With the honesty of a woman facing a terminal diagnosis, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco recently told well-wishers that no one would have ever chosen to be governor of Louisiana when hurricanes Katrina and Rita savaged the state in 2005.

In the wake of Katrina, she went to the Superdome personally to meet refugees from the flooding, a visit that her aides wished she had publicized. But after the first, sad weeks of the event, a long slog was ahead.

She was always unapologetic that she gave everything she had to the recovery effort, after flooding caused by the failed levees devastated the greater New Orleans area.

Her mantra, “I gave it my all,” still resonated when she opted against a bid for reelection in 2007. Blanco died Sunday at age 76.

Because the storms were such a defining moment for her term in office, it is unfortunate that she never wrote a memoir of the experience, including the sharp conflict with then-President George W. Bush and his aides in the immediate aftermath, and then the long ordeal of fighting for federal aid equal to the damage suffered in Louisiana.

Wife and mother in a large and politically active family, Blanco held a number of firsts, including her role as the first woman to be governor of Louisiana. She served in the Legislature and on the Public Service Commission, showing a political savvy that eventually won her the top office in the state in 2003 over a young Bobby Jindal, who was to succeed her in 2008.

She was often called a moderate, working across party lines in the style of a pro-business Democrat. She was a strong supporter of public education, boosting teacher pay to the average in the Southern states, a goal often set at the State Capitol but only achieved on her watch. Blanco was equally a vigorous advocate for higher education, and her tenure is now looked back on as the halcyon days when Louisiana backed its colleges and universities.

Kathleen Blanco: My life has been charmed, challenged by many unexpected events

Kathleen Blanco: My life has been charmed, challenged by many unexpected events

On public health and financial grounds, she sought to raise the cigarette tax and at the same time backed tax breaks she thought good for business development.

Of course, her career changed post-Katrina. Gathering a broad-based Recovery Authority to coordinate state efforts, she lobbied ferociously for federal aid, at the time a harder sell than is understood today. Tougher new building standards were enacted for the future.

Ultimately, a multibillion-dollar flood protection system was created by the U.S. government for metropolitan New Orleans. Her contributions, though, were probably greater in the realm of education in the flood-ravaged city.

Before the storms, bucking her own supporters in teacher groups, she had pushed a Recovery School District to turn around tragically underperforming schools in the Crescent City. After Katrina, a dramatically new system of charter schools replaced the old failing Orleans Parish School Board.

A generation of public school students in New Orleans benefited greatly from Blanco’s leadership. She started as a public school teacher and was probably more pleased with that result than anything else.

—The (Baton Rouge) Advocate

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