Gov. John McKeithen is remembered as the politician who built the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. There’s a statue of him commemorating the achievement just outside the downtown New Orleans stadium.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco is the politician who rebuilt it, although not that many people seem to remember this part. As of Sunday, her decision to quickly save the Dome amid the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is permanently memorialized too.
The newly-dedicated Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Lobby features a plaque with her name and likeness, noting the “courage and foresight” it took to envision the importance of bringing the Dome back into commerce, keeping the Saints from skipping town and New Orleans from forfeiting its position as a big-league city, and recasting the building itself from a scene of despair to a symbol of resolve. This is not an exaggeration.
Thirteen years down the line, it feels like a no-brainer to have marshaled the resources to reopen on September 25, 2006, just over a year after images of New Orleanians stranded at the damaged stadium without water and working bathrooms rocketed around the world.
In truth, it’s felt like a no-brainer since that night, when the Saints hosted the hated Atlanta Falcons before a national audience, Steve Gleason channeled all the emotion around him into that epic blocked punt — which is also commemorated in a statue outside — and home felt like home again.
But it wasn’t a no-brainer. Not even close.
Doug Thornton was worried when he went to meet then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Oct. 11, 2005.
Think back to what was going on in October 2005, when Blanco had to make the call. The Saints were playing their home games in San Antonio, which would have been perfectly happy to welcome the team permanently. The Dome itself was missing part of its roof and filled with mold. Residents were scattered, homes were wrecked and city services were almost nonexistent. The emotionally-loaded conversation was just beginning over whether staging Mardi Gras in early 2006 would be a civic affirmation or a slap in the face to struggling and displaced New Orleanians. Surely people might think that making the rebuilding of a football stadium a top priority was insensitive, Blanco was warned.
Yet Blanco, who was often tagged with being indecisive in those days, was all in, to hear Doug Thornton, who oversees the Superdome for a private management company, SMG, tell it.
“She said, ‘We’ve got to do it. It’s an inspiration’ ” to the area's residents, Thornton recalled. “And getting the Saints back is so vital to the economy.”
That she was so clearly right in hindsight knocked any controversy from the front pages, particularly when Louisiana continued to struggle and some of Blanco’s other rebuilding decisions came under harsh scrutiny. That doesn’t diminish the decision’s importance.
Reopening the Dome and inviting the Saints back home sent a powerful message to the outside world and to residents. Nobody knew it at the time, but the homecoming marked the start of a glorious era in franchise history that saw the team’s first Super Bowl win and continues with this year’s playoff run. It even showed that FEMA rebuilding projects could be successful.
Blanco’s own journey since then hasn’t been so linear. The pressure of overseeing the rebuilding effort was immense, and facing a campaign that would surely have focused on second-guessing, she declined to seek reelection in 2007.
She remained active in retirement, speaking often about education and other issues she championed. In 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed her to serve on the commission that governs the Superdome.
She continues to make public appearances even now, despite a diagnosis of an incurable form of cancer, about which she speaks openly. At a recent speech while accepting a career distinguished service award from the Council for a Better Louisiana, Blanco said the cancer has spread through her body and that “the monster is not far down the road.”
But she was all smiles Sunday even before the home team pulled out its big win, as Edwards and other dignitaries gave her her due.
During brief remarks, Blanco recounted how she felt back then.
“I said, ‘Not on my watch will we lose the Saints,’ ” she said.
Even now, that’s something to cheer.