She was warm, comforting and compassionate: Nearly every tribute to Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has mentioned these qualities since the former governor died Sunday.
But she could also be tough, as a long-forgotten political scrape reveals, an episode that led to Blanco being dubbed “the Queen Bee.” It was meant as an insult, but she deftly turned it to her advantage.
The incident began in March 2004, when Blanco had been in office for only two months, and it would pose her biggest political test to that point, coming at a time when she faced a whisper campaign that the male-dominated Louisiana Legislature wouldn’t submit to the state’s first female governor.
At stake was Blanco’s effort to win passage of a five-year extension of a sales tax on business utilities that the Legislature had been approving every other year for nearly two decades. Winning its approval forced governors to expend political capital to secure enough votes every two years.
A five-year tax extension required a two-thirds majority — 70 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate — always a difficult threshold to reach on tax issues.
A day before the vote, approval of the tax renewal was suddenly put in doubt when then-state Rep. Troy Hebert, D-Jeanerette, told then-House Speaker Joe Salter, D-Florien, that he would not vote for it.
Hebert’s decision was consequential for two reasons. One is that Salter and Blanco needed every vote they could get. The other is that Hebert chaired the Insurance Committee, a plum he had received for supporting Blanco when she was elected governor in 2003. Salter and Blanco — like previous speakers and governors — expected their committee chairmen to support them on tough votes.
Blanco summoned Hebert to her office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol the night before the vote.
"Troy, I have a situation I cannot believe is unfolding," she recalled telling him, during an interview in November 2004, adding that Hebert would jeopardize his chairmanship unless he came aboard.
Hebert was unmoved. He said he could not abandon his anti-tax allies in the Legislature. Besides, he added, his side had the votes to defeat Blanco.
They didn’t. The tax renewal passed the House with the minimum 70 votes and also passed the Senate to become law.
Salter, with Blanco’s blessing, lowered the hammer several days later, removing Hebert as the committee chairman. The move sent shockwaves through the Capitol.
"I think it’s a sad day for the House," said then-state Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, who was on the insurance committee and later would become speaker. "There’s an old saying that when two people agree on everything, then only one person’s thinking."
Headstrong and emotional, Hebert didn’t go quietly. He called a press conference on the State Capitol steps and lashed out at Blanco, saying she had engaged in the heavy-handed ways more commonly associated with Huey Long during his near-dictatorial reign during the 1920s and 1930s. "The one thing that has changed is that we’re no longer being ruled by the Kingfish, but we’re being ruled by the Queen Bee," Hebert told reporters.
The derisive nickname infuriated Blanco's aides. The governor, however, wasn’t offended. Instead, she began collecting bee memorabilia and even wore a bee-shaped pin on the opening day of the regular session.
In the meantime, Hebert and his allies, trying to gain mileage from their political independence, began wearing fleur-de-lis pins and calling themselves "the Outhouse Gang."
Two weeks later, Blanco invited the Outhouse Gang to her Capitol office.
“We didn’t know what we were going into, but we didn’t think it was good,” recalled then-state Rep. Gary Smith, D-Norco, now a state senator. “It was like being called into the principal’s office.”
With a scowl, Blanco told Hebert, Smith and several others: "The games have to stop. We have too much work to do. I want us to be unified. I need your help. This is going to stop!"
She then handed each of them a small box. Inside, each found a bee-shaped pin. "Now y'all are members of the Order of the Queen Bee," she said with a smile.
Her erstwhile opponents laughed and whooped it up.
“She had a great sense of humor,” remembered then-state Rep. Jack Smith, D-Patterson, who also attended the meeting as a member of the Outhouse Gang.
Hebert, who served in the Legislature for 15 years until Gov. Bobby Jindal named him to be the director of the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commission, marvels today at how Blanco handled the dustup.
“Her message was clear — you don’t want to get stung by the Queen Bee,” he said. “She did it with elegance. She did it with strength. She wasn’t adversarial. She put out my fire like a candle in the wind. After that, a lot of people fell in line.”
Hebert quickly sought to make amends with Blanco.
He built a two-person rocking chair for her and put it on a second-floor balcony at the Pentagon Barracks, where legislators stay during the legislative session. Blanco and her husband Raymond tried it out one night. They wore big smiles as lawmakers looked on approvingly.
“She just sealed the deal,” Hebert remembered thinking that night. “We were now truly in the Order of the Queen Bee. From that point on, our gang was probably some of her best soldiers on the floor.
“She understood better than most, if you want to turn an enemy into a friend, show them some love and respect when no one thinks you should, and it will work. Every time.”
Seven months afterward, Blanco remembered that the episode helped her win favor among legislators.
"I just believe that if you have the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive, you take it." She added, "I didn't want to hurt Troy, but the Legislature needed to know I was quite serious — that I wouldn't make idle threats, that I would be a strong leader.
“Any time you show weakness, someone will try to fill the void. You can’t show any weakness.”
Advocate librarian Judy Jumonville contributed research for this article.