December 29, 2005
After Storm, She Tries to Mend State, and Career
By JAMES DAO
BATON ROUGE, La., Dec. 22 - She is struggling to rebuild a shattered state.
But along the way, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana is also
working to repair a wounded reputation - her own.
She has been mocked as weepy and indecisive by radio talk show hosts who
deride her as "momma governor." She has feuded with the White House, which
did not invite her to a recent announcement on levee protection. She has
been criticized on Capitol Hill by Republicans as having made a
"dysfunctional" response to Hurricane Katrina.
And through it all, Ms. Blanco, a 63-year-old Democrat, has found herself
dogged by invidious comparisons to a certain mayor of New York whose
stand-tall image after Sept. 11, 2001, seems to have become the one that all
elected officials are expected to duplicate during a crisis.
"People can't stop comparing her to Rudy Giuliani," said State
Representative Troy M. Hebert, a Democrat from Jeanerette. "When 9/11 came,
he looked like he was doing something. I'm not sure he was. But he looked
But Ms. Blanco is fighting back. She points to several important victories
in a special legislative session last month - including the state takeover
of New Orleans's failing schools - as evidence of decisive action. And she
is planning a media blitz, using weekly newspaper columns and regular radio
appearances to outline her reconstruction plans.
In an interview at the white-pillared governor's mansion, built by Huey P.
Long in the 1930's, Ms. Blanco dismissed some of the criticism against her
as sexist. "I'm not a guy," she said. "I can't be Rudy, whatever that is."
But she asserted that she was far tougher than her critics allowed, noting
that when she used phrases like "locked and loaded," it was because she knew
how to handle a gun. And she said her compassion for hurricane victims -
shaped by the loss of a son in a construction accident nine years ago - has
been misconstrued as weakness.
"Sometimes people think you are falling down when you are the only one
standing," she said.
The question now is whether Ms. Blanco can regain enough political traction
to lead her state out of its trauma. A post-hurricane poll showed that only
19 percent of voters would definitely support her for re-election in 2007.
The depopulation of New Orleans, her party's base, has emboldened
Republicans. And some Democrats question whether she has a vision for
reconstruction, beyond the laundry list of needs she ticks off in news
"She's got problems facing her," said Bernie Pinsonat, a pollster. "I don't
know if any governor could survive this."
In public, Ms. Blanco, who was born in the tiny Cajun community of Coteau,
comes across as soft-spoken and uncomfortable in the spotlight. By contrast,
her husband, Raymond, is a colorful former college football coach who stalks
the sidelines of her office muttering comedic profanities.
But friends and foes say Ms. Blanco's gentle style belies steeliness and
determination. As a young woman, she quit teaching to raise six children,
and now has seven grandchildren. Later, she and her husband opened a polling
firm, and she also worked on the 1980 census. Those experiences exposed her
to local politicians, virtually all of whom were male.
"I began to realize none of the women of my world had stepped forward to run
for office," Ms. Blanco said.
Resolved to change that, she ran for an open state representative seat
against the wife of a wealthy businessman. Outspent by more than five to
one, she won, and has not lost an election since.
After serving two terms as lieutenant governor, Ms. Blanco ran for governor
in 2003, narrowly winning the crowded primary by running as a pro-business
centrist. In the runoff against Republican Piyush Jindal, Ms. Blanco was
behind in polls in the final weeks of the campaign. But she battled back
with commercials that strongly attacked Mr. Jindal's tenure as state health
secretary, and won by four points.
As governor, she consolidated her power by pushing aside legislative leaders
who opposed her. Mr. Hebert lost a powerful committee chairmanship when he
voted against her plan to raise a business tax. He dubbed her Queen Bee, a
play on Long's nickname, the Kingfish.
"People underestimate her as this nice grandmother figure," said Mr. Hebert,
who has found himself back in Ms. Blanco's good graces. "But she can be very
But the impression of Ms. Blanco's toughness seemed to fade with the
floodwaters. In recent weeks, Republicans on a select Congressional
committee investigating the response to the hurricane have argued that Ms.
Blanco's staff seemed obsessed with politics, public relations and
criticizing the Bush administration, using e-mail messages released by the
governor's office as evidence.
In one message, an aide wrote that Ms. Blanco could not take a call from
Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, because she might have
been napping. (Her staff said she was actually working but out of reach.) In
another, a consultant offered Liz Claiborne clothes "that look kind of Eddie
Bauer, but with class," to help Ms. Blanco look like she was "doing
something 'physical.' "
In yet another, Ms. Blanco's spokeswoman, Denise Bottcher, raised concerns
that Ms. Blanco, whom she calls KBB, "is doing too many 'first lady' things
and not enough John Wayne. Women are easily portrayed as weak which KBB has
had a hard time over coming. I will say again ... men cry - compassion:
women cry - weak."
Ms. Bottcher said she ignored the offer of Liz Claiborne clothes. And she
said her John Wayne e-mail message was in response to the daily derision of
male radio talk show hosts who disliked Ms. Blanco's public displays of
Ms. Blanco has been blunt in blaming the White House for starting what she
called "the mantra" of criticism against her. But Congressional Republicans,
in part trying to deflect widespread criticism of the Bush administration's
actions after the hurricane, have expressed dismay with what they consider
her unwillingness to accept responsibility for a weak response to the
In a Dec. 14 hearing, Republicans peppered Ms. Blanco with questions about
why she did not order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans and why she
resisted President's Bush's proposal to federalize national guard troops.
Ms. Blanco returned their fire gamely. When Representative Jeff Miller,
Republican of Florida, called it "not acceptable" that Louisiana had
suffered 1,100 deaths in one storm, "one-half of the men and women that we
have lost in Operation Iraqi Freedom," Ms. Blanco shot back, "Then it's not
acceptable for us to lose 52 soldiers either," referring to the state's
losses in Iraq.
Some Republicans and nonpartisan analysts said her performance seemed
defensive and did not help her cause in Washington. But Ms. Blanco asserted
that Louisianians loved her sharp retorts, which were broadcast live on many
local radio and television stations.
"People have a whole new appreciation for what I've been dealing with," she
said. "They wanted someone to stand up for Louisiana."
Ms. Blanco has been similarly upbeat in describing the special legislative
session she called last month. She had been criticized as slow to call the
session and then for offering a long agenda of more than 70 items.
But in the end, she won several major victories: budget cuts totaling more
than $600 million, Louisiana's first statewide building code, new power for
a state coastal protection authority to oversee hurricane protection
projects, and the New Orleans school takeover bill.
Still, Ms. Blanco has come under fire for not throwing her weight behind
legislation proposed by State Senator Walter J. Boasso, a Republican from
Arabi, that would consolidate levee boards in the New Orleans area. The
boards, which oversee levee maintenance, are considered corrupt and
inefficient, and many experts believe they must be revamped or combined
before the levee system can be improved.
Angered by inaction on Senator Boasso's bill, a grass-roots organization in
New Orleans gathered 45,000 signatures demanding a special session to enact
levee consolidation. And the New Orleans Business Council took out full-page
newspaper advertisements advocating the bill's passage.
Many political analysts viewed Ms. Blanco's failure to support Senator
Boasso's bill as evidence of her plodding, cautious approach to government.
"There really is this growing sense that there is this absolutely terrible
lack of leadership in the state that is hurting us at every turn," said
Elliott B. Stonecipher, a nonpartisan pollster from Shreveport.
Ms. Blanco defended her legislation, which authorized the Office of Coastal
Restoration and Management to withhold money from poorly performing levee
boards, as superior to Mr. Boasso's. But she said she was leaning toward
calling a special session in late January to enact levee consolidation.
Her greatest challenge may be surviving Louisiana politics. The legislative
black caucus, an important ally, is angry with her for enacting deep budget
cuts. At the same time, the state Republican Party continues to criticize
her, recently issuing bumper stickers that read, "Don't blame me, I voted
And even many Democrats may not be solid supporters. Several legislators who
are barred by term limits from seeking re-election in 2007 are considering
challenging her. Lt. Gov. Mitchell J. Landrieu, brother of Senator Mary L.
Landrieu, is also considered a potential candidate.
"There is blood in the water, and the sharks are circling," Mr. Hebert said.
But Ms. Blanco says she has time to recover.
"The whole story has not been told yet, and it will be told," she said. "All
I can do is rebuild. And if we do it well and help as many people as we can,
that will have its payoffs."