- Associated Press - Sunday, May 2, 2021

NEW IBERIA, La. (AP) - Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s political reputation has been in a state of recovery, and impetus for the turnaround seems to be coming from the places she called home.

Here’s how newfound affection for the state’s 54th governor, who died in August 2019, is revealing itself:

- Her hometown of New Iberia is planning a 3:30 p.m. May 12 unveiling of a state marker honoring her at Bouligny Plaza, 128 W. Main St. Gov. John Bel Edwards, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, family members and state and local officials have been invited. The public is invited, too; an invitation-only reception will follow.

- Blocks away, at the Bayou Teche Museum, 131 E. Main St., plans are progressing for a permanent Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco exhibit, to measure about 10-by-40, in an expanded wing. Plans call for Phase I to be completed by January. Bids are also being sought for a bronze, life-size depiction of the governor, perhaps a statue, which may be placed in front of the museum.

- The Blanco Public Policy Center, located at her alma mater, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, formally opened in 2019, weeks before her Aug. 18, 2019 death after an eight-year battle with cancer.

“She is more and more appreciated now,” Erroll Babineaux, the governor’s youngest sibling, said last week. “She’s not in office anymore, she’s not a threat to anyone. There’s more reality about what she did.”

Babineaux had a ready list of achievements from his sister’s lone term as governor, 2004-2008, which included robust efforts for Louisiana to catch up in K-12 and higher education and provide pay hikes for teachers and law enforcement.

Babineaux recalled that prior to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, his sister’s approval rating as Louisiana’s chief executive was 68 percent. The storm of the century battered New Orleans, he said, and “politics ensued.”

Stephen Barnes, Blanco Public Policy Center director, said “no state, let alone a relatively small one, could have been adequately prepared” for the destruction the storm delivered and its aftermath, in particular the failure of New Orleans’ levees. He said as time has passed, Louisianians have a “much better perspective on the challenges of Katrina.” It took a decade to get to that understanding and to reconsider her service as governor.

Consider, Barnes said, that many of Louisiana’s resources for helping the state were “incapacitated” because they were in New Orleans, where the storm hit. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita, historic for its damage to southwestern Louisiana, struck the coast there.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially struggled mightily to help residents battered by the storms - the agency and its leadership flopped. Local, state and federal leaders quarreled. When order broke down in New Orleans, Blanco was shorthanded for help from the National Guard; more than a third of the Louisiana Guard was serving in the Middle East.

Only in reflection can people remember and understand Blanco’s role during the hurricanes and beyond. Barnes, an economist, said Blanco and her administration worked hard after the storm to set Louisiana on a recovery path and largely succeeded.

In Iberia Parish, residents who treasure Blanco’s connection to their community did not doubt she is worthy of honor and that her political career deserves study and reflection. Marcia Patout, Bayou Teche Museum director, said last week that the state plaque, approved by the lieutenant governor’s office, has arrived and is in storage for next month’s unveiling in perhaps the most prominent spot in town.

Cost of the plaque - approval was requested about a year ago - was $3,000 and was funded by Dr. John Cadwell and his wife, Priscilla, who is Blanco’s sister, and the Iberia Preservation Alliance. Patout and Pat Kahail worked on the plaque’s wording.

The museum exhibit will feature her Capitol desk and chair plus flags that flew for her over the U.S. Capitol and the Louisiana Capitol. There is a wealth of video featuring Blanco and other items and artifacts that will require monitors, photo montages, signage and display cases. Estimated cost of the exhibit is $150,000 to $200,000; the cost of a statue might be more than $80,000. But the museum said Louisiana’s first female governor and Iberia’s native daughter deserves the best the museum and Louisiana can offer.

E. Joseph Savoie, president of UL Lafayette, said raising money for Blanco might be made easier because she endeared herself to people over many decades in public service. She served in the Louisiana House of Representatives, on the Public Service Commission and as lieutenant governor before winning the governorship in a runoff over Bobby Jindal. He said there’s “no question” that people are re-evaluating her term with more favor.

“The emotion has calmed down and people have been more thoughtful and analytical and looked at results,” he said. “She never forgot why she ran for office, which was to help make people’s lives better.”

Louisianians have over time gained more appreciation for the “catastrophic events” that occurred during her term. And, he said, “even her antagonists never doubted her sincerity and commitment.”

“She was a strong leader during a difficult time. She stayed focused, stayed committed and never gave up,” he said, recalling Blanco’s efforts to secure federal funding from a reluctant George W. Bush administration. “The Road Home program, she had to fight for that. Mississippi got almost the same amount of money (as Louisiana) but we had three times the damage.”

Savoie said part of Blanco’s attraction to voters was the personal touch she showed to others. She routinely traveled her district and later the state to appear at public events and was approachable to people. She remembered people’s names, their family members and issues of concern.

“She was establishing relationships,” Savoie said of her visits to remote towns and communities in Louisiana. “People got to know her. It didn’t matter what opponents said about her because they knew her through personal relationships,” he said. “She remembered what you said and was sincerely interested in individuals and their needs.”

He said fundraising for the Blanco Center was successful because of the personal connections she made over the years to others, the countless phone calls she made - “quiet, with no fanfare” - to check up on people. “It was a very sincere thing. She would listen and follow up and remember you next time.”

Barnes said it’s important to remember that Blanco had a long and honorable political career before becoming governor. Her work was favorable enough with voters, he said, that it helped her win the governorship.

Her dedication to the state was complete, he said.

“She made a pretty bold choice in opening up her archive for all and using it for creating a public policy center,” he said. “It was named in her honor, but not intended for her to pursue political objectives. Opening up one’s archive is a difficult thing for people to do. But she let others learn from her experience.”

Reviewing her choices and decision-making during crisis might help Louisiana leaders prepare for and avoid mistakes in the future. The center, he said, makes a “sustained effort for research that will help Louisiana move forward.”

Pearson Cross, a political scientist at UL Lafayette, said re-evaluations of Blanco’s governorship should remind people to withhold their appraisals of public officials until well after they serve in office.

“We have to review their deeds in the context of time,” he said. “With perspective, views can change.”

Cross pointed to the end of President Harry Truman’s administration, when a weary public was glad to see him leave office. When he handed over the reins of government to President Eisenhower, most of the public perceived him as a “failed haberdasher from Missouri.” Ten years later, Cross said, they saw Truman in a different and more favorable light.

When Blanco declined to seek a second term in 2007, Cross said, many people saw the opportunity to vote for the man she defeated in 2003, Bobby Jindal, as “almost a re-do” of the last election.

“Now, after two terms of Jindal, Louisiana has returned to a more centrist governor style” with John Bel Edwards, he said. “There is some wellspring of good feeling for her.”

History, he said, will be kinder to Blanco than the public was in 2006 and 2007.

“Kathleen Blanco will be seen as a successful governor, well liked, who favored meaningful legislation. She faced an event that was unfathomable at the time. My sense is her stock will continue to rise.”

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