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Women Tighten Political Grip Deep in the Heart of Texas


FRONTIER Texans used to say their heat-baked country was a great place for men and dogs, but tough on women and horses. Today, down at city hall at least, it's women who call the tune. Supporters of Texas Treasurer Ann Richards's race for governor say it's a good sign that the mayors of six of the state's largest cities, including Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, are women.

``When you ask if that's going to help Ann Richards and her bid for the governorship, I can't help but think it will,'' says Marilyn Rickman, chairman of the Texas Women's Political Caucus. ``The voters think, well, women really can do it. And they're good at it.''

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Karl Rove, the state's leading Republican political consultant, disagrees that the election of women mayors in the state's largest cities translates into better opportunities for women seeking statewide office.

``I don't think it means anything,'' he says. ``Texas is a semifrontier state. We have been more willing than the rest of the country to elect women we feel have the right qualifications, the right experience, and the right approach.''

Thus it remains to be seen what the success of Texas' new bevy of female municipal leaders really means to Ms. Richards, a dynamic, witty grandmother referred to by President Bush as ``that lady with all the hair.''

The Texas Women's Political Caucus reports there are 76 women mayors in Texas as a whole, and 2,500 women holding city or county offices across the state. ``Women are more aggressive in seeking those positions now. And I think there are a lot more support groups to help women run,'' Ms. Rickman says.

On the other hand, Richards, who won media stardom when she delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, is the first woman to be elected to statewide office in 50 years.

Only 10 percent of the Texas Legislature is female. No women serve in the Texas congressional delegation. The only woman to have won a major statewide office before Richards was Miriam (Ma) Ferguson, voted into the governor's chair in 1924. She was elected after her husband, Gov. James E. (Pa) Ferguson, was impeached so that ``Pa'' could remain in power.

``The sudden plethora of women mayors in the state seems to me more a happy coincidence than a significant breakthrough,'' says Texas political columnist and humorist Molly Ivins, a longtime friend of Richards.

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Ms. Ivins and others say that women in Texas have been accepted for a number of years in local politics. They say the success of today's women mayors has been built on years of work by those who paid their dues in volunteer organizations, beautification campaigns, school boards, and by holding down less prestigious jobs like county treasurer.

``Texas breeds an extraordinarily virulent strain of sexism, everything from the machismo of Chicano culture to the jock idolatry of a state where football is our religion,'' Ivins says. ``Women can progress to a certain point encountering relatively little discrimination, and then they walk into this absolute wall of it.''

``The last time I checked, there's still a lot more men candidates than women,'' says Ed Martin, executive director of the Democratic Party of Texas. ``In the Legislature, let's face it, there's still a good-old-boy network - though some good old gals have been mighty effective.''

Mr. Martin says he believes women have won mayoral elections in Texas' largest cities simply because they were better qualified and more attractive to voters. Just coincidentally, Martin mentions that all six have been affiliated at one time or another with the Democratic Party.

They include Kathy Whitmire, four-term mayor of Houston who has held office since 1981; Lila Cockrell, San Antonio mayor from 1975 to 1981, who was reelected to succeed Henry Cisneros; Annette Strauss, serving her second term in Dallas; Suzie Azar of El Paso; Betty Turner of Corpus Christi; and Ruth Nicholson of Garland, Texas' ninth-largest city.

Fund raising has become an uphill battle for any candidate in Texas in the wake of the oil and real-estate bust. Though there are signs that times are changing, women candidates still have a tougher time attracting the big money.``But Ann Richards as state treasurer is in a unique position. She knows every banker in the state,'' Ivins says.

What's more, the bankers know her. Richards has won the respect of the state's conservative banking industry by modernizing a highly inefficient and old-fashioned state treasury.

The GOP's Mr. Rove says he doubts gender will be a deciding factor in Richards's gubernatorial race. ``What works to her advantage is that she's a woman, and what works to her disadvantage is that she's a liberal,'' Rove says. ``None of those women candidates for mayor ran as liberals. They ran as good managers or people people.''

Richards's campaign manager, Glenn Smith, dismisses that analysis. He says Richards's ``fiscally conservative record at the state treasury shows her to be a mainstream Texas Democrat.''

One of Richards's problems may be that she and her chief Democratic rival, Attorney General Jim Mattox, spring from the same political roots, with ties to minorities, labor, and the Democratic Party's progressive movement. Conservatives see them as likely to split the liberal vote.

If Richards can stave off the challenge by Mr. Mattox and former Gov. Mark White in the primary, she could face a formidable GOP opponent in a state where Republicans are growing more powerful every year.

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