La.’s 1st female governor, served during Katrina
BATON ROUGE, La. — Former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who became the state’s first female elected governor only to see her political career derailed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, has died.
After struggling for years with cancer, Blanco died Sunday in hospice care in Lafayette. She was 76.
“Our hearts are broken, but we are joyful in knowing that she is rejoicing in her heavenly reunion with Christ. Please pray for God’s peace to carry us through the coming days and months of sorrow as we mourn her absence from our lives,” Blanco’s family said in a statement released by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office.
Blanco had a rare eye cancer that she battled successfully in 2011, but it later returned and spread to her liver. Her death came more than a year after the Democrat who served in state government offices for more than two decades announced in December 2017 that she was being treated for the incurable melanoma. Blanco described being in a “fight for my own life, one that will be difficult to win.”
Blanco held Louisiana’s top elected job from 2004 to 2008. Until her campaign for governor, she spent much of her political career moving steadily and quietly through state politics, rarely creating waves or controversy.
Katrina raised her profile nationally and forever impacted her legacy. The devastating August 2005 hurricane killed more than 1,400 people in Louisiana, displaced hundreds of thousands and inundated 80 percent of New Orleans.
Historians will continue to debate whether any governor could have been prepared for such a catastrophe, but Blanco shouldered much of the blame after images of thousands stranded on rooftops and overpasses were broadcast to the world, and the government was slow to respond. Blanco was criticized as unprepared, overwhelmed and indecisive. The recovery she guided moved ploddingly.
As the devout Catholic asked in the letter announcing her terminal condition for prayers in her final months, she also thanked Louisiana residents for their “abiding love” during her years of service, and described the challenges of responding to Katrina and the follow-up blow of Hurricane Rita a month later.
“Katrina certainly left its mark and Rita left her mark on Louisiana. It made us tougher people though. It made us stronger,” the former governor said in July.
Edwards, a Democrat in his first term as governor, called Blanco a mentor to him and a trailblazer to women. He ordered flags at state buildings around Louisiana flown at halfstaff through Blanco’s funeral, scheduled for Saturday.
“She led Louisiana through one of our darkest hours, when hurricanes and the failure of the federal levee system devastated much of our state,” he said in a statement Sunday. “I hope history will remember Gov. Blanco as a tireless advocate for Louisiana, who fought fiercely for our state to rebuild.”
A former high school business education teacher from the small Cajun village of Coteau, Blanco launched into politics as a consultant with her husband Raymond on local redistricting issues before going on to serve 24 years in elective office. Her first, in 1984, was a seat in the state House. Then came positions on the state utility regulatory commission and as lieutenant governor.
Political insiders dismissed Blanco as a lightweight — honest and hardworking but lacking in substance as a serious gubernatorial contender. She dropped out of the governor’s race in 1991, then stunned many political prognosticators in the 2003 election by defeating Republican Bobby Jindal. She successfully attacked Jindal’s record as a former state health official and made a memorable final debate appearance when — asked about a defining moment in her life — she tearfully recounted the 1997 death of her 19-year-old son Ben in an industrial accident.
Jindal later succeeded Blanco as governor after Katrina stopped her plans to seek a second term.
“Kathleen loved Louisiana and served the state for decades. She faced every struggle, including her last, with good cheer and a strong will. She will be missed,” Jindal said on Twitter.
Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco held Louisiana’s top job from 2004 to 2008.