Richards graduated from high school in 1950 and attended Baylor University where she received a B.A. in 1954. While at Baylor, Ann Willis married David Richards in 1953. The couple moved to Austin where David Richards attended law school at the University of Texas and Ann taught government at Fulmore Junior High School. Upon David Richards' graduation from law school, they spent a year in Washington D.C. before moving to Dallas, where David practiced law and Ann became active in Democratic politics in Dallas. Their family grew to include four children: Cecile, Dan, Clark, and Ellen. In 1969 the Richards family returned to Austin where David became a labor and civil rights attorney. Ann became involved in local politics and successfully managed the legislative campaigns of both Sarah Weddington (1972) and Wilhelmina Delco (1974). Weddington later presented the oral arguments to the United States Supreme Court in Roe v Wade (1973). Delco was the first African American to represent Austin in the Texas Legislature. Richards also served as Sarah Weddington's administrative assistant in the Texas House of Representatives.
In 1976 David Richards declined a request from the Travis County Democratic leadership to challenge three-term Travis County commissioner Johnny Voudouris in the party's primary election. In David's stead, with her husband's encouragement, Ann Richards won the Democratic nomination for county commissioner and became the first woman elected to that office in Travis County. In 1980 Richards was elected to a second term. In 1982 she entered the statewide race for state treasurer and was not only the first woman to serve in that office, but also was the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas since Miriam Ferguson's successful gubernatorial race in 1932. During this time, Ann Richards and David Richards divorced, and she sought and completed treatment for alcoholism in 1980.
Ann Richards's keynote speech to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta brought her national attention when she said of the wealthy, then vice president of the United States, George H.W. Bush: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." In 1990 Gov. William Clements decided to leave office at the end of his term, and Richards entered the primary campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a three-way race with Atty. Gen. Jim Mattox and former governor Mark White. In a bruising campaign, Mattox attacked Richards for substance abuse problems beyond her acknowledged alcoholism. Richards won the nomination and defeated the Republican nominee, Clayton Williams, by narrow margin on November 6, 1990.
As governor, Ann Richards led the reform of the Texas prison system, establishing a substance abuse program for inmates, reducing the number of violent offenders released, and increasing prison space to deal with a growing prison population (from less than 60,000 in 1992 to more than 80,000 in 1994). During her term, Governor Richards signed into law the amendment to the Texas Financial Responsibility Law-an act in which motor vehicle registration renewal, as well as initial registration of a new-purchased vehicle, safety inspection sticker, driver's license, and license plates, required that the applicant have a valid auto insurance policy. The Texas Lottery also was instituted during her term of office; Ann Richards purchased the first lottery ticket on May 29, 1992, in the Austin suburb of Oak Hill. Public school finance was a key issue during Richards's term of office, and the "Robin Hood Plan" was launched during the 1992-1993 biennium in the attempt to make school funding more equitable by having wealthier school districts remit property taxes to the state for redistribution to poorer school districts. Governor Richards also vetoed the Concealed Carry Bill that would have permitted licensed citizens to carry firearms for self-defense inside public establishments without the owner's permission. She was asked, in the midst of the controversy, whether the women of Texas might feel safer if they could carry guns in their purses. The governor replied, "Well, I'm not a sexist, but there is not a woman in this state who could find a gun in her handbag, much less a lipstick."
Ann Richards was defeated in 1994 by the Republican George W. Bush and before leaving office, she said, "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.'"
Ann Richards was a political consultant in the years after leaving office. She was the recipient of a number of awards for her years of service, including the Texas NAACP Presidential Award for Outstanding Contributions to Civil Rights, the National Wildlife Federation Conservation Achievement Award, and the Mexican government's Order of the Aztec Eagle. She was also honored by the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. From 1997 to 1998 Richards served as the Fred and Rita Richman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Politics at Brandeis University. In 2003 she coauthored, with Dr. Richard U. Levine, I'm Not Slowing Down: Winning My Battle With Osteoporosis, a book about her experience with that disease. She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in March 2006 and died at home in Austin on September 13, 2006, surrounded by her family. She was buried in the Texas State Cemetery. In August 2007 the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, an all-girl preparatory school, opened in Austin.
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Texas State Cemetery