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Ann Richards, Former Texas Governor, Dies at 73

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Ann Richards, the sharp-witted former Texas governor who became a household name with a Democratic convention speech poking fun at George H.W. Bush, then lost her seat to his son, died today. She was 73.

Richards died at home in Austin at about 7:50 p.m. local time, said her spokesman, Bill Maddox. She was diagnosed on March 8 with cancer of the esophagus at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"She overcame every bad thing she had until this one," said Maddox, who knew Richards for three decades, in a telephone interview. "We're all terribly shocked by her death."

Richards, instantly recognizable with her pouf of white hair, was the 45th Texas governor, from 1991-95, after serving terms as state treasurer, from 1983-1991, and as Travis County commissioner.

She grew to national prominence as the keynote speaker of the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where Michael Dukakis received the party's nomination. Painting herself as a true Texan, Richards blasted the elder Bush, then seeking the Republican nomination as Ronald Reagan's vice president.

In her pointed and often humorous speech, Richards's refrain was that "poor George" couldn't help his blunders: "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Four years later, Richards was chair of the convention where Bill Clinton was nominated.

Then a little-known Travis County commissioner, Richards burst onto the Texas political scene in 1982 when she was elected state treasurer in a Democratic sweep of statewide offices.

Governor Nomination

In 1990, Richards won the Democratic nomination for governor over state attorney general Jim Mattox and former governor Mark White, before narrowly defeating millionaire rancher Clayton Williams. Williams' campaign was marked with gaffes, but public opinion turned in Richards's favor when he refused to shake her hand at a Dallas luncheon in full view of television cameras, violating an unwritten Texas code of gentlemanly conduct.

During her four years as governor, Richards developed a reputation as an effective and compassionate reformer, fighting for expanded rights for women and minorities. She set to work immediately streamlining the government and revitalizing Texas' corporate infrastructure.

Richards fought to reform the education system in Texas, attempting to decentralize it and establishing the Texas state lottery as a means to fund the public schools.

Texas Prisons

She also set out to change the Texas prison system by creating inmate substance abuse programs and by releasing fewer violent criminals.

As the 1994 gubernatorial race, began the popular but often controversial Richards was considered by many to be a shoo-in against her inexperienced Republican candidate, George W. Bush. Still, Richards could not fight back a marked rightward shift in the state and lost the election with less than 46 percent of the vote.

She maintained a prominent life in politics after leaving the governor's office in January 1995. As a senior adviser in the Austin, Texas, office of the law and public relations firm Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson & Hand, Richards lobbied Congress on behalf of women suing over side effects from breast implants.

Richards drew the ire of many Democrats when she lobbied the Clinton administration on behalf of tobacco companies for a settlement that would protect the industry from certain lawsuits.

She left Verner Liipfert to open the New York City office of Public Strategies in 2001 and worked for the lobbying firm as a senior adviser.

In High Demand

She remained in high demand in Democratic and feminist circles, commanding appearance fees of upwards of $15,000 for her engaging oratory.

Born Dorothy Ann Willis on Sept. 1, 1933, she was the only child of a deliveryman for a pharmaceutical company. Her family moved from Lakeview, Texas to nearby Waco so that she could attend a big-city high school. At Waco High School, she dropped Dorothy from her name, believing it to be too countrified.

Later, she attended Baylor University in Waco and went on to earn a teaching certificate from the University of Texas at Austin. She went on to teach history and social studies at Fulmore Junior High School.

She met her future husband, David Richards, while in high school, where during her junior year Richards was selected as a delegate to the girls' state mock government in Austin.

Richards and her husband divorced while she was still Travis County commissioner.

Osteoporosis

In 1996, Richards announced she had developed osteoporosis, the bone-weakening disease, and wrote about her experiences with the condition in her 2003 book "I'm Not Slowing Down—Winning My Battle With Osteoporosis."

She was one of the first high-profile elected officials to admit she was a recovering alcoholic and that she had sought treatment. She said she stopped drinking in 1980, though she was repeatedly dogged by questions about her addiction during her first campaign for governor. In her 1989 book, "Straight from the Heart," Richards discussed her alcoholism.

On March 8, Richards announced that she had squamus cell cancer, which affects the upper area of the esophagus, after returning home from a trip to India because she had an unpleasant sensation in her chest.

About 14,500 people are diagnosed with esophageal cancer each year in the U.S. and the survival rate is about 14 percent over five years, about the same as lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The cancer is three to four times more common among men than women and is commonly associated with prolonged alcohol or tobacco use.

Esophageal cancer is one of the more painful because it inhibits swallowing in its victims and leads to rapid weight loss as a result.

Richards is survived by her four children.