La.’s 1st fe­male gov­er­nor, served dur­ing Ka­t­rina

The Morning Call - - NATION/WORLD - By Melinda Deslatte

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.

BILL HABER/AP

Former Gov. Kath­leen Blanco held Louisiana’s top job from 2004 to 2008.

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