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An Interview with Governor Kathleen Blanco

2015 Louisiana Governors Project

An Interview with Governor Kathleen Blanco

As part of The Louisiana Governors Project, the LEH interviewed past governors about their time in office and their reflections on the roles and responsibilities of that office. 64 Parishes’ Brian Boyles sat down with former Governor Kathleen Blanco at her home in Lafayette in 2015. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

The George Rodrigue painting behind you reads, “No French is to be spoken in school.” Was that bias part of your growing up?

Blanco: It was not part of my growing up but it was part of my father’s growing up. My father told us stories. Every time anybody spoke of it or remembered it, he would say that he was one of those people who were punished for speaking French in school. It was his first language. The interesting thing is that his siblings, he was one of ten and he was right in the middle, spoke French at home only and English everywhere else as they grew up. They never spoke to their parents in English; they only spoke to their parents in French.

Let’s talk about your childhood and early adulthood. What are your first memories of Louisiana politics?

Blanco: I had an uncle who ran for office; he was the City Marshall. He ran every year but as years went on I think he had little to no opposition. He was a public office holder. Then when I got into my teenage years, my father ran for two offices and lost both times. So I actually hated politics! [Laughs] I didn’t like it; I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t like the idea of him losing. It was painful. I came away growing up with not feeling good about politics. We have a family picture where the second go round I tell my brothers and sisters to hold their heads up very high because my father was going to have flyers printed with our family pictures on them. I was the oldest of seven. I said, “Hold your heads up high because these flyers are going to be down on the streets. People are going to be stepping on them and rolling on them. You might as well be proud as you can be.”

That was my earlier introduction. Then in my young adulthood, [US Senator] Bennett Johnston was running for governor against Edwin Edwards and a friend of mine in New Iberia wanted us to support him. I said I really didn’t want to do that because it was time for a South Louisiana governor. Other friends had some ideas about Edwin that didn’t fit well with my sense of who should be governor. I was in a quandary and I did finally meet [Johnson] and he told me he couldn’t help where he grew up and where he was born and would I please help him. We got very much engaged in his campaign. At another point in my life, I helped to run the Jimmy Carter campaign office here in Lafayette.

How did you decide to first run for office?

Blanco: I had done some work for the Census Bureau. It was my first foray; I had six children and it was my first job outside of my home. I was just finishing up with that work and I told my husband, since that’s the first job that I had outside the home, I needed to continue earning money to help us with our six children. He’s an educator and of course, educators don’t make a huge amount of money. I said I had learned a lot about myself in that job with the Census Bureau. I learned that I’m a very hard worker so I wanted to do one of two things, either go into business for myself or do public service. I didn’t know what that was going to translate into; I had no idea. It could’ve been working for a non-profit or something.

I first explored the opportunity of having an insurance agency. I was bombed out of that by a man who thought I had too many children and that I was going to lose my husband because the work was so very hard. Then I started doing re-apportionment for local government…. I worked in different parishes but I did some work in Lafayette and [some friends] said, “Why don’t you draw yourself a district?” I said, “I’m not interested in running for office, it’s the last thing on my mind.”

Then I began to interact with public officials and I began to see some of the work that they did and understand it differently. Understand it from an adult perspective. Then one day, I read that my own legislator had retired. I began to realize that I had been reading about the Legislature since I was in college through The Advocate. It was the journal that covered the Legislature most thoroughly. When I found it when I got to [University of Louisiana at Lafayette], I just thought this was the most fascinating information that I’d ever been exposed to. I put those two things together and when [the legislator] retired, I read it in the paper. When my husband walked in that afternoon, I said, “I know what I’m going to do with my future.” He said, “What?” I said, “I’m going to run for this legislative seat.” He said, “You’re going to do what? We have six children.” I said, “It’s okay, let’s just talk about it. We’ll check it out a little bit.”

I tried to get people who were in the Legislature to define a day in the life of a legislator for me, and then a month and a year, and what it felt like and what the demands were. Then I had to decide whether or not I could raise money. I gave myself a goal on Sunday night. In the middle of the night, I woke up and I thought, “If I can’t raise money, then I can’t run.” So I said, “By next Saturday, I have one week. If I can raise $10,000 then maybe I can be a candidate.” I had so many things to do between Sunday and Wednesday. It was Wednesday before I could even stop to make phone calls. By Wednesday night, I had $9,000 committed and I knew all that money was not actually going to come in. So many people had committed to helping me. I decided, “OK, I can do this, I can go.”

What was family life, once you entered into Legislature with six children at home? How did you manage it?

Blanco: It was complex; a new dynamic happened before I left home to go to the Legislature. My husband was a perfectly spoiled husband. He didn’t boil water; I took care of his every single need. I was a very traditional wife. Took care of my six children, did all the running and cooking and everything that needed to be done. When I first started in the Legislature, we were there for very long hours. I was extremely disappointed in the schedule. We weren’t leaving until about 7pm. Every weekend, I would cook four burners worth of food to feed my kids for the week. Towards the end of that first session, we started working Saturdays and Sundays because of the lazy schedule proceeding that time and to clear all the bills. We had to work for four weeks on Saturdays and Sundays, which prevented me from cooking.

I got a call one day from my husband and he said, “You’ve got to teach me how to cook.” He said, “I cannot eat another bite of fast food. No more hamburgers, no more pizza, no more fried chicken.” He said, “I can’t take it.” I said, “What do you want to cook?” He said, “How about that spaghetti of my mothers that you learned how to cook?” Over the phone from my desk in the Legislature, I taught my husband how to cook spaghetti using his own mother’s recipe. Since that time, I have never had to cook spaghetti again! [Laughs} He cooks it better than me, better than I ever thought I could and he has become a cook of sorts. He learned how to cook other things and it’s just been a grand thing. Also, he became more attached to the children and paid more attention to their daily needs. Their little comings and goings. He was always a good father but it was more of a broad thing. Now he had to take care of those little things.

Our family dynamic changed on pretty dramatically and it was a really fun and wonderful thing to watch because Raymond became this super great father. Kind of a housekeeper a little bit, and a really wonderful cook.

You have the unique position of serving as lieutenant governor for two terms before you became governor. What kind of education was that as far as the needs of people around the state and the job of governor?

Blanco: That experience was fantastic. It’s a job that I absolutely loved doing, and I had a good, talented team of people around me. That’s what I like to do. I like to have really smart, good, talented people around me. It put us in every nook and cranny of the state. I realized how desperate some of our smaller communities are for economic activity and tourism is one way of spurring on the economy. It’s also a way of calling to the attention of the local community leaders, the need to keep their downtowns alive so that you can be a place of interest. If you have downtown sit boarded up–and that was a big phenomenon when the big box stores came into Louisiana. It killed the downtowns of so many communities. They had nothing of interest going on. We paid particular attention to the programs that bring those communities back alive. It was just the most magnificent thing to watch, communities renewing themselves, small towns renewing themselves. It was very fulfilling work.

We worked really hard as a team to try to unify Louisiana. My goal was to unify Louisiana and make everyone feel as though they had a tremendous amount of worth. I saw in that the most wonderful people all across the spectrum that I just dearly appreciate today and think so fondly of. I think that it was a time of getting to know Louisiana in a more personal way that a lot of people have never experienced.

The 2003 election was historic. You were the first major female candidate. Your opponent, Bobby Jindal, was the first non-white candidate since Reconstruction. What about your campaign spoke to voters in Louisiana? What were the ideas that really struck a chord with people that year?

Blanco: I think that Louisiana people saw that I was a very hard working lieutenant governor and that my work was directed. It wasn’t superficial. It was very, very deep and directed to supporting an economy, to helping businesses to revitalize themselves. I think that those relationships across Louisiana were very critical and people understanding the value that I brought to the table. We also were number one in growth in tourism. It was hard for Louisiana to be number one in good things, it was very difficult. This was one area that we were able to focus heavily on and we just had so much fun doing it, but it was a lot of hard work. It feels like fun to create an atmosphere where people can thrive, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of effort. I believe that the relationships that I built through those very hardcore efforts served me well. I think in the end the people of Louisiana understood that it’s more about people than numbers. I think that Bobby Jindal at that time was very much numerically oriented and I think it proved out over the years. He thought more of trying to shrink government than to serve people. I don’t think you should ever waste government money and I don’t consider investing in my people to be a waste.

When you took office, you’re very experienced in public service. During those first 100 days, were there surprises about the actual roles and responsibilities that you had or things that you could never had foreseen until you actually took that seat?

Blanco: I was not surprised in the first 100 days. I had been around governors, served in office for 20 years leading up to the governor’s seat. I was very well schooled in the dynamics on what governors do and don’t do. I guess the bigger challenge did come later when we had Katrina, which devastated our largest population, and it became a challenge of a different kind.

You mentioned that you wanted to get smart, capable people on board. How did you go about putting together your team and the people to serve in that administration?

Blanco: You have to trust your instincts. First of all, I came from a university setting. My husband was at UL for over 40 years and I knew a lot of really bright, smart people. Some of those people were trained in certain areas that they could be asked to serve in important roles. Others, on the other hand, applied and went through an evaluation by large committees of people. Then I’d interviewed, say, the last three, sometimes four, and then I would have to make a decision. In those instances, I had to trust my gut. I looked at their backgrounds and I compared it to the job that I wanted and needed done. I had to trust my gut, knowing that a lot of people had already reviewed these folks. They were not people I knew and I will tell you that my team was great. It really was a strong team and each one served so profoundly well. I’ve always been so proud of them.

The Legislature is part of that team as well. The governor picks who they want their floor leaders to be. How did you go about identifying those people?

Blanco: There’s always a move in the Legislature to be independent, to chose their own leadership. I had kind of entertained the thought of letting them do that. The irony is, at the end of the day, they were struggling and trying to figure out where I was in the picture. After I saw this jockeying and got so many calls from legislators asking me who I thought would be the best, I finally just said, okay, I’m going to go with the tradition and just say, okay I like Joe Salter for speaker and Donald Hines [for] president of the Senate. It was one of those things where I gave the legislature some time and they weren’t happy with thinking or going on their own instincts. They really wanted the guidance. I don’t know if they would still be like that today but I’d hope so for the governor’s sake because it is very important to have leaders who a governor can trust. Assuming the governor is doing the right thing, you want leaders that you can trust who will help you to do the things that you believe are important for Louisiana.

It’s interesting. We’ve talked to your colleagues [former governors Edwards, Roemer and Foster]. They’ve all identify this feeling that the governor is quite powerful and the Legislature may want more power, or perhaps should have more power. There seems to be this ongoing dialogue about that in modern Louisiana–who actually should be generating policies and ideas.

Blanco: I think as long as the governor has veto power, line-item veto power over the budget, which is absolutely necessary to make sure the budgets are in line with where they need to be, I think as long as the governor can pick and choose amongst the capital outlay projects that the Legislature votes for…. They pile it in and so the end result is that very few projects find their way to fruition. The governor actually makes those decisions. Those two elements give the governor a superior position over the Legislature…. Those two things give the Governor a very significant amount of power.

How did you evaluate capital outlay requests?

Blanco: We did it based on a system of priorities. We needed state projects done before local projects. It’s very complicated to get a project together. You have to have very open bid processes; you have understand the project pretty thoroughly. Your people, your architects and engineers–whatever kind of project it is, [they] have to know what they’re dealing with. When the bids come in it’s a long process. Not every project is ready, “shovel ready,” as we might call it. Until that point, they just sort of float in the system and they might need a little bit of money to keep the project moving until the day it’s shovel ready. When they get shovel ready, they’ve got priorities. The state projects in my administration took a higher priority than local projects.

Education was always a priority for you. What were your education initiatives?

Blanco: There were several things that occurred during my administration. We created pre-K education classes for, I think, every single parish. At-risk children could reach pre-K education. There is some probably nervousness amongst parents. They don’t want it absolutely in law that you have to send a three or four-year-old into the classrooms. Most families do that and they use private pre-K schools, daycare centers and things like that. Kids that were coming from low-income families are considered at-risk, at-risk educationally. They were not getting that kind of educational exposure. Upper-income families all made sure that their children were in these good pre-K classes. We wanted at-risk children to be exposed to very strong teachers teaching them the fundamentals at early ages and especially vocabulary building. We saw that those same children by the time they hit the fourth grade were far excelling over the children that did not have that exposure. Their vocabularies were huge by the end of that first-year experience. They might come up knowing 65 words and leave with 1500. That’s how dramatic a difference it made.

I also brought teacher pay and university funding up to the Southern regional average or just right above it. Our projection showed that with all things being the same a normal growth in government, nothing exceptional. You did not have to pass taxes. We could sustain those positions for a very long time and compete quite favorably with other states in the Southern region. The Southern region goes from Delaware all the way to along the East Coast down into Louisiana in Texas. That was a feat that had not been accomplished in a long, long time….

We just observed the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Obviously, you were very busy during the commemoration events. Looking back a month later, what was that experience of commemoration like for you?

Blanco: I thought the commemoration pieces that happened in New Orleans were just right. You needed to acknowledge the work that’s been done, and you needed to acknowledge how all that came about. That was through a lot of hard work on the part of Louisiana people through a lot of planning. From my perspective, it took a lot of work to get enough federal money so that we could have a recovery. If we didn’t have that access, if Senator Landrieu had not been there, I’m afraid that Louisiana would not be nearly recovered as we are now. Katrina was a terrible blow to southeast Louisiana. We’ve just celebrated Hurricane Rita’s 10th anniversary this week. As I told the people in southwest Louisiana, “We didn’t lose any lives because we were smart and learned the lessons of Katrina.” The people of Cameron Parish, I think 100% of people of Cameron Parish evacuated, and I’m so proud of the good work that they did. We could have had a worse situation in Katrina if we had not had a good evacuation plan ourselves. We evacuated 1.3 million people out of a region of 1.4 million people. About a little, I’d say about 40% of those who had stayed behind, had to stay behind because of their work. They were public safety officials, they were hospital doctors and nurses and they were first responders. In many places, there were about 50,0000 or 60,0000 people who made a bad decision, who did not or could not get out.

Those are big lessons to be learned. I think the big thing that we teach our young people especially is evacuate, evacuate. Get your family to get out of town and get far away. That’s asking a lot of some families. They don’t have financial wherewithal to do that and we have to be aware of all of that.

I was told you working on your memoirs. Is that true?

Blanco: I am, and it’s labor of love. It’s had many interruptions. Health-wise, family-wise, but I have a great deal out of it. I’m doing family history, so it’s not a storm book. Lots of people have written those. I will address some of the things that we dealt with during the hurricane seasons, but it’s more comprehensive view and it does try to tell how a person like me became governor. That would be part of it.

If you were elected governor today, what would be your first policy initiatives?

Blanco: I think I would definitely reverse some of the tax breaks that were passed, some of the ones that I vetoed already. Not only did they come back and pass those, but they multiplied the value very dramatically on some of those. That would be the first thing that I would do. A lot of them are for businesses and it’s possible that the whole way that we tax businesses needs to be reviewed and revamped. I think we will do a deep analysis of that, one that businesses would understand and be able to count on. When you have exemptions for this, that and the other, those exemptions become very selective. Some businesses benefit and some businesses are penalized. You get an unfair situation. I think that would be one of the first things I would do. To try to stabilize the economic impact of what’s going on. The state has been driven into a bankrupt hole and I don’t know if the citizens understand just how deep it is and how big of a problem.

I do feel sorry for the next governor I must tell you. It’s not going to be easy. Legislators are going to have to have a lot of courage, and sometimes that’s a hard value to find when they think it might hurt them in their next elections. I think if you do right by Louisiana citizens, I think they appreciate you. I know that when I first took office in the Legislature, we had very rough times and I had to vote for some taxes and I became governor. They shouldn’t be afraid.

I’ll close with another hypothetical question: if you had an hour with that new governor during his first week in office, what kind of advice would you give about how to lead and how to fulfill the demands of that role?

Blanco: I would say get to know the legislatures as individuals. I tried very hard to meet with each of them individually before the session. I met all day long, every single day and I don’t think I quite met my goals so I had to start bringing in groups. It’s just a lot, lot of people that you want to know personally. You just need to understand a little bit about their districts and understand where they’re coming from. I think a good legislative experience is important. It brings great value.

Then I think that you need to be clear in your goals, in your aspirations and what you expect out of them. I think that you should help to make sure that whoever the leaders are, will understand that this is not just this honorary position. That they are going to be some very tough things asked of them and it’s not going to be easy for them to follow the next Governor. No matter who that Governor might be, it’s just simply not going to be easy. There are a lot of bullets that are going to have to be bitten if we’re going to straighten out the mess that Louisiana is finding itself right now.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

Blanco: I just want to say that it’s probably been the greatest honor of my life. I’ve had a number of jobs through my life and through my careers. Each job that I had, it was a job that I absolutely love doing. Each new job that I got, I loved even better than the one before. Being governor in the aftermath of two of the nation’s most devastating hurricanes was not an easy period for any of us because so many people were hurt. I worked extremely hard and I understand now that God determines our destiny and God put me where he needed me to be. I feel that the people of Louisiana were well served because of my presence.

I had to fight very hard in Washington to justify the billions and billions of dollars that we brought to Louisiana. The grants programs for the housing that we delivered were extremely critical. We had over 300,000 housing units either completely destroyed or heavily damaged. In hurricanes of past, or any disasters of the past, the [Small Businesses Administration] would give low-interest loans to people to rebuild. In this situation, a lot of people were not insured when their homes were flooded. We had a lot of people with flood insurance in Louisiana, but many were caught flat-footed without insurance. Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover it. It was important that we help people get their footing back, both after Rita and Katrina. Those were the battles that we had to fight in Congress. I ended up being successful and I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to bring about as good of a recovery as we have seen. The damage was extraordinary and our physical world was totally destroyed. I’m honored to have been chosen and feel very blessed that my life’s work has been of such great value.