‘A big, generous heart’: Former aides remember Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco

Louisiana

When doctors diagnosed former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco with terminal eye cancer in late 2017, they said she had but months to live.

Blanco’s death Sunday afternoon, nearly two years since her diagnosis, came later than some of her closest confidants ever expected. Former aides who praise Blanco’s listening skills say her final months offered a gift — to hear one more time from the people she met.

“There was a peace about her,” said LSU journalism professor Robert Mann, who served as the former governor’s communications director. “I do believe that she was blessed with hearing from a lot of people. I’m glad she had that.”

“She made you feel very special, like you were the only person on Earth she was talking to,” said state Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed, who served as Blanco’s deputy chief of staff. “She had a big, generous heart with room for everybody.”

Blanco, a former high school teacher, was one of the first women to navigate Louisiana politics. The Democrat joined the state political scene in 1984, as one of the few female state representatives. In 1989, she became the first female member of the state’s Public Service Commission. She was elected lieutenant governor in 1996, serving until she became the state’s first female governor in 2004.

Blanco’s governorship met backlash when Hurricane Katrina hit south Louisiana in August 2005. The storm left more than 1,400 people dead and thousands more without homes. Critics argued that state government leaders, including the governor, responded too slowly. Amid the tensions, Blanco chose not to seek a second term.

“To her credit, she never shifted blame back,” Mann said. “She just took it and did the best job she could.”

Education policy was Blanco’s strong suit, her former aides recall. She raised salaries for public school teachers, a feat not repeated until 2019 — almost 15 years later.

“Because there was a Kathleen Blanco, there will be students with access to need-based aid,” Reed said. “So many people are grateful that they knew Kathleen Blanco and sad that she had passed, but certainly rejoicing because she was a woman of deep faith.”

The former Kathleen Babineaux, 76, leaves behind husband Raymond “Coach” Blanco and five children. Her sixth child, Ben, died in an industrial crane accident in 1997.

Blanco also leaves behind five grandchildren. Reed recalls when Louisiana’s first female governor once asked a grandson if he ever thought about becoming governor someday.

“No way!” the boy exclaimed, according to Reed. “Being governor is a girl’s job.”

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