Blanco Christmas card

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and her husband Raymond "Coach" Blanco sent this family portrait to friends and supporters in 2018. 

It was the final question of the last debate in the 2003 race for governor of Louisiana. How that question would be answered would let everyone know what I already knew: Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was both kind and incredibly strong.

Her opponent, Bobby Jindal, was the much younger, can’t-miss Republican policy whisperer who had been chaperoned by outgoing Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster. But the question was nothing about policy; it was about life. 

Almost two years before that debate, I was retiring from the Advocate newspaper and the news business. Before I officially filed to leave, I got a call from then-Lt. Gov. Blanco. Could one of the state's top Democrats be calling about that column I had written critical of her for defending one of the state’s speed trap towns?

It wasn’t that at all. Someone had told her that I was retiring. She wanted to talk to me about a press secretary position. Could I come by for an interview?

I met her and her husband, Raymond “Coach” Blanco. My first impression was that he was a very gregarious, always-thinking-about-the-next-step kind of guy. But she was different. While she did mention the column and even had a copy with her, she didn’t dwell on it.

She never looked away from me during the interview. Her eyes followed me everywhere. Who does that?

She said she wanted me to be her press secretary in the lieutenant governor's office and, the following year, work in her gubernatorial campaign. From that day on, I was focused on Blanco, but I found that she wasn't as totally engaged. She wanted time to be with her children, family, friends and hunting.

She was so normal and unassuming at times that you’d forget she was going to run for governor. Later, I would be stunned by her and her husband's kindness to me and my family.

But she could be tough as nails in politics and especially when dealing with Coach. And now, I was watching that final debate from our campaign office. I knew what she was going to say, and I was scared.

Months before, during a TV interview, she detailed her most heartbreaking moment as a parent and teared up. The host touched her shoulder out of sympathy. I was petrified. How would the audience receive a female candidate for governor shedding tears?

Now here we were at the debate. Jindal, by some accounts, was ahead of Blanco in the polls, and the question invited each candidate to reflect on a defining life moment.

Jindal described the birth of his first child. It showed a human side in a person who could sometimes seem more of an emotionless robot, not a guy you would want to watch a football game with.

Blanco said her moment was the death of her child.

Her young son, Ben, had been killed a few years earlier in a construction site accident. I remember hearing his name when I visited her house in Lafayette, where I was greeted by Ben’s giant dog in the backyard. Someone told me it seemed like the dog was waiting for him to come home.

“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," Blanco said.

After I caught my breath, I announced: “I think she just won the election.” But in that moment, I was concerned about Blanco the person, not the candidate.

Later that week, she beat Jindal.

A few years after she was out of office, Blanco was opening an address at Southern’s Baton Rouge campus, where I was on the staff. As she started her speech, she said, “I want to say hi to my friend Ed Pratt.” I will cherish that moment forever.

Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at epratt1972@yahoo.com.