Kathleen Blanco isn’t remembered as one of the more compelling public speakers to serve as Louisiana governor, but a stranger dropping into the annual Council for a Better Louisiana meeting last week might have guessed otherwise.
Blanco, who left office in 2007 after a single, eventful term, was there to accept the Robert B. Hamm Award for Distinguished Service.
Even more, it seemed, she was there because she had some things to say.
The part of her speech that got the most attention, understandably, was a blunt update on her health.
The ocular melanoma she’s been battling for several years is rare, aggressive and incurable, she said, and the cancer has now spread through her body. She looked and sounded well, but said she knows “the monster is not far down the road.” She made clear to her rapt audience that she’s preparing to face it with clear eyes, compelling courage and deep faith.
But her main message wasn’t about her. It was about what she thinks the politicians who are still in office need to do.
Indeed, the bulk of her speech consisted of a call to arms. She argued that poverty carries tremendous personal and economic costs and that education can be the great equalizer — but only if the state makes some good old-fashioned investments.
Gov. John Bel Edwards asked in a Tweet Wednesday afternoon for the state’s residents to pray for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who is facing an…
Blanco, a onetime teacher, made doing so a priority when she was governor. She supported a teacher pay raise that brought Louisiana’s educators up to the Southern average, faulted lawmakers who’ve let it fall behind again, and applauded Gov. John Bel Edwards and the bipartisan forces who are promising another round of raises next year.
“For the last several years we’ve operated on a false narrative,” she said. “The Legislature chose to actually disinvest in education, demoralizing teachers with low pay, and then refused to modernize classrooms. We cheat our children and weaken our future workforce when we do this. Obviously, the cycles of poverty are never to be broken under these conditions.”
Indeed, she argued, supporting schools is one of the best ways to raise Louisiana off the bottom of all those bad lists. People without sufficient educations qualify only for low-wage jobs, she noted, which not only deprives them of opportunities but costs everyone else. They often need public subsidies for health care, food and housing, or wind up in prison — which, she said, is more costly than school.
“Every element of impoverished peoples’ lives has to be supplemented,” she said. “And so don’t you think, and don’t you agree, that it makes more economic sense to properly educate our citizens in the first place?”
Blanco also proudly recounted the story of how it helped her, how her father’s friend once questioned why he was paying for her to go to college when she’d just get married and have children. Education, her father responded, is “never a waste.”
Blanco did get married, have six children and spend 18 years as a housewife, she pointed out, before embarking on a long political career that took her all the way to the “'Big House,' or the Governor’s Mansion.”
In all, it was a powerful plea for the current crop of politicians to step back from the political fights that have characterized recent years and focus on a common, vital, purpose. It was also a reminder that, despite Blanco’s genteel bearing and prosaic speaking style, she has always been forcefully committed to Louisiana’s well-being.
We saw it during her long, relentless campaign to convince Congress to treat Louisiana fairly after Katrina and Rita, and again when she put her all into the recovery while walking away from a fight for a second term. Those in the room for the CABL event last week saw it again.
There may be more speeches like this, or not. Again, while she knows what awaits her, she doesn’t know when.
So for now, anyway, she’s left the state she served with fighting words. In retrospect, that feels entirely right.