Awoman writes an open letter asking for “prayers and loving support,” as she battles liver cancer, but this is not just any woman; she is Louisiana’s first and only female governor.
Kathleen Blanco is responsible for revolutionising education and the care for the people of Louisiana. During her twenty-four years of public service, she has faced many obstacles. When Hurricane Katrina tore through the state, she became an instrumental figure in rebuilding the state from the ground up once the floodwaters cleared. For a woman who most would have assumed would live out her life as an unassuming full-time mother, she has had an extraordinarily impactful journey.
No one would have imagined Kathleen Blanco’s iconic life path would originate with such humble and politically absent beginnings. Louisiana is a state that runs in Kathleen’s very blood. Born in the quaint town of Coteau in 1942, it would be easy to assume that her life would progress like most other women in the era.
Her father, Louis Babineaux, was a carpet cleaner, working hard to provide for his six children. Growing up, Kathleen’s ambition was not fuelled by money or power but by the intrinsic values held by education. She received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisiana in Business Education, then went on to be a business education teacher in 1964.
Then began the difficult career that engrained in Kathleen the importance of love, care and perseverance in the face of adversity. her 15-year job as a full-time mother! While raising six children, her eyes were opened to the state of affairs in her home state. Poverty was rife and education levels were far below the national average. When state representative Luke LeBlanc was retiring, the opportunity was too tantalising to resist and while most would accept that the task of raising children was work enough, Kathleen wanted to be the change she wished to see in the world. Her four daughters and two sons having now blossomed from babies, she set her sights on politics and fulfilling the lives of the Louisianan people.
1983 was an intimidating time for women wishing to break down the masculine dominated wall that overshadowed American politics. Kathleen was fresh from midnight feeds, scraped knees and the usual thankless task that is rearing a child through adolescence. Meanwhile, her male competitors in politics were climbing their way through education, fifteen years ahead of her in political knowledge and reputation. Yet Kathleen managed to scale and reach the top of that seemingly indomitable wall.
Her husband Raymond “Coach” Blanco could not fault her self-motivation. During her run for candidacy, she would travel door to door handing out push cards detailing her specific candidacy aims with facts and polls detailing why she was deserving of a seat. Political burn out was never a factor in her campaign, in fact, her husband remarked how she would: “Come home at night and [they] would talk [more] politics.” While lacking physical experience, her passion and vision for Louisiana, as well as her concise policies surrounding the restructuring of the education system, shone through. She won and was just one of five women serving in the Louisiana state legislature.
The win in 1983 was a just small footprint in the rocky timeline that was about to unfold, and there was no way she could predict the victories and devastating pitfalls that lay ahead. This was the first significant step in her journey to overcome adversity in politics. Despite her critical reputation as a woman and housewife with no place in politics, she built her way up the ranks.
A first in Louisiana’s history
“I had no political ambitions,” she said in reflections of her career. This is a somewhat ironic statement to make considering the many ambitious ’firsts’ that she achieved during her personal and political life. Some could go as far as to say that a reflective comment such as this would be an otherwise damning statement to make for someone who managed to climb so high in the political environment. When the opportunity to fill Luke LeBlanc’s vacancy in ’83 presented, she saw the position as a public service, to be performed because it was rewarding and not because it lined the wallet. Her political career snow-balled and her political standing continued to advance.
In 2004, she became Louisiana’s first female governor, a role she fulfilled for four more years. She said in her speech a year into her tenure: “I feel that call to lift up the less fortunate, the call to improve our communities and our state. It drives me to serve Louisiana as governor”. The caring motivation behind her political aims had not faltered and she still recognised the cracks in society that she saw as a full-time mother.
People nervously walking the tightrope of the bread line was a vision all too familiar to Kathleen and cleaning up the poverty-stricken streets of Louisiana was central to this formidable woman’s vision. To her, education and poverty were intertwined issues, which is why her opening policies included increasing teacher salaries and providing children with crucial technology that would enhance their learning experience.
During her first year in office, the future of the state seemed bright. Her innovative leadership skills led to the formation of diplomatic relations with the Cuban president, Fidel Castro. The communication was beneficial for the whole of the US, and also proved to be a valuable source of economic development for Louisiana. In just the first 12 months of her governorship, twenty seven thousand new jobs were created and Louisiana looked to be morphing into some semblance of Blanco’s vision of a wealthy and family orientated community. This was before the devastation that altered the livelihood of every Louisiana resident in a way that Kathleen was never prepared for.
The destructive consequences of the 2005 category 5 hurricane are world renowned. More than 1,800 people lost their lives and the cost of damage is incalculable. The Gulf coast where Louisiana is located was hit by catastrophic destruction, the ripples of which are still felt to this day. The storm tore down much of what Blanco aspired to build, leaving behind a state compiled of rubble and anger. As seemingly steadfast infrastructures came down and the death toll rose, fingers began to look for blame and many turned on Kathleen Blanco.
She made it her mission to, “take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again” [https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/kathleenblancokatrina.htm]. However, this was the worst crisis in history to face a Louisiana governor, with unprecedented levels of devastation that couldn’t have been predicted.
Battling the widespread suggestions that her emotional response to the situation made her an unfit leader, Kathleen sought to rebuild. Stepping down would have been the simpler solution, but Kathleen continued to ride the mantra that carried her through her political career and worked to improve the lives of residents of the state. In the deprived state she governed, she recognised that many residents could not afford to evacuate and it was factors such as this that influenced any crucial decisions she had to make.
Blanco stood by her convictions and even went against more popular opinions in order to do what she felt was best for Louisiana. Her communications with President Bush seemed strained at times. She openly and controversially rejected Bush’s offer to federalise the Louisiana national guard, despite many others saying this would lessen the calamitous repercussions of the hurricane.
With early mistakes made, Blanco fought to harvest as much money as she could for the citizens of the state to rebuild their homes and businesses. Though it was a pebble in the ocean compared to the total reparations she had to make, 130,000 people in the coastal region received grants to restore their homes. In total, she managed to gather $29 billion to put towards the recovery effort – not an easy feat amidst allegations that neighbouring areas like Mississippi received more funding because they were Republican led.
Each moment, especially the very worst, is a salutary learning situation. Against fierce opposition, she decided to rebuild the Superdome, which became a refugee centre for people during the storm. Blanco recognised the symbolic significance of the building and through its reconstruction, it became a beacon of hope for the rebuilding effort. The infrastructure would last beyond her governance and perhaps even beyond her life, but the potency of the message it exudes goes wider than the bricks and mortar and will remind Louisiana of the importance of rebuilding after past tragedies.
2008: The end of Blanco’s governance
“I will focus my time and energy for the next nine months on the people’s work, not on politics.” True to her word, Blanco did not stay in the political run for another term, despite the glory it might provide. Instead of focusing on a re-election campaign, she put all her efforts into creating a stable foundation, for the still distressed people of Louisiana, to rebuild upon.
Despite the unexpected blow from Katrina, towards the end of her term, Blanco had met each of her goals that she had set out to achieve as governor. Education was at an all-time high and her initiative to reform 107 underperforming public schools brought Louisian’s teaching standards up to the Southern regional average for the first time.
Her collaborations with other countries set trade deals in place. She recruited businesses that set the ball rolling in regard to introducing Louisiana to new industries and boosting the economy. As a mother of six, Kathleen certainly was no stranger to the realities of life on a shoestring budget. Despite the significant financial impact that the hurricane had on the funds of the state, Blanco left the office with a balanced budget and $2 billion dollars left over in reserve.
Blanco in the present day
To date, Kathleen Blanco is still fighting adversity and up against seemingly insurmountable odds, just not of the political kind. She is battling a form of liver cancer for which there is no known cure. Knowing about her struggles and contribution to her state, asking for thoughts and prayers during this time is a modest request. Her letter has unearthed a variety of reactions from friends, family and co-workers who recognise all that Blanco contributed to her beloved home state. Her achievements stretch beyond just being the first woman governor in Louisiana’s history. The political commentator James Carville went on to highlight Blanco for being, “the most underrated governor in Louisiana history”. [https://www.bayoubrief.com/2017/12/11/the-most-underrated-governor-in-louisiana-history/]
The University of Louisiana, where she received her own education, paid homage to her in 2017, by providing her with an honorary doctorate in the Liberal Arts and also opened up a public policy centre in her name, an establishment that is responsible for organising and archiving former gubernatorial records. Her understated life story has also been recognised in a Louisiana political museum that showcases her accomplishments, as a political leader and woman, in a male-dominated institution.
Kathleen Blanco had a long career as a mother to her own children before she became the strong maternal figure for an entire state to rely upon. As Pearson Cross, a political scientist from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette said: “She was underestimated during her career, just as she is often underestimated and underrepresented in the discussion of significant political figures in the modern day.”
Blanco’s power as a woman came from the strength she mustered to work harder among her male co-workers. What the history books and media outlets might forget is that she was a powerful leader for an entire state and still had the time and compassion to go home and be a mother to her own family. As Pearson Cross continued, “She achieved all she strived for in her lengthy and storied career, and significantly, she provided a legacy that exists beyond the flesh and into history”.
There is something to be said about the significance of loyalty, motivation and compassion in politics. The driving force that propelled Kathleen Blanco’s career can inspire positivity and change in a way that experience and birth right never could.