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Former Ann Richards campaign manager says maintaining hope is key to surviving Texas politics

Rogerslegestaff
Courtesy of Mary Beth Rogers
Gov. Ann Richards (left), legislative director Jim Parker (standing) and Mary Beth Rogers (right) work through a weekend in the governor’s office to review bills passed by the state legislature during Richards’ first year in office. Rogers was Richards' campaign manager in 1990 and then chief of staff.

Early voting begins Monday in the 2022 midterm election.

Texas Democrats are hoping to recapture any statewide office for the first time in 28 years. The last time Texas elected a Democratic governor was 32 years ago.

Mary Beth Rogers was on the front lines when that happened. She was campaign manager for Ann Richards' successful run for governor of Texas in 1990 and then served as Richards' first chief of staff. Rogers was riding a wave of what she calls "relatively progressive politics in Texas" at the time but soon ran headlong into the shifting demographic and political winds.

Her hopes collided with some hard truths.

Hence the name of Rogers' recent book Hope and Hard Truth: A Life in Texas Politics. In it, Rogers chronicles her life in and out of politics, though she admits, for her, the two were often inseparable.

Listen to the KUT interview with Rogers above or read the transcript below to hear why she thinks anyone who wants to win in Texas politics needs "a whole lot of damn good luck."

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT'S Jennifer Stayton: Your book is called Hope and Hard Truth. Where did that come from?

Mary Beth Rogers: Hope, I think, becomes part of our survival mechanism. If we can maintain hope within a basis of reality, if we can use that hope to project into some sort of future that we would like to see, it can give us energy to move ahead through whatever obstacles we may find. One of the reasons I wanted to go back and explore some of my own experiences was to come to terms with some of those hard truths that I had found along the way and come to peace with them.

Idealists usually have a vision of the world as it should be, but we have to learn to operate in the world as it is while keeping that vision fresh and in the future and as a source of hope for our actions.

What were some of the hard truths that you, with your hope and optimism, encountered when you got into the world of politics?

One of the things that you learn, I think, is that anything that can be done can be undone within a short period of time. And I was lucky enough to come along in an era of relatively progressive politics in Texas. During that progressive era, which culminated when Ann Richards was elected governor in 1990, there were a number of very progressive changes. You began to have greater environmental regulations on hazardous waste disposal. You begin to have greater inspection of nursing homes. You open the major boards and commissions to people who had never had an opportunity before. And then within a few short years, all of that has come undone.

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Courtesy of Mary Beth Rogers
Mary Beth Rogers (left) Ann Richards (right) near the end of Richards' life in 2006. Rogers and Richards were friends for more than 35 years.

Ann Richards got elected in 1990. You spearheaded that election. You played a big part in it. You and the Ann Richards campaign accomplished something that has not been done much at all in the decades since, and that's getting a Democrat elected to statewide office. How did you all do that?

It was a unique time. The demographic changes always play a role in a major party election. They're not necessarily a predictor. But you have to understand what's going on.

The Democrats won that election and won every statewide office at that time, with certain exceptions. But you were beginning to see a shift in the suburbs and major Texas cities to an active Republican Party. You had a growing Republican presence.

The other thing that was just beginning to happen that culminated by the time we got around in 1994 is that Democrats had always had a pretty strong base in East Texas. The Civil Rights Act, affirmative action, some of those very progressive issues that opened the doors to people in politics generated a reaction among extremely conservative and racist voters who had always been part of the Democratic Party. And they began to make that shift to the Republican Party. So we in 1990 were probably the last wave of the Democratic trend in Texas, and it began to drift more into the Republican column after that.

We're talking on the cusp of early voting, on the cusp of the 2022 midterm elections and a gubernatorial race in Texas. I imagine a lot of folks would be interested to hear from you with your experience and vantage point: Is it possible to recreate that, or is Texas just on a course for more of the same moving forward?

One of the things I've learned in my years in politics is not to make predictions. So I'm not going to make a prediction about what happens on Nov. 8. There are very significant changes underway. Whether those changes will provoke a tipping point in November, I'm not sure.

I want to point to something you wrote in the book that I thought was so interesting about elections and campaigns. You wrote: "It took a long time for Texas liberals like me to learn that effective campaigns are always a call to arms. If we wanted to win, we had to have better weapons, better reconnaissance of the terrain, and more strategic battle plans. We also needed a whole lot of damn good luck."

I think that's still true. And you need good, solid candidates who are not so ego-driven that they do not look at the boundary conditions within which they have to operate. The battlefield is still a pretty vicious terrain in the state of Texas, and it takes a lot to get over that. It does take damn good luck.

If you were in a classroom with some students and they said, "Professor Rogers, what's the biggest political lesson you would like us to know right now?" or, "What's the most important thing for someone who wants to be effective in politics and public policy?" what would you tell them?

I guess the most important thing is to really understand the context in which you're working. What is really going on? Who really holds the power? How are decisions really made? Are they really being made by the person who is the attorney general of the state of Texas? Who is supporting that person? Where does the money come from? So maybe the ultimate advice is: Follow the money. Because money always influences action. Action influences policy. If you really want to get to the bottom of things, look at the sources of financial influence. Sometimes you have to look really hard because it can be disguised. We've got a Supreme Court decision that allows people to actually give money to special purpose committees anonymously. So it's hard to find.

You have to understand what is really going on and always look beneath the surface.

If you found this reporting valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.
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