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(CNN) -- Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, whose brassy, tough-talking persona and trademark white hair cut an indelible profile in Democratic politics, died Wednesday evening at her home in Austin, surrounded by her family, her spokesman, Bill Maddox said.
She was 73.
Richards, who served as governor of the Lone Star State from 1991 to 1995, announced in March that she was being treated for esophageal cancer. Maddox said Richards had shielded many family members and friends from the extent of her illness.
"It was a shock to a lot of us," he said.
Cecile Richards, the former governor's daughter, announced her death in a note sent to friends at 7:50 p.m. (8:50 p.m. ET), Maddox said.
The quick-witted Richards burst onto the national scene with rhetorical guns blazing at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where, in a keynote address, she famously described the syntax-challenged Republican presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush, this way:
"Poor George. He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
At the time, Richards was Texas state treasurer; two years later, she would be elected governor, only the second woman ever to hold that post.
But Texas was trending Republican and, in 1994, despite her personal popularity, she was defeated for re-election by Bush's son, and future president, George W. Bush. She never ran for office again and spent the next years working as a consultant and commentator and serving on corporate boards. (Watch how Richards took the national stage -- 4:04)
Though Richards had long been active in Democratic politics, she didn't launch her own political career until she was in her 40s, after marrying and having four children. Her first stop was a seat on the Travis County Commission in Austin, which she won in 1976.
However, years of hard drinking had taken a toll on her marriage, which ended in divorce. In 1980, she quit drinking, but she never shied away from talking about her problems with alcohol.
"I had such high expectations of myself. I was going to be the best mother, the best housewife, the best entertainer, the best nurse, you know -- what it was, I was going to be the best. And I could never live up to my expectations," she said.
Her persona was always unconventional. When she was nearly 60, a grandmother and governor of Texas, Richards took to riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle because, she said, "I thought I needed to do something kind of jazzy."
Another line she often quoted summed up her view of the aspirations of women in politics: "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."
CNN's Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.