Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who died Sunday, gave Louisiana some of the best years of her life. As the state’s first woman governor, she blazed a trail that opened political doors for many other women.
Blanco showed tremendous courage after a diagnosis of ocular melanoma, a form of cancer, and she was an inspiration to all of us. Her deep religious faith was evident in early July when Blanco attended the dedication of a stretch of U.S. 90 being named in her honor.
“My life has been so charmed by so many events that were unexpected, challenged by many events that were unexpected,” she said. “But God puts you where he wants you to be, and today is the most unusual place I ever thought I’d be — on the side of an interstate highway with my name going up.”
I had the privilege of covering Blanco’s four-year administration and remember her as a sincere and caring person who restored education to its No. 1 status. She was also extremely accessible to any who sought her counsel, stopping often in the halls of the Legislature to answer people’s questions.
Blanco was married to Raymond “Coach” Blanco whom she met at a party in 1962. The Advocate described Coach as “a big, blustery man who loved politics, food and football.” He was also his wife’s most trusted adviser during her long political career.
In what has been described as a long-shot bid for the state House, Blanco won the District 44 seat in the Nov. 19, 1983, general election. The Advocate said she kept on winning “with voters responding favorably to her calm, likable and genuine manner.”
Next up was service on the Public Service Commission from 1989 to 1995, where she served as chairwoman for two years. Blanco was elected lieutenant governor in the 1995 general election and won re-election in 1999.
Blanco proved to be an effective state ambassador during her two terms as lieutenant governor. My wife and I had the pleasure of joining a delegation she headed to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, in 1998. The purpose was for the state to promote FrancoFete ’99, a yearlong commemoration of the founding of the Louisiana territory over 300 years earlier.
More than 21,000 tourism related jobs were created during her two terms. The impact of tourism also grew from $6.5 billion a year to $9 billion in 2003.
The 2003 governor’s race was her next goal and she led in the early polls. However, I said in a column that year that Blanco must have felt like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield who always complained “he don’t get no respect.”
You could sense from the start that Blanco would become an outstanding education governor. She said, “If we can get 25 percent of our work force reaching for more education, for training, we can change the statistics of this state dramatically so that people in other states and around the world will look at us with a new sense of respect.”
Blanco came in second in the Oct. 4, 2003, primary with 18 percent of the vote. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal led with 33 percent. However, it was a different story in the Nov. 15 runoff when Blanco edged Jindal 52-48 percent.
The next four years saw many changes, but Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 changed Blanco’s plans. Like other public officials, she was criticized on how she handled Katrina, one of this country’s most disastrous storms that flooded New Orleans after levee breaks.
Blanco decided not to seek a second term. It had to be a tough decision, but it proved to be the best course for those she served because her last year in office was one of the most successful in the state’s history.
Democrats still controlled the Legislature, and The Associated Press said Blanco got nearly everything she wanted. The largest tax break went to those who itemized on their state income tax returns, the gift tax was repealed, and there was a tax break for the working poor and a one-time tax break for homeowners with large property tax increases.
Blanco’s $29 billion budget included a $196 million increase in state spending on public colleges. Higher education got $2.8 billion, $1.4 billion of it in state general fund spending and $1.3 billion in tuition, fees, self-generated money and other dedicated funds and $138 million in federal money.
Colleges and universities were funded at the Southern regional average for the first time, thanks to former Gov. Mike Foster and Blanco. The pay of public school teachers also reached the Southern regional average, which had been a longtime goal of governors and legislators.
The AP said despite the gains at Blanco’s last session in 2007 the Legislature was continuing to slide into political party divides. The partisan divide has gotten worse since then, and the fall elections could end up continuing that slide.
However, what will never change is the outstanding record Blanco achieved during her many years of public service. We are all the beneficiaries of her great political legacy.