Louisiana’s first female governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco dies at 76

Updated: Aug. 19, 2019 at 4:41 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, the first woman to be elected governor of Louisiana, has died at the age of 76. Blanco, a Democrat, served as Louisiana’s 54th Governor from Jan. 2004 to Jan. 2008. She died at 2:54 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18.

A native of New Iberia, Kathleen Babineaux was always proud of her Cajun ancestry and made the same proud as she became a woman of firsts.

She graduated with a degree in education from University of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). Kathleen married coach Raymond Blanco.

The two would create a big family of four girls and two sons. After teaching business at Breaux Bridge - she turned to politics and public service.

Elected as one of the few female legislators in 1983, Blanco found her way eventually becoming elected to the public service commission where she became the first woman ever- elected to the commission, she would even go on to chair the commission.

But Kathleen Blanco had bigger ambitions and looked toward the governor’s mansion, serving a heartbeat away as Lieutenant Governor for eight years alongside Governor Mike Foster. During that time Kathleen Blanco’s son, Ben, was killed in a shipyard accident.

It was a moment she says helped define her.

As Governor Mike Foster neared the end of his second term, he had pretty much handpicked his successor, a “boy wonder” of sorts, in Bobby Jindal. Jindal was one of the youngest men ever to lead a state agency and someone who seemed to have unlimited potential.

This would set up Kathleen Blanco vs. Bobby Jindal in an epic Louisiana showdown. The winner would lead the state.

The campaign left Louisiana with an unusual choice: a young man who didn't look like many in the state and a woman. Either one would be historic.

The polls were here and there leading into the final debate. Many, including Blanco herself, believe her answer to a single question helped propel her past Jindal.

Both candidates were asked to describe a defining moment in their life.

Jindal, even then known for canned and almost at times answers that seemed rehearsed and robotic- gave an answer almost no one really remembers.

But Kathleen Blanco used the moment to describe the death of her son.

In the end, humanity won the day and Louisiana got its first female governor.

While Louisiana had its first female leader, another woman of sorts was about to cut the party short and have her way with Louisiana. Mother nature ushered in back to back hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, and changed the state and its governor.

Governor Blanco will forever be interwoven with the historic winds of Katrina. Both good and bad and both leaving an indelible mark on Louisiana.

With the weight of so many lives hanging on her, Governor Blanco seemed to age almost overnight. A criticism she responded to on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

RELATED: Gov. Blanco Says She should have Joined Republican Party after Katrina

“Well, there always is that, ‘oh well she’s a woman, it’s more than she can handle,’ you know that kind of business? But I would tell you, I think I was the clear headed one and people from outside of Louisiana are the ones who noted it the most,” Blanco told WAFB in 2015.

In the first hours after Katrina hit and the levees broke, and just as stories about looters in New Orleans threatening people and rescue efforts started to surface, Governor Blanco shocked even those closest to her when she deployed her national guard and gave this warning:

“These troops are fresh back from Iraq. They are well-trained, experienced, battle-tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets... They have M-16′s, and they’re locked and loaded. When hoodlums victimize and inflict suffering on people at their wit’s end, they’re taking away our limited resources, or whatever resources we have, to save babies, or save children and to save good people. I have one message for these hoodlums. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will,” Blanco said at a press conference during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Looking back on Katrina, Governor Blanco shared, having lost a child of her own, there was one encounter with a man that stuck with her as she walked through the disastrous shelter of last resort in the (then) Louisiana Superdome.

“He was just holding his baby up and he was saying, ‘Governor my baby hasn’t bathed in three days, Governor I need to have food for my baby.’ And I said, ‘we’re going to get you to safety, we’re going to get you out of here and we’re going to bring in supplies in the meantime.’ But, it was just heartbreaking.”

When asked if she ever lost her cool behind the scenes in the chaotic aftermath of the hurricane, Blanco told WAFB’s Greg Meriwether, “Did I lose my cool on the air? No, not really. I tried not to do that at any point in time because, so many people were we’re losing their cool, I thought somebody better look like a sane person in Louisiana or nobody’s going to want to help us.”

Both the state and federal response to the historic storm seemed bumbled at times. Something President Bush and Governor Blanco would eventually apologize for. In the midst of the storm Blanco shared with us that privately she had a “come to Jesus moment” with her staff:

“I said, we are wasting our energy. Those who are attacking us are sitting in a nice air-conditioning, comfortable chairs planning public relations initiatives to go after us. We on the other hand do not have the luxury of that. We are fighting to save lives. So, I want you to stop. I want you to stop now and I want you to use your energy to do what our main mission is. And they looked at me and they were pretty upset with me telling them they couldn’t fight the White House and the national media outlets that were challenging us and they said, ‘they are going to destroy you governor’ and I said the truth will prevail.”

Governor Blanco would emerge from Katrina with a new mission: recovery. Fighting the federal government for help in putting Louisiana back together again.

She fixated, in part, on reviving that symbol of despair - the Superdome shelter of last resort.

“They needed to have that relief they needed to have that break a really important break and to also see that something really big could be redone in the city of New Orleans. It’s a symbol of victory. It’s the victory over despair- over disaster. It’s a symbol. Just gave them heart. They needed that encouragement. They needed that vision and that heart, and it affirmed the fact that yes we can recover and we can be as good and better than we were before.”

In 2011, Governor Blanco, now private citizen Blanco, revealed she had been diagnosed with a rare eye cancer. Her prognosis then was a good one with the caveat the rare cancer could show up again.

And it did, right in the middle of enjoying what she called ‘A life rich with a mega-sized family’ complete with 13 grandchildren.

The aggressive cancer returned to her liver.

Before her death, Governor Blanco wrote a letter to Louisiana asking for prayers.

She thanked the people of her state and compared her time as governor and the trials of Katrina to that of a woman in the bible saying in part:

"In my heart, I always understood God was preparing me for unknown challenges. And of course, those challenges came..."

"It has been an honor and blessing to have been chosen, like Esther, to lead our people at such a time as this...."

Details regarding services to celebrate her life and legacy will be issued in the coming days.

Read the full statement issued about her death below:

“Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco peacefully passed away on August 18, 2019 at St. Joseph’s Hospice Carpenter House in Lafayette, Louisiana, surrounded by her beloved husband Raymond, her children and family.

She was a woman of grace, faith and hope. She has left an eternal mark on all who knew her, because she was generous and unconditional in her love, warm in her embrace and genuinely interested in the welfare of others.

While she knew that her name would forever be linked with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it was her dying wish that she be remembered for her faith in God, commitment to family and love of Louisiana.

As Louisiana's first female governor, her prestigious career cannot be separated from her faith and family - all are intertwined. In her words, her public service provided an opportunity for her “to be the voice of the voiceless; to shape the rising tide that lifts all boats; to advocate for policies and changes that make good common sense; and to have a positive impact on the lives of all people.

Our hearts are broken, but we are joyful in knowing that she is rejoicing in her heavenly reunion with Christ. Please pray for God’s peace to carry us through the coming days and months of sorrow as we mourn her absence from our lives."

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