Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who became the first woman elected governor of Louisiana and then saw her political career derailed by the costliest hurricane to ever hit the United States, died Sunday from complications from ocular melanoma. She was 76.
Her trailblazing career began modestly enough.
At 21, she married Raymond “Coach” Blanco and over the next 14 years, she gave birth to six children. During that time, politics was not present in her life as she cooked for the family, changed diapers, ferried her children to and fro and cleaned the Blanco home in Lafayette.
“It was a daily struggle to fight dirt,” she recalled in an interview years later. “You know what? Dirt always wins.”
Blanco entered the workforce in 1979, in need of money and adult conversation. Four years later, after working for the U.S. Census Bureau, she mounted a long-shot bid for the state House, with help from Raymond, a former football coach with keen political instincts. Their children accompanied her as she knocked on doors.
Blanco won, and she kept on winning as she sought higher-profile offices, with voters responding favorably to her calm, likable and genuine manner. In 2003, the Democrat was elected as Louisiana’s governor after serving two terms as lieutenant governor.
But Hurricane Katrina struck 20 months into her tenure, killing more than 1,500 people in and around New Orleans, badly damaging more than 200,000 homes, scattering Louisianans all over the country — and dealing a crippling blow to Blanco’s political career. She opted not to seek re-election in 2007.
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In December 2017, a decade after she left the Governor’s Mansion, Blanco disclosed she had been diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare type of cancer that had no cure.
“I’ve had an extraordinarily full life,” she said then, adding that her devout Catholicism left her at peace with whatever lay ahead.
The news of her terminal illness prompted a series of tributes from political leaders and an overflowing of goodwill from ordinary people during the final months of her life. Until then, Blanco had kept a low profile following her departure from the Governor’s Mansion.
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"Some things of our destiny we can’t control, like hurricanes and cancer," she said in September 2018.
During her first 20 months as governor, Blanco was a popular, can-do governor who was pro-business, pro-life, pro-guns and focused on improving the state’s education system. She seemed likely to cruise to re-election.
But Katrina’s arrival on Aug. 29, 2005 changed everything. The federal levees failed catastrophically and water swallowed up low-lying neighborhoods. The city and the state seemed woefully unprepared.
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On early-morning television shows, operating on little sleep, Blanco looked haggard and overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of what was by some measures the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. TV images captured bedraggled people stranded on Interstate 10 and others suffering in the Louisiana Superdome, which lost part of its roof, ran out of food, saw its bathrooms fail and had no air conditioning in sweltering humidity.
Government looked incompetent, and Blanco suffered much of the blame.
In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, then-Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco made a somewhat unpopular decision.
“Her legitimacy and popularity was gone in two weeks,” a political consultant said eight months later.
Hurricane Rita followed Katrina on Sept. 24, 2005, walloping southwest Louisiana, flooding coastal towns and knocking out electricity.
In the wake of both hurricanes, Blanco fought hard for federal rebuilding aid and created the Road Home Program to assist residents in navigating the paperwork needed to claim a piece of it. But the program moved slowly, and she suffered more blame.
In March 2007, facing certain defeat, Blanco announced that she would not seek re-election that fall.
"I am doing this so we can work without interference from election-year politics," Blanco said in a televised address from the foyer of the Governor’s Mansion.
By the time she left office in January 2008, she was frustrated at how Hurricane Katrina had overshadowed the many successes of her career and re-written her political epitaph.
“I felt like I was victimized in a way, just like the people who lost their homes were victimized,” she told The Advocate.
Like several of her predecessors — including Huey Long, Jimmy Davis and Edwin Edwards — Blanco came from humble beginnings.
She was raised along the bend of a highway, La. Hwy. 88, in the French-speaking community of Coteau, set among sugar cane fields deep in Acadiana south of Lafayette. Born on Dec. 15, 1942, she was the first of seven children born to Louis and Lucille Babineaux. The family crammed into a house with only three bedrooms and a single bathroom.
Louis Babineaux sold and cleaned carpets while his wife cared for the large brood.
Life in Coteau revolved around the five-room schoolhouse, which was a block away from home. The Babineaux’s Catholic church, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, was across the street from the school. Nearby was the general store owned by Blanco's grandfather.
Former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco died Sunday at the age of 76 after a long battle with cancer.
Kathleen, a shy child, was more serious than her schoolmates. She would borrow four or five books every time the bookmobile stopped in Coteau.
When she was 14, her parents loaded the household belongings onto the back of a truck and moved the family to New Iberia, 10 miles away. By then, she was attending school there at Mount Carmel Academy, an all-girls Catholic school where the girls prayed before every class.
Before school dances, the nuns told the girls that they could not remove their shoes. "If you took off your shoes at the dance," the nuns would say, "what would you take off on the way home?"
Blanco graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana — now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — with a degree in business education. She met Raymond at a party in 1962. A big, blustery man who loved politics, food and football, he was a local star as the 26-year-old head coach at Catholic High School.
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The relationship blossomed, but Raymond Blanco faced a problem: He was short of money to buy an engagement ring. That is, until the night he won more than $400 playing blackjack at an illicit casino on U.S. Hwy. 90 between Lafayette and New Iberia. They married in 1964.
Kathleen Blanco taught at a high school for a year before quitting to begin raising her family.
She was a stay-at-home mom until she was 37. Raymond, meanwhile, served as the dean of students at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.
At 40, Kathleen Blanco won the state House race in an upset, and she cruised to re-election four years later in 1987. She won a seat on the Public Service Commission in 1988 and won re-election in 1992. (Blanco mounted a campaign for governor in 1991 but dropped out after 100 days, short of funds.) She was elected lieutenant governor in 1995 and won re-election in 1999.
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In the 2003 governor’s race, a Republican wunderkind named Bobby Jindal came from nowhere to finish first in the primary. Blanco nosed out two other Democrats for second place.
She and Jindal met at a climactic debate three days before the runoff. Blanco’s internal polls showed she was trailing narrowly.
The two candidates addressed typical issues until each was asked to identify a defining moment in their lives.
As the polished Jindal discussed his conversion to Christianity and the birth of his daughter, Blanco realized she would have to address her rawest moment.
"The most defining moment came when I lost a child," she told the statewide television audience.
Blanco's 19-year-old son, Ben, the baby of the brood was killed instantly in 1997 when an industrial crane fell on him near Morgan City. Ben was cutting up scrap metal over the Christmas holidays to earn a few extra dollars
"It's very hard for me to talk about it," Kathleen Blanco said as the debate wound down, looking into the camera and fighting tears. "I guess that's what makes me who I am today — knowing that one of the worst things that can happen to a person happened to me, and we were able to protect our family, and the rest of my children have been strong as a result of it."
Analysts said her heartfelt response may have spelled the difference with voters. She defeated Jindal, 52 percent to 48 percent.
As governor, Blanco didn’t engage in bluster or strong-arm tactics to get her way, as her male predecessors typically did. She had a steely nature, however. In an instance that grabbed the attention of political insiders, she had then-state Rep. Troy Hebert stripped of his committee chairmanship after Hebert led the opposition to her on a key tax vote.
During her first 20 months, liberals liked her emphasis on improving education and health care. Businessmen liked that she cut business taxes and was recruiting new companies to Louisiana. Cultural conservatives liked that she believed in God, hunted, fished and opposed abortion. Most everyone liked that she ran a clean government.
Katrina and Rita changed the equation.
Over the next 2½ years, Blanco operated in crisis mode. She traveled repeatedly to Washington to secure billions of dollars in federal aid from the administration of President George W. Bush. She wrestled with how to get aid to residents as quickly as possible given government regulations meant to prevent fraud and abuse.
One of her first moves came in late 2005 when she went against political allies by winning legislative approval to have the state-run Recovery School District take over more than 100 shuttered schools from the dysfunctional Orleans Parish School system. This allowed state officials to oversee the reopening of New Orleans' public schools.
It may have been her most significant policy achievement. Today, New Orleans is the only city in the country that has an all-charter school system, parents can choose their child's school and test scores and graduation rates have risen dramatically.
In her final year, with the state coffers flush from post-Katrina spending, Blanco and the state Legislature raised teacher pay to reach the Southern average, a long-time goal. She left Jindal with a $1 billion budget surplus, although she signed off on a tax cut that helped set the stage for future deficits. (Jindal and the state Legislature approved a larger second one.)
She and Raymond returned to their home in Lafayette and lived quietly, focusing on their family and charitable work. She began work on a memoir but never finished it. In 2013, they became early and key advisers to then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards as he began a long-shot campaign for governor.
Blanco always believed that her achievements as governor would be noted in time.
She lived to see some of that reappraisal.
For example, the Superdome Commission credited her in 2018 with saving the New Orleans Saints franchise by making the politically difficult decision in late 2005 to authorize the dome's renovation when most New Orleans residents hadn’t yet returned home and the city could barely provide police and fire protection. Completing the work before the 2006 season brought the Saints back to New Orleans, where they and the Superdome have flourished since then.
Her decision, Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace wrote, recast the Superdome “from a scene of despair to a symbol of resolve.”
In mid-2018, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette established a public policy center in her name that included her gubernatorial papers. She insisted that it serve to bring together people of differing views to hash out their differences.
“She understands the importance of education and investing in our children,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at the Sept. 21, 2018, opening ceremony. ”She knows it's an investment, not spending.”
On Sunday, he said, "She was a woman of grace, faith and hope. She has left an eternal mark on all who knew her, because she was generous and unconditional in her love, warm in her embrace and genuinely interested in the welfare of others.
"While she knew that her name would forever be linked with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it was her dying wish that she be remembered for her faith in God, commitment to family and love of Louisiana."
In her final days, Blanco said goodbye to friends at St. Joseph's Hospice Carpenter House in Lafayette and gave heart-warming gifts, characteristically wanting to make sure she had tied up all loose ends.
Survivors include her mother Lucille Babineaux, who lives in New Iberia; Raymond; five children: Karmen, Nicole, Monique, Pilar and Ray; and 13 grandchildren. She will be honored with an inter-faith service at St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown Baton Rouge Thursday morning. Afterward, her body will be taken to the Capitol where it will lie in state for public viewing. There will be a public visitation in Lafayette on Friday, and her funeral Mass will be on Saturday in Lafayette. The burial will be private.
After she went public with her terminal illness, Blanco said her deep religious faith left her unafraid to die.
“I don’t want to leave this Earth,” she said. “I don’t want to leave my family. Some of them are into young adulthood and toddlers. We have this great spectrum of energy that’s here. It’s not that you want to leave anybody, but when your body’s worn out, what can you do? It’s kind of what I’ve always thought of.”
Advocate librarian Judy Jumonville contributed research to this article.