After a Mudslinging Primary, Victor Ann Richards Sets Her Sights on the Lone Star Statehouse

updated 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sitting in the living room of her Austin home, wearing a demure blue dress, hair drawn up in a silver pouf, a brace of cats purring at her side, Ann Richards is living proof that appearances can be dangerously deceptive. She seems, well, like somebody's grandmother. And she is. But Richards, 56, is also a hard-nosed Texas politician, the mud-spattered victor in a run-off for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that, even by Lone Star standards, was so ferocious and ugly it made grown Marlboro men blush.

IT'S RICHARDS IN A MUDSLIDE blared the banner headline of the Houston Post, declaring that the self-deprecating woman with the beguiling sense of humor had won over 57 percent of the vote in her slop-fest with State Attorney General Jim Mattox. Indeed, so squalid was the campaign, in which the candidates avoided the issues and dwelt on each other's foibles, that for the first time in memory the Post declined to endorse a candidate.

Mattox, 46, probably heaved the first mud pie back in September, when he reminded voters that Richards received treatment for problem drinking in 1980. There's no such thing as a cured drunk, Mattox maintained, citing Richards's own description of herself as a "recovering alcoholic." Things only got uglier when the topic shifted to drugs. Just before the primary that narrowed the field to Richards and Mattox, a reporter asked Richards if she had ever used illegal substances. She refused to answer, saying her silence would help other addicts know they could get treatment, then get on with life without having to relive the past. Her primary opponents—then including former Gov. Mark White as well as Mattox—quickly stated they had never used drugs. In a trice, the central issue of the campaign became: Who used drugs, and when?

Soon Mattox was saying he had evidence that Richards had abused cocaine as well as alcohol and that he had affidavits to back his claim, although he never produced them. Not long afterward, a former Dallas vice officer and a Houston lawyer signed affidavits for the Dallas Morning News claiming they had seen Mattox smoke pot on two occasions, a charge he strongly denied. The race turned from morality play to opera buffa as ever more outrageous accusations were hurled between the rival camps. Richards squeaked to victory, apparently convincing the public that her rival was a bully.

Tenacious and resilient, Ann Willis Richards was reared during the Depression in the tiny central Texas town of Lakeview, outside Waco. Neither of her parents, a truck driver and a housewife, had much education. But the Willises scrimped and saved to give their daughter lessons in everything from piano to elocution. Ann won a debate scholarship to Baylor University, where she married, at age 19, high school sweetheart David Richards. They had four children: Cecile, now 32, Dan, 30, Clark, 27, and Ellen, 25.

For years Ann operated in David's shadow, teaching school, raising the kids, while he practiced law. Then, in 1972, after working on a friend's state legislature campaign, she decided to run herself. She won a seat on the Travis County Commission in 1976. Six years later she ran for Texas treasurer, becoming the first woman in 50 years to hold statewide office. She was reelected handily in 1986.

But there was a downside to her rise. Along the way her marriage began to disintegrate, and Ann began to drink. "I was screaming for someone to help me, rescue me," she wrote in her 1989 autobiography, Straight from the Heart. "I thought I would die if I were not married to Dave Richards." Finally, on Sept. 27, 1980, a group of Ann's friends, along with Dave and the two older children, confronted her: One by one they recounted how Ann's drinking had hurt them. That day Richards entered a Minneapolis treatment center. Later that year she and Dave separated, divorcing in 1984.

Richards now lives alone in a light-filled home near the University of Texas campus. She is often in the company of her children and grandchildren and enjoys going to the movies. But her time between now and Election Day will be at a premium. This week she begins campaigning against her Republican opponent, Clayton Williams, 58, a folksy, archconservative Midland oilman with a $250 million fortune. Claytie, as Williams is known, has vowed not to resurrect the drug-use issue, perhaps in part because his son, Clayton Wade, 19, spent 14 months in rehab to overcome his own drug problems. If the contest does come down to issues, not insults, no one will be happier than the people of Texas.

—William Plummer, Anne Maier in Houston

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