because he has the credentials that he worked hard, that he's proven himself. No one can claim that Ron Kirk has not been a good elected official because he has. Interestingly enough, I think there's another reason and that is that the Republicans don't know how to attack him. It's a tough problem for them. They don't want to appear racist. There's nothing for them to really get a handle on to suggest that he wouldn't be a good senator. So we'll see how it plays out.

Stekler: Why have people drifted away from running grassroots campaigns

Richards: There are so few people that are running in a grassroots way because it seems so impossible. It's such a vast state to start with, but even in smaller states, I don't think they run in a grassroots way the way they did before. And, going by the general store, dropping off some leaflets, urging people in the town's square to come out to vote. Those institutions have gone the way of the interstate. They simply are not there anymore. I only know of one politician in Texas who's trying to run that way this time and we'll see how successful he is. Where he's going and leaving his brochures and talking to people in grocery stores and at bait stands, and boat docks, and asking them to take his material and put it in a sack of groceries [laughs]. I don't know whether he can be successful or not. But, by and large, to meet the vast number of people, you've got to meet them on the television set and you've got to meet them in their cars on the radio.

Ann Richards is a former governor of the state of Texas, serving one term from 1991-1995. She currently works as a consultant, as well as serving on several corporate boards.