Ann Richards smiles as she speaks at a microphone.

Ann Richards’ Legacy Is a Light for Dark Times

The "One Ann Only," a new collection of photographs and quotes, captures the unforgettable singularity of Texas’ last Democratic governor.

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There’s a little thrift store in North Austin that has a blue sun-faded Ann Richards yard sign in the window. If you were to inquire, as I did, if the sign was for sale, you’d be politely told “no”—it’s as much a part of the store as the pride flag hanging in the window above clusters of ceramic knickknacks. The store owner did, however, show me another piece of Texas history, a black-and-white photograph under the checkout counter’s plate glass of Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, and George H. W. Bush.  

As we gazed down at the photo, I was struck by Richards’ magnetic hold on people. Perhaps her heaps of charisma, a quality generally lacking in Texas politicians today, is what captures the eye. Or perhaps it’s that she represents a more hopeful time when Democrats stood a fighting chance. Whatever the key to her allure, Ann Richards’ spirit lives on. And what better time to appreciate her legacy than now with the release of The One Ann Only: Wit and Wisdom from Texas Governor Ann Richards.  

Compiled by The Ann Richards Legacy Project, The One Ann Only contains more than eighty photographs, some alongside her sharpest quotes. With a vibrant laminated cover, a white ribbon, and high-quality Forest Stewardship Council paper that makes the images pop, the book feels coffee table-worthy. It includes a foreword by Sarah Bird, a timeline of Richards’ life, and an afterword by Mary Beth Rogers. Overall, The One Ann Only is light on text—readers looking for a substantive biography or critical policy overview will have to look elsewhere. Instead, the book’s strength lies in its stellar photography.

When I spoke with Margaret Justus, founder of The Ann Richards Legacy Project, who served as Richards’ deputy press secretary, she said she envisioned a book that would reach fans as well as teachers, students, people in recovery, and anyone who might not be familiar with Texas’ 45th governor. Justus expressed concern that newer generations don’t know who Ann Richards is—a fate all too common for women in politics whose legacies get slowly, meticulously erased.

Book Cover: The One Ann Only: Wit and Wisdom from Texas Governor Ann Richards
Available for order from UT Press

The One Ann Only is a visual love letter to Richards fans, and an open-door welcome for fans-to-be. Readers will likely feel an impulse to start calling her “Ann.” Regardless of the photographer, be it Pam Francis, Ave Bonar, or Annie Leibowitz, there’s something engrossing about each photograph in the book, perhaps because it doesn’t seem possible to take a bad picture of Richards—she’s that photogenic. Her laughter, her facial expressions, and her commanding presence at a podium all lend a sense of familiarity to her air of mystery. Here’s a woman, impeccably coiffed, and there’s no anticipating what she’ll say. 

Flip to page 43, and there’s an image of Richards, standing tall in what looks to be a tense conversation with Jim Mattox, her Democratic primary opponent in 1990. The accompanying quote reads, “I’ve been tested by fire and the fire lost.” Flip to page 75, and there she is at a table with Barbara Jordan, saying something that makes Jordan crack up. Whatever it is, readers will sense it’s both piercingly funny and cuttingly true. 

Richards’ humor was key to her political success. Her best quips point out the obvious but overlooked, for example: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” It won’t be lost on readers that Richards, too, performed under the watchful eyes of many who wanted to see her fall. 

As Sarah Bird’s heartfelt foreword points out, “Ann was both our last female governor and for three long decades the last Democrat elected to [the] office.” Not since 1976, when Jimmy Carter won over Texans, has a Democratic presidential candidate prevailed here. Bird adds: “[A]s I write this, the ink is still drying on the voter suppression bill that the current occupant of the statehouse signed just minutes ago.” 

The book makes clear that Richards’ success didn’t arise from thin air. Her upbringing paved the way for the captivating speaker she became. By age 16, she attended Girls State, the annual mock legislative assembly, and was chosen to represent Texas delegates in Washington, D.C. Speaking of her father’s influence, Richards said, “I have always had the feeling I could do anything, and my dad told me I could. I was in college before I found out he might be wrong.” Deeply invested in empowering future generations, she helped create the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in 2006—the same year she died of esophageal cancer. 

I found that sitting with The One Ann Only in my lap, absorbed by the pictures and quotes, that what the book offers—through Ann’s wide smile—is an aura of hope. Perhaps current and future Democratic candidates will take a few notes from her playbook, cultivating a genuineness, approachability, and candor that cuts through rote stump speeches and offer voters something singular, honest, and real.