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Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco flies above Delcambre, flooded by rising waters because of Hurricane Rita, on her way to Lake Charles Sunday. (Advocate staff photo by Richard Alan Hannon. Photo shot on 9/25/05.) Keyword Weather, Governor

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s political career took an immediate and devastating hit in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but history will likely rank her among Louisiana’s most gracious — and impactful — governors. She certainly was a more genuine reformer than her successor, Bobby Jindal, whom she narrowly defeated to become governor in the election of 2003.

Blanco died Sunday (Aug. 18) in Lafayette, surrounded by her family, after a courageous battle against ocular melanoma. She was 76.

Blanco, who blazed a trail as Louisiana’s first female governor, was a gentle yet strong woman who showed incredible grace, resolve and class in the face of extreme adversity. Her decision not to seek reelection in 2007 allowed Louisianans to put Katrina in the rear view mirror, at least as a political issue.

As the years passed, voters came to recognize the impact of her tenure, particularly her decision to turn New Orleans public schools over to the Recovery School District after Katrina. That decision showed true political courage, because it put her at odds with the city’s powerful teachers union — which supported her for governor and helped deliver her game-changing New Orleans margin in 2003.

Not many governors have the guts to put the interests of the state ahead of their own political interests — particularly when it means alienating their most influential supporters. Blanco showed that kind of courage after the 2005 storms.

She also helped secure passage of the most significant post-Katrina reform efforts: birthing the charter school movement in New Orleans; combining the seven New Orleans assessors’ offices into one; and combining the hyper-political levee boards in metro New Orleans into two regional flood control authorities.

Before Katrina, no one would have thought such tectonic political changes possible within a lifetime. Blanco pushed adoption of them in less than two years.

Blanco will also be remembered for the classy way she handled criticism. She never locked horns with the media, even though she came in for withering criticism as Katrina and Rita. While she was not afraid to flex her muscle as governor, she seldom used it to punish people who disagreed with her. On one of the few occasions when she did, she turned her adversary’s reaction — calling her “the queen bee” — into a joke by wearing a large queen bee brooch almost daily. It perfectly captured her sense of humor and political style.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who is New Orleans’ first female mayor, called Blanco “a woman whose leadership was an inspiration and a strength for the people of New Orleans and for all of Louisiana.” Cantrell added, “Knowing this day was imminent does not make the loss any easier to bear. As the first female governor of Louisiana, she accomplished more in one term than most men did in two.”

Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) president Robert Scott covered much of Blanco’s public career as the Capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune. He said of her passing, “Louisiana has lost a strong heart and a wise mind. In an era that seemed impossible for a former teacher and housewife to earn her way into the state’s highest office, she blazed a trail and taught us all lessons about dignity, compassion and endurance.”

Blanco showed all those qualities — along with her deep Catholic faith — as she faced down the rare and incurable form of cancer that ultimately took her life.

“I don’t want to leave this Earth,” she said. “I don’t want to leave my family. Some of them are into young adulthood and toddlers. We have this great spectrum of energy that’s here. It’s not that you want to leave anybody, but when your body’s worn out, what can you do? It’s kind of what I’ve always thought of.”

Kathleen Blanco inspired a generation of women to get into politics, and she showed both men and women how to deal with the challenges of public life with grace, dignity and courage. That’s how she should always be thought of.

Follow Clancy DuBos on Twitter: @clancygambit.

Email Gambit political editor Clancy DuBos at: clancy@gambitweekly.com.