I flew in helicopters and small airplanes around Louisiana with Kathleen Blanco when she was governor. At 11 p.m. one evening, we interrupted an interview when she wanted exercise, and we rode bikes around the deserted Capitol Complex.
When she was no longer governor, she invited me one night to her Lafayette home, where she cooked gumbo (with poached eggs and no roux, for the record), and we talked for hours along with her husband, Raymond, better known as Coach.
At 3 a.m. on the night that John Bel Edwards was elected governor in 2015, I accompanied her and Raymond to the Trolley Stop Café on St. Charles Avenue for an early breakfast.
But it was a small gesture that stands out as I think about Kathleen during the 28 years that I covered her and got to know her as a human being.
It was November 2004, months before Hurricane Katrina materialized and forever altered the course of Louisiana history. I had just arrived at the Governor’s Mansion, after a red-eye flight from South America, where I lived. I would be profiling her for Gambit.
It was raining 55 years ago when Raymond and Kathleen Blanco were driving in New Iberia from the church to their wedding reception immediately…
But first, someone showed me to an upstairs bedroom, where I could shower and change my clothes.
When I caught up with the governor a few minutes later, she quickly excused herself. She returned carrying a hair brush and a blow dryer.
Kathleen Blanco, I think, saw herself as the Mom-in-Chief of Louisiana — she was tough when she needed to be tough but her first instinct was to take care of others.
The role came naturally to her. She was the oldest of seven children and raised six children of her own, before deciding at age 40, in 1983, to run for the state House from Lafayette.
She first ran for governor in 1991, and on the day she announced her bid at the Lafayette Hilton Hotel, she told 350 supporters, “I spent nearly two decades washing clothes, paying bills, taking kids to lessons. I often did the dirty work that generates no glory or acclaim, as so many of us have had to do.”
Kathleen dropped out of the 1991 race, short of money, but was elected lieutenant governor in 1995 and made history by being elected as the state’s first female governor in 2003.
She governed, I’d say, like a mom.
Kathleen emphasized education and well-being for the state’s citizens.
She never lost an election. I think it’s because voters could sense her extraordinary empathy and compassion. You could see it in small moments when she leaned over to show real interest in a child or when she stopped to talk with a senior citizen.
A family tragedy deepened her concern for others. The baby of her brood, Ben, died in 1997 when an industrial crane fell on him.
She reluctantly brought it up during the final debate of the 2003 governor’s race when she and the other candidate, Bobby Jindal, were asked to identify the defining moment of their lives.
“The most defining moment came when I lost a child,” she told the statewide television audience.
“It's very hard for me to talk about it," she added. “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.”
When she told me the story months later, tears ran down her cheeks when she remembered that the crane crushed Ben’s body.
Kathleen wasn’t a back-slapper or a yarn-spinner, and she had no higher ambition than to serve the citizens of Louisiana.
Used to taking care of others, she didn’t always put enough into promoting herself as governor.
That proved to be a mistake after Katrina hit metro New Orleans in 2005. Three days after the storm, Kathleen traveled to the Louisiana Superdome to view the situation firsthand, but she didn’t invite the press because that would have required one or two additional helicopters, and she didn’t want to divert the helicopters from their rescue efforts. Her low-key approach helped feed the popular image that she was not in charge.
During her remaining 2 ½ years in office, Kathleen dedicated herself to remaking New Orleans’ subpar education system; to rebuilding the Superdome and keeping the Saints in Louisiana; to raising teacher pay; and to getting residents back in their homes. With citizens widely frustrated at her and at the pace of the recovery, she chose wisely not to run for reelection. But she still managed to bequeath Jindal, her successor, with a $1 billion surplus.
On Jan. 1, 2008, I spoke by phone with Kathleen as she and Raymond packed up their belongings on their final night at the Governor’s Mansion. They were departing 10 days early to allow Jindal, his wife and their three young children to begin living in Baton Rouge when the new school year began.
Kathleen was disappointed at how Katrina cut short her tenure, but she believed history would be kinder. She lived long enough to see that happen. And she impressed everyone with the quiet dignity — and steely courage — she displayed while battling the terminal illness that ultimately killed her.
I was privileged to know her and to cover her.