Shattered Icon

Living Legend Ann Richards Steps Off the Pedestal

illustration by Doug Potter

Times change. So do liberal icons. Four years ago, Ann Richards was an icon, a role model for housewives, recovering alcoholics, divorced mothers, and others who saw themselves as hopeless or helpless. Boosted by a tart tongue and a sassy personality, Richards shot through the ranks, becoming the first woman to be elected governor since Ma Ferguson in 1935. And even better, while doing so, she beat a millionaire redneck from West Texas who just couldn't keep his fool mouth shut. For nearly a quadrennium, it was a charmed life.

Then in 1994, she lost to George W. Bush. After the defeat, she did some public speaking and made a Doritos commercial with former New York governor Mario Cuomo. But unlike many other former governors of Texas who were independently wealthy, Richards needed a job. So less than three months after losing to Bush, at age 61, she joined Verner Liipfert, Bernhard McPherson & Hand, one of Washington's most prominent law firms, and began working as a lobbyist.

Today, Ann Richards, former liberal icon, makes an estimated $385 per hour representing Big Tobacco, railroads, weapons makers, and a company that wants to fill one of the largest and most biologically significant wetlands in the Northeast. Is this merely a case of a former politician trying to make a living? Or is there something unsavory about an icon cashing in on her progressive reputation to help corporations linked to some of the very issues she once decried?

Ann Richards wants to build a mega-mall in a protected New Jersey wetland area.

Austin to Hackensack

In 1988, in her speech to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Richards said that the GOP was wrong to "belittle us for demanding clean air and clean water, for trying to save the oceans and the ozone layer."

In her 1989 announcement speech for her successful gubernatorial run, she declared, "We need to give [children] a Texas where the air is as clear as a West Texas sky... where the water is as pure and plentiful as it is in the Hill Country spring..."

Today, Richards is lobbying on behalf of the Mills Corporation, which wants to erect a mega-mall on 206 acres of the Hackensack River wetlands, a short distance east of the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (See map.) The project, which Mills has christened "Meadowlands Mills," would contain 2.1 million square feet of retail space and be the largest mall in New Jersey. Mills, a publicly traded company that has malls near Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles, plans to open its newest mall, Grapevine Mills, near Dallas, on October 30. It is also working on a project called Katy Mills, west of Houston.

One man who thinks Richards should stick with what she knows -- and stay in her own backyard -- is Bill Sheehan, the official Riverkeeper of the Hackensack River, which flows through the wetlands where the Mills mall would be located. Sheehan has spent his entire life on the river, and he remembers the way it used to be. Tagging along with his father, who worked as a barge captain at the Port of New York in the Fifties and Sixties, Sheehan would clamber aboard the barge in Hoboken and stand beside his father as he piloted it to ports in Queens and Brooklyn. He remembers the longshoremen drinking boilermakers in the morning and the bustling harbor, crowded with dozens of freighters and ocean liners. But more than anything, he recalls how polluted the water was and how no one in their right mind would have fished the Hudson Bay or the Hackensack River.

"It was not a hospitable place from an aesthetic point of view because the waterways were in such bad shape," recalls Sheehan, adding that cities in the region were dumping untreated sewage and industrial waste directly into the waterways. "If I was playing in or around the Hackensack River and would go home, my mom would nail me on the spot," says Sheehan. "I could never figure it out. But it was the stink coming off my clothes."

When he rode the barge with his father, only a half-dozen species of fish could be found in the Hudson Bay. Today, there are more than 50 species. Sheehan knows them all. "It's the only estuary on the East Coast that has a full complement of the fishes that were here in Colonial times," says Sheehan, who points out that increasing environmental awareness coupled with new clean water laws have had a dramatic impact on the health of the bay.

As the new Hackensack Riverkeeper, the 48-year-old former rock and roll drummer and taxicab dispatcher has dedicated himself to protecting the waterways he has known all his life. His job as Riverkeeper is a full-time position, which requires him to educate schoolchildren and visitors about the river and the wetlands. He is also charged with fending off threats to the river.

And right now, according to Sheehan, the biggest threat is posed by one of Ann Richards' clients. Sheehan says that Richards' magnetic personality and green credentials will make his job of protecting the water tougher than usual. "Our regulators, the paid stewards for our resources, are going to be cowed into granting permits that are not in the public interest because a high-powered ex-politician from Texas has gotten involved in something she knows nothing about," he fumes.

At the Meadowlands site, Mills has promised to refurbish 380 acres of nearby marshes in exchange for being allowed to fill the 206 acres of wetlands. But before Mills will be allowed to put 2.5 million cubic yards of fill material in the Hackensack wetlands -- an amount that would completely fill the Houston Astrodome -- it will have to get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Richards' job is to push Mills' position before the Corps and a smorgasbord of state and federal agencies that have a say in the project. The agencies include the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The agencies are trying to work through what's known as a Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) that will determine the future use of the Hackensack wetlands and provide a growth plan for the 14 towns in the Meadowlands region.

But Richards faces an array of well-organized environmental groups who have the backing of the 25-year-old Clean Water Act, and, it appears, several federal agencies. Bill Cahill, an attorney at the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing a host of environmental organizations including New Jersey Audubon, the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers, the American Littoral Society and others, says if Richards succeeds in pushing the mall project through, it will "be the largest fill of estuarian wetlands in the Northeast since the passage of the Clean Water Act."

Both U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries' Service (NMFS) have expressed concern about the project. On November 24, 1996, Andrew A. Rosenberg, the regional administrator for the NMFS, sent a letter to Colonel Gary Thomas of the New York district office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saying, "We must conclude that the proposed project will have a substantial and unacceptable impact to aquatic resources of national importance. We recommend that the permit for this project be denied."

"My gut reaction was, how dare [Ann Richrds] come into my estuary and tell me what's good for my river."
--Hackensack Riverkeeper
Bill Sheenan
photograph by Don Smith

Karen Greene, a biologist at NMFS, explains that under the rules of the Clean Water Act, Mills must be able to show that the mall cannot reasonably be located elsewhere. So far, Greene says, the company hasn't done that. "This is an extremely large development project that doesn't appear to have any justifiable purpose and need," said Greene. "And we are not willing to sacrifice those wetlands for this project."

In addition to resistance at the federal level, the mall is opposed by Bobby Kennedy, Jr., a law professor at Pace University in New York and legal adviser to the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers. Kennedy, a prominent advocate of environmental causes, says the Hackensack wetlands are "a fish flesh factory. It produces more fish per gallon, more pounds of fish per acre than any other water body on earth." Kennedy argues that New Jersey, which has already lost nearly 40,000 acres of wetlands, has lots of decaying urban areas that would be glad to have a development like the one that Mills is planning. "There's plenty of space for this project," says Kennedy. "You don't have to build it in a wetland."

The Chronicle called Mills officials repeatedly over the past week seeking comment about the project's location. The calls were not returned.

For Sheehan, the fight is about turf. When he heard that Richards was going to be working for the mall development, Sheehan says, "My gut reaction was, `How dare she come into my estuary and tell me what's good for my river?'"

"From what I understand there are enough environmental problems in Texas to keep her busy for the rest of her life."

Richards refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.

Asked to comment on the Meadowlands project after a speech she gave at the University of Texas on August 27, Richards refused to say whether or not the project was good for the environment. However, Richards did confirm that she has met with Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner. "I have talked to Carol Browner, not about the specific project, but about whether or not they are going to get their SAMP [Special Area Management Plan]," said Richards. "Frankly, I don't know when that's going to happen. All of that is under the aegis of the Corps of Engineers. So what the Mills Corporation wants -- and what they frankly deserve -- is for the governmental entities to decide what they are going to do with the property. And if the property is going to be commercially developed, they want the opportunity to do that."

From the Mansion to the Lobby

"Ann Richards has always had a deep-seated fear that she would be broke," says one former member of her administration. "She didn't have another career. She was always a politician, a housewife, or a public speaker. She had a fear that she would end up elderly and poor. Her state pension as governor isn't much, it's maybe $30,000 or $40,000 a year. She's not by any standards a wealthy woman. My guess is she looked around, and thought `I can lobby, not in Texas, but in Washington. I can do that and be highly compensated.'"

The official is ambivalent about Richards' new job. "It shocks me sometimes to see Richards is lobbying for Philip Morris," said the official. "People in her place are held to high standards when they are in office. When they leave office, should they be held to those same high standards?" Richards isn't the first ex-politico to find financial solace in the lobby. But she is perhaps the highest profile and easily the most charismatic Texan now working the halls of Washington. And that makes her a desirable commodity.

The fact that Richards is working for weapons makers like Textron and McDonnell Douglas isn't overly surprising given that those companies both have considerable operations in Texas. Her work for tobacco companies may be awkward, but there is nothing from her history as governor that indicates a position on tobacco or smoking issues. When it comes to environmental issues, however, there is a wealth of information to compare Richards' current activities on behalf of Mills with her positions while on the campaign trail. In August of 1990, while running against Clayton Williams, Richards issued "an environmental agenda for the new Texas." In the introduction to the 24-page plan, Richards says, "I have always worked to protect our environment." And she adds, "My commitment to the environment has not changed, nor will it change when I am in the Governor's Office."

On page 19 of the agenda, Richards critiqued the "revolving door" at the Texas Water Commission saying, "Questions have been raised about the influence of lawyers and lobbyists over the environmental protection role of the Commission."

And while her position on lobbyists is interesting, the sharpest contrast comes from her proposal for an "Environmental SWAT Team" in which Richards pledged to "Target High Priority Cases." The first two items: "Protect Water Supplies" and "Prevent Destruction of Wetlands."

Sold Out or Just Renting?

By all accounts, Richards likes her new job. "She's having the time of her life," says Jack Gullahorn, a former lobbyist who now works out public strategies and considers himself a friend of Richards. "She's finding the lobbying to be fascinating. She's pretty well adapted to it, which isn't true for a lot of former politicians. I hope she's making a whole bunch of money, traveling a lot..."

Gullahorn said that Richards appears to be well-suited to lobbying and therefore, she is in demand.

A spokesperson for the Mills Corporation, Susan Goyette, said her company didn't seek out Richards. "It has nothing to do with the fact that she is from Texas," said Goyette. "She is with Verner Liipfert and they are here in Washington."

Perhaps Richards' new career at Verner Liipfert doesn't have anything to do with being liberal or conservative. Instead, she has -- like many other former politicos -- simply followed the money. Bob Dole, the former Republican presidential nominee, is one of many recent hires at Verner Liipfert, the de facto retirement home for the U.S. Senate. In addition to former majority leader Dole, who is making $600,000 per year according to the National Law Journal, the firm's stable of retired senators includes Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and former majority leader George Mitchell. The $385 per hour Richards was offered must have been awfully tempting considering the fact that, according to Texas Lawyer, an equity partner at a large Texas law firm makes an average of just $286 an hour.

Richards has simply joined the good old boys at one of Washington's poshest law firms. And by doing so, she's shown that she can still succeed in a man's world, whether it's by running for and becoming governor, or by representing Conrail, Mills, and Lockheed.

And it's still difficult.

After all, Richards helped define the Democrats in the 1990s. She was the one who pummeled former president George Bush in front of the 1988 Democratic National Convention with the line: "Poor George, he can't help it, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth." She was the woman who helped launch EMILY's (Early Money Is Like Yeast) List, the female-oriented fundraising machine which helped women secure elected office in several states.

Richards was different. Unlike Ferguson, who got into politics after her husband, former Gov. Jim Ferguson, was denied a place on the ballot in 1924, Richards made it all on her own. She was a politician that people believed in. She wasn't born to it, like George W. Bush. She wasn't rich like Claytie Williams or Ross Perot. Richards was a real person. One of us.

And now she's one of them, just another lobbyist working for special interests.

Yet her legend as a straight-talking woman with a spine of steel lives on. A recent advertisement for a lecture series features her along with poet Maya Angelou and scientist Jane Goodall, and lists her "high standards" and "strong convictions" as the reason she has become a "national star." Maybe it's time to discard our icons altogether and retire the labels of conservative and liberal. After all, former Christian Coalition boss Ralph Reed is now selling software. But there's a difference between Reed and Richards. Reed is selling a product called Clean Net that is supposed to prevent kids from accessing pornography on the Internet. Richards, on the other hand, appears to be hawking whatever comes her way, regardless of its political baggage.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, says that Richards is "trading on her trust and her reputation as a spokesperson for liberal causes." The impression, Smitty says, is that "these companies must be good guys or Ann wouldn't be lobbying for them."

Smitty acknowledges that Richards and other former government officials have to be able to make a living once they leave office. "But," he adds, "there are ways you can make money and keep your principles."

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