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It’s possible that Lily Adams’ political baptism at a Baylor University homecoming parade is what most prepared the Democratic operative for the tone of the Trump era.
Dressed in a red, white and blue dress, she tried in earnest to charm the crowds from a ’57 Ford pickup truck. One angry parade-goer remained less than delighted and wanted her to know it. He marched up to her makeshift float, got in her face and gave her the middle finger.
It was 1990. And she was a 3-year-old.
Appalling at the time, the story now evokes amused howls among her friends in Democratic social circles. At 32, Adams is known first in Washington as a reserved but talented operative who is going places and a top aide to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign. The subheadline to her professional persona: She is former Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ granddaughter.
“She had a huge impact on Lily. They were very close,” said Adams’ mother, former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, who described the Baylor incident in her memoir. “I feel like I was the genetic link between Lily and her grandmother.”
These three women comprise a most rare American development: a three-generation political matriarchy. While there are prominent men in the Richards family, including Adams’ union-organizing father, Kirk Adams, the women are the dominant forces in this Texas clan. And as Ann Richards’ first-born grandchild, Adams was uniquely close to her grandmother. She is the only member of her generation to be professionally involved in politics, but she declined to comment for this story.
“I’m a grandmother now.”
For Texans of a certain era, Adams was once as familiar as the Gerber baby.
From the moment Richards stepped on an Atlanta stage to deliver the 1988 Democratic National Convention keynote speech, Adams was there and part of the story.
Richards was state treasurer at the time. Her speech in the middle of the presidential election was one of the most devastating takedowns in American political rhetoric and is widely considered to be one of the greatest convention speeches ever. It included faxed-in contributions from Adams’ namesake, actress Lily Tomlin, and it’s best remembered for Richards’ thunderbolt insults toward then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the GOP nominee for president, and for her gleeful rage at the Reagan administration.
“For eight straight years, George Bush hasn’t displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about,” she said. “And now that he’s after a job that he can’t get appointed to, he’s like Columbus discovering America — he’s found child care, he’s found education.”
“Poor George, he can’t help it — he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
But about 30 minutes into her remarks, Richards’ composure took a turn. For the final three minutes, she was aspirational and tender.
“I’m a grandmother now. And I have one nearly perfect granddaughter named Lily,” she said. “And when I hold that grandbaby, I feel the continuity of life that unites us, that binds generation to generation, that ties us with each other.”
Adams, born 16 months earlier in Los Angeles, where her parents were involved in union organizing, was in the arena.
“I tease her that her public profile peaked at age 1 1/2,” Cecile Richards wrote in her memoir. “That night, Kirk was wandering around the convention hall wearing a homemade button that said ‘Lily’s Dad.’”
Overnight, Ann Richards was a political star. Soon after, the Adams family moved back to Texas to help her run for governor.
Lily Adams was a crucial piece of Richards’ messaging. She was in campaign signage, campaigned as a surrogate with her mother and was a constant companion to her grandmother.
“As early as I can remember, we were campaigning,” Adams said while representing her family in a 2006 memorial for Richards at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin. “I was, I think, about 18 months, and I was a lot older before I realized that most families don’t spend most of their time going to pancake breakfasts in Tyler or Cinco de Mayo parades in Brownsville. But this was part of our life with Mammy.”
Politically, Adams humanized a larger-than-life woman.
“That was part of Ann Richards’ image, was having this granddaughter,” said Holland Taylor, an actress who wrote and performed the Broadway biographical play “Ann,” in which Adams is an off-stage character.
“And the way she related to her was incredibly real,” Taylor added. “Grandmother, darling grandmother, responses.”
Once Richards was elected governor, Adams accompanied her grandmother wherever the presence of a child was appropriate. There were front row seats at Lady Longhorn basketball games with Barbara Jordan. And when Queen Elizabeth II was the first British monarch to visit Texas, it was a 4-year-old Adams who greeted the queen with flowers in the state Capitol rotunda as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” blared in the background.
“Does this mean you don’t have a job anymore?”
Then 1994 happened.
Payback for that keynote speech came when George W. Bush defeated Richards’ reelection bid. Adams was with her grandmother that night. As a 7-year-old, her assignment was to relay precinct returns from a staffer manning the phones to her grandmother.
The numbers were devastating.
“I remember giving her one slip of paper and her saying we lost whatever county it was and me just bursting into tears because I campaigned there. I was there,” Adams said in an interview with the “Party People” podcast. “I think it was like a really tough lesson for … a 7- or 8-year-old to get — that, like, sometimes you can do everything right. You can be there, you can ask for people’s votes, and … it’s just not enough. And that’s just life.”
Cecile Richards later recalled Adams asking her grandmother, “Does this mean you don’t have a job anymore?”
“Honey, this means everybody you know doesn’t have a job,” Ann Richards replied.
For a few years, the Adams-Richards clan stuck around Austin. Kirk Adams and Cecile Richards founded a group called Texas Freedom Network with an aim to counter the religious right movement. By then, the family had grown to five, with the addition of Adams’ younger twin siblings, Hannah and Daniel. Eventually, they moved to Washington, D.C., where Cecile Richards worked for Ted Turner and Jane Fonda’s foundation, was a Capitol Hill staffer to future U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and founded the voting participation group America Votes.
Eventually, she took the helm as president of Planned Parenthood, while Kirk Adams worked for the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union.
Ann Richards died of cancer in 2006. Lily Adams represented the family at a memorial service with a lineup of speakers that included a future boss, then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. She went on to Brandeis University, where Richards’ 1988 keynote speech was a topic of analysis in a political science class. Adams reluctantly told the class her background, per her mother’s memoir.
“She doesn’t run away from it … but she doesn’t lead with it.”
Similar scenarios played out in the early years of Adams’ career. Given that she inherited her father’s last name, hardly anyone in Washington had any clue who she was.
Right out of college, Adams joined up with the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Creigh Deeds. The 2009 campaign lost by double digits, but as a young press assistant, she met her future mentor, Democratic spokesman Mo Elleithee. The pair would work together several times over the years. Elleithee was stunned when, after about a month working together, someone mentioned Adams’ family background.
“She doesn’t run away from it,” said Elleithee. “She is so proud to be of her mother and her grandmother and her father, but she never leads with it.”
Adams has publicly stressed that she never used her name to get favors or a job — and that having a different last name from her famous relatives has helped her keep a low profile.
“It is what it is,” she told the “Party People” podcast. “I’m sure I’ve been helped by it if for no other reason than I was raised by people who were engaged in politics. It was like a training ground. … I had to get some of that stuff by osmosis.”
Adams spent the 2014 cycle as Elleithee’s deputy at the Democratic National Committee. But in early 2015, as soon as Clinton hired her communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, the new spokeswoman put out the word in Democratic circles that she wanted to make Adams one of her first hires. While the glory for young operatives was at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters, Palmieri sent Adams to Iowa because the state would make or break the campaign in the primary.
There, Adams helped Clinton eke out a 0.25 percentage point victory in the Democratic caucuses over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Afterward, Adams packed up and moved to the Brooklyn headquarters, where for the rest of the campaign she managed a press team that handled local and regional reporters.
On Election Day, Adams posted online a selfie with an “I Voted” sticker, writing, “… today I got to add my own small crack to that glass ceiling. I only wish Mammy were here to see it all.”
Democratic observers all but assumed Adams would be a White House staffer soon after the election. Some say she would have been White House press secretary in a second Clinton term.
Adams’ election night assignment was to stay in touch with the television networks as they called battleground states and to relay that information to senior campaign staffers — much like election night in 1994. Her night ended just as miserably.
Adams took lessons from that defeat.
“At that point, you just have to channel what you know to get through it,” Adams told the “Party People” podcast. “And so, for me, I channeled my grandmother, who had faced some pretty big losses and faced some setbacks in her life, electorally and otherwise. … She did not reward or celebrate wallowing.”
A return to Texas?
Soon after the election, Adams joined the office of freshman U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Cecile Richards said she took pleasure in watching her daughter and the young senator “learning the ropes in some ways together, and then transitioning to the presidential campaign was perfect.”
“I think she obviously feels very strongly about working with women and promoting women in office, and I think has always been impressed with Sen. Harris’ career and what she has done,” Cecile Richards added.
With the presidential campaign in full swing, Adams is no longer known as anyone’s deputy. Or granddaughter, for that matter.
She is the communications director to Harris, and she was part of the debate preparation ahead of Harris’ rumble with former Vice President Joe Biden in June — the high water mark of Harris’ campaign so far.
Given all the attention showered on her as a child, Adams consciously avoids the spotlight. Occasionally, she will make her candidate’s case on cable news. But what separates Adams from her generation of Democrats is that she avoids the politics-as-performance-art on social media. She chooses her words carefully and has maintained the grooming her grandmother instilled into her at an age when most children are still trying to navigate the politics of the sandbox.
“She’s never lost those early lessons — that it’s not about the boss, it’s about the voters,” Elliethee said. “She’s never lost sight of the fact that the daily back and forth with reporters or the daily Twitter fight isn’t what matters, that there’s something bigger that we’re trying to talk about here. That, I think, is sadly increasingly rare.”
Harris’ path to the nomination is uncertain. As is Adams’ future.
Should Harris make it to the White House, either as president or vice president, Democratic onlookers widely assume Adams will follow her boss. But there is also a sense that Adams is bound for a senior White House position no matter who the next Democratic president turns out to be. Still other other senior party officials wonder if she might take the fight to Texas as an operative or even as a candidate.
“She might,” her mother said of a move back to Texas. “Look, she’s involved in one of the most exciting, important presidential campaigns of our lifetime.
“And so I think when this cycle is over, I don’t think there’s any question there are a number of things she could do, including going back home.”
Cecile Richards agreed that an Adams run for office is “absolutely a possibility.”
“One of the characteristics she has, like her grandmother, is she is not looking around the corner,” she added. “She is so intensely focused on what’s happening right now, today, doing the very best she can in this presidential race, and I think again — that is what mom taught us all. If you do the next thing that needs doing and you do it really well, all other kinds of opportunities are going to come to you.”
Cecile Richards says her mother and daughter share the qualities of directness, work ethic, confidence. But for some of Ann Richards’ contemporaries, there’s a bit of projection onto Adams about her grandmother. The characterizations painted of her are often as Richards reincarnated.
Jason Stanford was a press staffer to Richards and counts among his claims to fame as having “worked for all three generations because I once babysat Lily.”
“Lily is more like her mom — serious, focused on the hard work of organizing and not motivated to speak to adoring throngs,” he wrote to the Tribune. “The Governor had a lot of Elvis in her. She could look at a crowd and tell which jokes would set them off.
“Cecile is a genius, too, but at organizing and building infrastructure. I get the feeling that if she never gave another speech, that’d be OK with her. Lily’s more like her mom, but comparing anyone to Ann Richards is unfair. She was a once-in-a-generation at the show business of politics.”
Disclosure: Baylor University and Planned Parenthood have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.