"I looked at a lot of places ..." said a man from the real estate company Trammell Crow.
"We had a good position ..." said a man nearby.
"Did you do the deal in Los Angeles?" asked another man.
"I'm just glad he didn't start an engineering company ..." said another.
As the guests headed into the dining room, a man with thinning hair stood in the doorway, greeting each one enthusiastically with a quick pumping handshake.
"You're a natural," I told Michael Olivier, the head of Louisiana Economic Development, as I followed the businessmen in.
"I love this business, I really do," Olivier replied.
Inside, someone tapped a wine glass to get everyone's attention -- ding, ding, ding -- until the glass accidentally broke. No matter. Olivier made brief introductory remarks that ended with, "She's an economic development governor if you ever met one."
A woman wearing a black, nondescript sweater and matching skirt, her brown hair in a coiffed bob, stood up in the middle of the room. Gov. Kathleen Blanco had a message for the 75 site location businessmen seated at the round tables. They were a skeptical audience, given the state's anti-business reputation and record of lagging behind other states in creating jobs, even during the go-go 1990s.
"We have a lot of business to talk with you," Blanco told them. "We have a productive work force. Those of you seeking sites for your clients -- you ought to check out Louisiana."
She didn't pound a table to make these points. Nor did she speak with any of those karate chop hand motions often favored by politicians. Instead, she spoke in her usual calm, friendly way.
I heard this sales pitch repeatedly -- both in public forums and private meetings -- over a 10-day period I spent with Blanco last month. It's a pitch calculated to make people feel confident again about Louisiana, as a place to live and as a place to invest. And despite a general consensus that the odds are against her, it's a well-received message. "I didn't realize how pro-business Louisiana was until tonight," Jay Sholl, a senior executive with Trammell Crow, said as the evening ended at Boudro's. "What makes this refreshing is the personal commitment of the governor.
"Louisiana has a long way to go," Sholl continued. "The perception is that Louisiana is still backwoods and indifferent to business. But if I'm doing a national search, I'll now put Louisiana on my list."
I FIRST MET BLANCO WHEN SHE WAS a first-term member of the state Public Service Commission. On a warm May afternoon in 1991, she stood in an air-conditioned ballroom at the Lafayette Hilton -- before her six brothers and sisters, her six children, her parents and 350 supporters -- and announced her candidacy for governor. It was a dramatic move. Not only had Louisiana had no serious female candidate for governor in 40 years, the state had the lowest percentage of women in its Legislature of any state. She addressed the female issue head-on in her remarks.
"Toughness is translated into knowing how to say no and mean it when the special interests are breathing down our backs," she said. "I have done that for the last seven and a half years I have held public office. But again, let me remind you of my humble beginnings. I am a mother. Mothers are the people who say no to the most important special interests in our lives: our children."
Yet, if she broke ground with her candidacy, she generated little excitement. "Plodding speaking style, gives no solutions," I wrote in the margin of my notebook.
Two days later, I asked Edwin Edwards for his take on Blanco. He was making what would be a successful comeback to be governor a fourth time. "She'll never get outside of single digits," he predicted. Naturally, Edwards was right. Blanco withdrew from the race 100 days later, out of money and out of hope. "I wasn't ready politically," she would say later.
In the years after the 1991 race, I stayed in touch with Blanco -- but even more so with her husband, Raymond, a one-time football coach. He and I would talk politics, food and football. Invariably, he would start talking about his wife, and when he did, his sentiments would overflow. "She's tough, coach," he would typically say. "She's so ethical. They're out to get her. I don't know what's gonna happen."
I followed the 2003 governor's race from afar, as well as her first months as governor. What I read intrigued me. Blanco's emphasis on promoting the state has jazzed Louisianans after her predecessor, Mike Foster, shunned that role during his eight years in office. Blanco's other initiatives also have won her support: running a clean government, funding pre-kindergarten programs and improving the health care system. But gnawing questions remained: Is a nice, soft-spoken woman without any dramatic prescription offering enough of what the ailing state needs? Does she have what it takes to move the state forward? I decided to come to Louisiana to find out. In a telephone call, Raymond said his wife had agreed to let me spend plenty of time with her.
I arrived on a red-eye flight from my home in Peru, and a state trooper picked me up at the airport and whisked me to the Governor's Mansion. After being given the chance to shower and change clothes, I found Blanco in a second-floor office, where she was examining contemporary art slides. She explained that she wanted to update the mansion's paintings but faced resistance. "The mansion foundation thinks this is an antebellum home," she said. "I think I'll get them to go my way."
She politely cut the conversation short -- we had to drive to the airport to catch a charter plane to Ruston. First, though, she noticed my hair was unkempt. She walked off and returned with a hairbrush and a hair dryer. The governor had retained her maternal instincts.
Blanco had a series of events that day in the Ruston area, but the key message was simple: I care about you. "People in the north are extremely sensitive," she said as the plane touched down at the pint-sized airport in Ruston. "They feel ignored."
I asked Bob Levy, the local district attorney, how often Mike Foster visited Ruston. "Never," he replied, then amended, "Well, he may have slipped in."
It was noon. Some 400 people were eating lunch at long folding tables at the Ruston Civic Center. Blanco entered through a side door and climbed the three steps onto the stage. Everyone in the room stood and applauded.
At the podium, Dan Reneau, president of Louisiana Tech University, was making introductory remarks. "She operates with a moral compass," he said. The crowd stood and applauded again when she was introduced.
In her speech, Blanco made it clear that she knows that Louisianans like to see and touch their governor. "I'm a governor who doesn't mind hitting the road," she said. "I'll go anywhere to bring quality jobs to Louisiana. ... I came to office wanting to say: Louisiana is open for business. We'll be able to build a state that speaks with pride."
After emphasizing the need to improve education, she returned to her feel-good theme to conclude her speech. "We're going to be partners," she said. "We need everyone working together." The crowd stood and applauded once again.
Afterward, I grabbed a member of the audience walking out. He was Bill Crowe, a retired businessman and Republican. "We didn't see much of Foster," Crowe says. "We lost some businesses we could have kept with some attention from Baton Rouge. I just feel like she's the right lady for the right time."
"I had a different philosophy of government," Foster would tell me later in the living room of his plantation home in Franklin. He was wearing tennis shoes and blue jeans and was 30 pounds lighter than when he was governor. "I came from the business world. I delegated a lot. I didn't like to travel. But you can make a lot of decisions with a fax and a telephone."
TALK TO ANYONE in politics about Blanco, and they will inevitably mention that she is a nice person. In Louisiana politics, that's not necessarily a compliment. Given that she is also the state's first female governor, it wasn't surprising that she was tested even before she took office.
By custom, Louisiana governors have the extraordinary power of choosing the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate. John Hainkel, the Senate president, said he would buck her, that he had enough pledges from other senators to vote for him, not Blanco's choice. To make his selection palatable to the incoming Democratic governor, Hainkel, a Republican, was even willing to switch parties.
"Maybe I'll be (a) Democrat," Hainkel said, according to The Times-Picayune. "The Senate is more important to me than that (party affiliation). If that is the biggest freakin' thing ... to her, I'd change my party affiliation. It doesn't make any difference to me. I could be an independent or a Libertarian or a Tory."
Less than a week later, however, Blanco dropped the hammer. She selected Donald Hines, a scrappy Democrat from Bunkie, to be the next Senate president. Hainkel bowed out meekly.
An even bigger potential challenge loomed in March, during a special session. She told me about it in the governor's fourth-floor Capitol office, a day after the trip to Ruston. It concerned her effort to get the Legislature to end once and for all the suspension of the state sales tax on utilities that the Legislature had ended "temporarily" year after year since 1986. Blanco wanted to end the charade of the suspension being temporary. Knowing that she could count on the money also would simplify budget planning. But her effort to make the tax suspension permanent -- or, as a fall-back measure, to extend the suspension for five years -- was hanging in the balance thanks to opposition from an anti-tax group of House members led by Troy Hebert.
A second-term lawmaker whose district included Iberia and Vermilion parishes, Hebert had been one of the few legislators who had supported Blanco from the outset of the governor's race. In turn, she had rewarded him with a plum prize: the continued chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee. In doing so, she had extracted a promise. He, like the other chairmen, would support her when she needed him. Instead, he was now leading the charge against a tax bill she needed to help balance the budget.
Blanco asked Hebert to come to her Capitol office the night before the vote. "Troy, I have a situation I cannot believe is unfolding," she said, and added that he would jeopardize his chairmanship unless he came aboard. Blanco noted that she had not awarded a committee chairmanship to any New Orleans House members, even though New Orleans had strongly supported her in the governor's race. She had promised to give them one if a chairmanship opened up.
Hebert was unmoved. He said he could not abandon his anti-tax allies in the Legislature. Besides, he added, his side had the votes to defeat Blanco. "This conversation took place right here," she said to me, and pointed to the vacant chair next to mine. "He voted against it. We won" -- although with no votes to spare.
As promised, she and her House speaker, Joe Salter, stripped Hebert of his chairmanship. Hebert lashed out, telling reporters that Louisiana's political system was "very similar to dictatorships," as he choked back tears on the Capitol steps. "The one thing that has changed is that we're no longer being ruled by the Kingfish," he added, referring to the legendary Huey Long. Instead, Hebert said, fashioning a new sobriquet for the governor, "we're being ruled by the Queen Bee."
The derisive title infuriated Blanco's aides. The governor, however, began collecting bee memorabilia and even wore a bee-shaped pin on the opening day of the regular session. In the meantime, Hebert and his allies, trying to gain mileage from their political independence, began wearing fleur de lis pins and calling themselves "the Outhouse Gang."
Shortly before Father's Day, Blanco invited the Outhouse Gang to her Capitol office. With a scowl, she told them: "The games have to stop. We have too much work to do. I want us to be unified. I need your help. This is going to stop!" She then handed each of them a small box. Inside, each found a bee-shaped pin. "Now y'all are members of the Order of the Bee," she said with a smile, as the legislators began to laugh and whoop.
"They're ornery at times, but they're coming around," Blanco told me. "I just believe that if you have the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive, you take it." She added, "I didn't want to hurt Troy, but the Legislature needed to know I was quite serious, that I wouldn't make idle threats, that I would be a strong leader."
When I had lunch with Hebert several days later, he expressed admiration for the governor's ability to play hardball. "It was a win-win for her," he said. "She got to crack the whip on the Legislature and satisfy a commitment to the New Orleans delegation. I don't think she personally enjoyed removing me. That's why I continue to work with her today and support her."
"People always said she couldn't win, but today we call her Governor Blanco," he said. "You don't see her coming. That's the opponent you don't want."
BLANCO IS OFTEN UNDERESTIMATED in part because she carries so little physical presence. On a Saturday morning, she wandered through the Capitol during the Louisiana Book Festival. She was wearing plain brown sandals, comfortable pants and a dark blouse. She made little effort to draw attention, and few people noticed her as she ambled by. I was sure they would have taken notice of Edwin Edwards or Mike Foster.
The only time she drew any attention that morning came in House Committee Room 1, where Wayne Parent, a Louisiana State University political science professor, was expounding on his new book, Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics. Just after she settled against a side wall, Parent glanced over and did a double-take. "It's hard not to notice the governor coming in," he said.
Someone asked Parent about Louisiana's history of political shenanigans. "All of the oil and gas money in the 20th century allowed for a political culture that could breed corruption," he said. "It wasn't the people's money. It seemed like Texaco's and Exxon's money. We don't have that money anymore. We can't afford to be corrupt anymore."
Afterward, Blanco went up to Parent. "It's an interesting theory," she said. "But I'd like to think it had something to do with people in place over the past nine years. A thief will steal no matter how much money there is."
Unlike just about all of her predecessors, Blanco didn't grow up dreaming of becoming governor. For country girls growing up in the 1940s and '50s, that ambition was unfathomable. Blanco was raised in the bend of a road, Highway 88, in the French-speaking community of Coteau, set among sugar cane fields deep in Acadiana. Born on Dec. 15, 1942, she was the first of six children for Louis and Lucille Babineaux. It was cramped quarters in a house with three bedrooms and a single bathroom.
Life in Coteau revolved around the five-room schoolhouse, which was a block away from home. The Babineaux's Catholic church, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, was across the street from the school. Nearby was the general store owned by Blanco's grandfather.
For the Babineaux kids, childhood meant running around barefoot, chasing chickens, climbing trees, playing in roadside ditches after a downpour and hanging out at their grandfather's pond, where they shot snakes and nutria with pellet guns and fished for perch. When they found a dead cow in a neighbor's pasture one day, they talked about it for weeks afterward.
Louis Babineaux was a stern man who walked with a limp and would whip misbehaving children with a tree branch or a belt. He sold and cleaned carpets, with his business covering southern Louisiana from the Texas border to New Orleans. Lucille Babineaux cooked, changed diapers, picked up toys, sewed, washed and ironed clothes, and ran her husband's business when he traveled. She also soothed nerves in a household where everybody lived on top of one another.
Kathleen, a shy child, was more serious than her schoolmates. She would borrow four or five books every time the bookmobile stopped in Coteau, and the elementary school principal would ask her to answer the school telephone.
When she was 14, her parents loaded the household belongings onto the back of a truck and moved the whole family to New Iberia, ten miles away. By then, she was attending school there at Mount Carmel Academy, an all-girl Catholic school where religion played a dominant role in the girls' lives. They prayed before every class throughout the day. Before school dances, the nuns told the girls that they could not remove their shoes. "If you took off your shoes at the dance," the nuns would say, "what would you take off on the way home?"
After Mount Carmel, Blanco enrolled at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and began pursuing a business education degree. One night in May 1962, her parents hosted a school graduation party. One of the guests was Raymond Blanco. The son of a knife sharpener who had emigrated from Spain and raised his family in Birmingham, Ala., Blanco was now the 26-year-old head coach at Catholic High School in New Iberia. Kathleen Blanco's oldest brother, Kenneth, played on the team.
Kathleen and Raymond recalled how they met while we sat at the family dining table in the Governor's Mansion. We ate flounder stuffed with shrimp, crabmeat and Italian seasonings, prepared by Raymond. He was swooning over the food while also keeping one eye on the television. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette -- where he had worked for 40 years -- was playing the University of North Texas.
"We had a party," Kathleen Blanco said, remembering the night they met. "Raymond started flirting with me."
"Get out of here!" her husband rejoined.
"I was 19," Blanco said.
While she was talking, Raymond used his mouth to pull a cork out of an already-opened wine bottle.
"I didn't think I'd get married the night we met," Blanco continued. "I never exclusively dated him. I figured dating was a time to be free, and marriage was a time to be loyal and serious."
"Shit, I was famous!" said her husband. "Everybody knew who I was!"
"He was the winning coach at Catholic High," she explained.
"Goddamn! Jesus Christ!" her husband shouted at the TV set as North Texas made a big gain. "What are we doing?"
"He started calling me," Blanco said, picking up the story. "We went out. But he was always late. We would agree to meet at 7 p.m. But he'd show up at 10 p.m. He had so many important things to do. I'd be mad at him. He'd cajole me. He'd say, 'C'mon, let's go!' He was a really interesting character. He had a big heart. He was everybody's caretaker. He was solving everybody's problems, and he created the kind of excitement that younger guys didn't create."
The relationship blossomed, and they became engaged. There was just one problem: Raymond, then defensive coordinator at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, didn't have the money to buy her a ring.
He did like to gamble. One night he stopped at the Tropicana, an illegal casino on Highway 90 between Lafayette and New Iberia. He had an extraordinary night at blackjack and remembers winning between $400 and $500. He bought Kathleen a diamond ring and they were married in 1964.
That same year, she became the first Babineaux to graduate from college. She started teaching at Breaux Bridge High School. But before the school year ended, she got pregnant and had to quit -- women who were showing could not teach. For the next 14 years, she emulated her mother: having six babies, cooking, cleaning the house, hauling kids around. Raymond Blanco provided little assistance. By then, he had left coaching to be first the dean of men and later the dean of student affairs at the university. At night, he'd visit dorm rooms to help students with their studies or any personal problems.
In 1979, in need of money and more adult conversation, she took a job with the U.S. Census Bureau after scoring highest among the applicants. Her husband bemoaned her not continuing as a full-time mom, but her kids were thrilled: More money meant they could replace their worn-out tennis shoes. The Census job was only a one-year deal. Afterward, she resolved to keep working. She and Raymond formed a polling company.
Growing up, Kathleen Blanco was not a class president or even class secretary. In fact, she had developed a distaste for politics. When she was a teenager, her father twice ran for local offices and lost each race. The first time in her life that she would show any interest in politics came as a college student, when she began reading about education and health care issues being debated in the state Legislature.
Raymond Blanco, however, lived and breathed political campaigns and gamesmanship. Local candidates would hire him as an adviser, and he dispensed political commentary on Lafayette news broadcasts. Slowly, the political bug began to bite Kathleen, as well. In 1971, she volunteered for J. Bennett Johnston when he ran for governor against Edwin Edwards and narrowly lost. She also volunteered for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976.
In 1983, J. Luke LeBlanc surrendered his seat in the state House to care for his cancer-stricken wife. Blanco felt emboldened enough to run for the seat but was given little chance of replacing him. She knocked on all the doors of the district, however, and defeated the wife of one of Lafayette's richest men.
In 1987, LeBlanc sought his old job. His wife had recovered, and he missed politics. An old-style populist, LeBlanc ranted and railed against Blanco at every opportunity, twisting her voting record in hopes that she would lose her cool and sully her spotless image. Blanco did blow up at one forum. "Jesus Christ, mom went crazy!" her 15-year-old son Ray reported to his father and siblings afterward.
Despite that event, Luke LeBlanc proved to be no match for Blanco. "He got beat 60-40," said J. Luke LeBlanc's son, Jerry. He told me this in his seventh-floor office -- the one with "Commissioner of Administration" on the door -- overlooking the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. Appointed by Blanco to the most senior position in government, LeBlanc ruefully remembered that he managed his father's campaign. But he went on to tell another story.
After Blanco was elected to the Public Service Commission in 1988, LeBlanc ran for and won her open seat, the one his father had previously occupied. No one would confuse LeBlanc with his father. Jerry LeBlanc was buttoned down and pro-business. The day after LeBlanc won, the Blancos visited his home. "She handed me the District 45 license plate," LeBlanc remembered, "as a gesture of transferring the torch. That was the beginning of their saying, 'We're all going to move forward. The past is the past. We won't hold grudges.'"
AFTER BLANCO turned 40, the political doors opened for her, each one presenting a broader horizon, beginning with the Public Service Commission. She did drop out of the 1991 governor's contest, but she learned a valuable lesson: that she could never again run an under-financed race. In 1994, she was re-elected to the PSC, and in 1995, she was elected as lieutenant governor. In 1999, she was re-elected with 80 percent of the vote and set her sights on the Governor's Mansion. She ran as a problem solver who had already brought the state 21,000 tourism jobs and millions of dollars in investment.
Blanco finished second in the primary. Three days before the runoff election, she was trailing the front-runner, 32-year-old Republican whiz kid Bobby Jindal, when they met for a final debate. More polished and quick on his feet, Jindal seemed to have strengthened his standing that night. Then the two candidates were asked to name a defining moment in their lives. Jindal stayed on message, discussing his conversion to Christianity and the birth of his daughter.
Blanco immediately knew she would have to address her rawest moment. Listening to Jindal speak, she says, she tried to summon a less painful memory, but she could not avoid it. "The most defining moment came when I lost a child," she told the statewide television audience.
Blanco's 19-year-old son, Ben, the baby of the brood, was killed instantly in 1997 when an industrial crane fell on him near Morgan City. Ben was cutting up scrap metal over the Christmas holidays to earn a few extra dollars. The accident traumatized her son Ray, who was standing alongside his baby brother. Her husband particularly felt guilty because Ben took the job after Raymond Blanco dissuaded him from going skiing. Afterward, when Raymond Blanco crossed Johnston Street on the way to his university office, he contemplated walking into traffic and making it look like an accident.
"It's very hard for me to talk about it," Kathleen Blanco said as the debate wound up, looking into the camera and fighting tears. "I guess that's what makes me who I am today -- knowing that one of the worst things that can happen to a person happened to me, and we were able to protect our family, and the rest of my children have been strong as a result of it."
I asked her about the debate one day as we rode from Lafayette to New Iberia. "When I left the gubernatorial forum, I was totally exhausted," Blanco told me. "I had to dig deep to talk about the death of my child. When people lose children, it's easy for families to fall apart. I was determined during the grieving process to hold us together. It was like we were hanging on for dear life for a long time. You had to hang on to your faith. There's a greater purpose in life. There are no positives in losing a child, only negatives."
They buried Ben in Lafayette after a massive funeral Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Blanco surprised everyone by getting up and giving a brief eulogy to her son. "At the funeral, people just kept coming and coming and coming," Blanco told me as we entered New Iberia's city limits. "You're so numb. You can't think about what was going on around you. I was not planning to get up and speak. I just had an absolute need to tell my child goodbye. I knew all the things I had to say. I had to make my personal goodbye."
We were sitting in the back of a State Police SUV. I was looking down taking notes when I noticed she had stopped talking. I looked up at her. "His body was crushed," she said, looking straight ahead. "They couldn't open the coffin." Tears began rolling down her cheeks.
Commentators said her heart-felt response during the debate may have spelled the difference with voters. She overcame Jindal, defeating him 52 percent to 48 percent.
IN HER FIRST official act as governor, Kathleen Blanco made Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday. In doing so, she offered a symbolic rebuke of Mike Foster's first official act as governor in 1996, in which he abolished affirmative action in the awarding of state contracts.
In her first year, Blanco has won high marks for forcing Saints owner Tom Benson to withdraw his demand that the state build him a new stadium and for challenging his back-up demand, that the state continue paying him more than $25 million a year to stay in New Orleans and pay more than $150 million to renovate the Superdome. She got the Legislature to phase out two business taxes, to revamp the Louisiana Tax Commission to create fairer property tax assessments, and to ban fund-raising during legislative sessions. She maintained the Foster administration's historically elevated funding for pre-kindergarten and higher education.
"Her first session agenda was not sweeping, but she got most of what she wanted," Wayne Parent told me. "She's concerned about health care, cleaning up Louisiana and getting businesses to invest. She's going to take small steps, but she will get it done."
Veteran political commentator John Maginnis offered a less complimentary view. "She presented a very modest legislative agenda," Maginnis wrote in his syndicated weekly column, "more suitable for a do-nothing election year than for an administration taking its first crack at changing Louisiana."
Blanco has a ready answer for such criticism. "I have an ambitious agenda," she said. "But you have to have money to pay for it." Blanco needs another $80 million per year to make pre-kindergarten available to all four-year-olds, and she wants another $220 million a year to raise teacher salaries to the Southern average, a goal that eluded Foster. Meanwhile, she is facing a potentially devastating loss of $400 million next year from the federal government to provide health care for the poor.
"It's so frustrating," she said. "I'm trying to stop the bleeding. We lost the oil industry, everybody's now in Houston. New Orleans has little or no corporate presence. I'm determined to recapture what we lost. I'm trying to create an economy that generates the tax dollars to get us past the crisis that we have year after year. One option is to start passing taxes. Who in the heck wants to accomplish that?"
Accomplishing any part of her agenda, of course, takes political skill. But because Blanco talks political shop and gossip less than just about any Louisiana politician I've met, you could almost forget that she is politically shrewd -- that is, until you see her in action in Abbeville, where she flew by helicopter to endorse state Sen. Willie Mount in her race for Congress.
Republicans were attacking Mount, a Democrat, because as mayor of Lake Charles she had gotten public approval for higher taxes to raise salaries of police and firemen. Earlier this year in the Legislature, Mount had also supported Blanco's five-year renewal of the suspension of the sales tax exemption for utilities.
"Are you a tax and spend liberal?" Blanco jokingly asked, referring to the tried-and-true Republican campaign strategy.
"Yeah, look at me!" Mount replied with a sarcastic laugh.
"I just think you call them liars, period," Blanco offered.
Referring to Mount's vote on the sales tax renewal, Blanco then said, "You say you voted to pay school teachers."
"Yes," Mount replied, "I provided more basic services."
"Don't say 'basic services,'" Blanco counseled. "Use specific words. Tell them that you invested in your city."
"Yes," Mount said, picking up on Blanco's suggestions, "I can say we balanced the budget every year and had a surplus."
Blanco has already raised more than $1 million for a likely re-election bid in 2007. She could be a formidable opponent. As an abortion opponent who is handy with a fishing rod and a gun, Blanco appeals to rural conservatives. Her support for education and health care appeals to liberals. Her business tax cuts appeal to industry leaders. But can she pull off her agenda?
Blanco's strategy centers on her belief that if she governs both honestly and effectively, Louisianans will regain confidence in their state. College graduates will remain at home and business executives will want to expand their operations here. Blanco ruled out raising sales and income taxes. But while she didn't say it explicitly, she indicated that, if she remains popular, she would likely seek increases of taxes on liquor and cigarettes and fees paid by the trucking and hospital industries. Those increases, however, would raise only a fraction of the money she needs. She also believes she can achieve something that escaped Foster: getting non-Louisiana companies to set up shop here.
Minutes after we had taken off for Ruston, on our first day together, she told me one of her favorite stories. It involved a Chicago-based company, Union Tank Car. Company executives wanted to build a $100 million plant earlier this year that would create 850 jobs and manufacture up to 14 railroad tank cars a day. Louisiana was a finalist until a company official wrote Blanco saying that they were entering into 30-day exclusive negotiations with Texas. "That usually means the ballgame is over," Blanco said. "That was upsetting."
But when the 30-day period ended with no announcement of a deal between Texas and Union Tank Car, she called the company's chief executive officer. "We're ready to talk," she said. The company decided to build its plant in Alexandria. The deal will be costly to the state. Blanco agreed to provide $62 million in subsidies to Union Tank Car over 10 years. Nonetheless, it represented a major victory for her. "Not since 1981, when the state landed the since departed Boeing facility in Lake Charles," political reporter John Hill wrote later, "has the state had such a big announcement."
THE UNION TANK CAR story had a starring role at the dinner in San Antonio. "Blanco never took no for an answer," Bob Zwartz, a senior executive with the company, told the gathering. "Louisiana is open for business."
The business site locators also heard from Candace Butler, a General Motors executive. She explained why her company decided in October to assemble the Hummer H3, the auto giant's new sport utility vehicle, at its Shreveport truck factory. "We're proud to be in Louisiana. It's a doggone good state."
These were positive developments, of course. But could Blanco create enough jobs to fund her agenda? After returning from Texas, I drove to Louisiana State University to ask Jim Richardson, the state's leading economist. After all, raising teacher salaries and fully funding pre-kindergarten alone would cost an additional $300 million a year.
Richardson's figures were not reassuring. He said that during Foster's term in the 1990s, Louisiana created about 33,500 jobs a year, "or not enough growth to keep pace with job creation in more dynamic Southern states like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina." During the economic slowdown of President George W. Bush's first two years, 2001-02, Louisiana lost 10,000 jobs per year. In 2003-04, Louisiana will add about 7,000 new jobs a year, or not enough to offset the job loss during Bush's first two years. Richardson is projecting that Louisiana will create 18,000 jobs in 2005 and 22,000 in 2006.
Would that provide the tax revenue Blanco needs? In a back-of-the-envelope-style analysis, Richardson determined that every new $40,000-a-year job would produce an additional $3,000 a year in income, sales and excise taxes for state coffers. He pulled out a hand calculator. Creating 18,000 jobs would yield only $54 million a year in additional tax revenue, 22,000 jobs would yield only $66 million. "There will be a series of years where fiscal decisions will be tough," Richardson concluded. Under this analysis, in other words, Blanco could have enough new money to improve the state only on the margins.
Louisiana is lagging in job growth particularly because of the well-publicized problem in metro New Orleans: white collar and manufacturing jobs are disappearing at a faster rate than tourism jobs are replacing them. "If this parish dies, the state dies," state Sen. John Hainkel told me in his downtown New Orleans law office. "And this parish is dying. We're losing too many good jobs and not educating enough people. Did you read the Picayune this morning?" He was referring to a news story that reported many New Orleans public schools did not have a single student qualify for the TOPS state scholarship program. "If you have a graduating class without a 20 on the ACT, you're in deep shit. What are we going to do? That's what scares me."
Hainkel pointed to one area that could help solve the problem: There are 7,000 unfilled jobs at metro New Orleans hospitals. "It's unbelievable," he said. "If I'm the governor, that's the first thing I do. That's low-hanging fruit." But if filling those jobs was low-hanging fruit, those openings wouldn't exist. Apparently, not enough New Orleans-area workers are drug-free, have no prohibitive criminal record and have the proper schooling to get these jobs.
On one of our plane rides together, I laid out the pessimistic argument to Blanco. "Louisiana ranks last in so many of the areas you don't want to be last in and first in many of the rankings you don't want to be first in," I began.
She cut me short. "Those are not excuses," she said. "We have the same problems as other states. Mississippi is overcoming that. We beat ourselves up in Louisiana. We are solving our problems."
I tried again. "Yes, but the state is failing in so many areas."
"We are receiving high marks for school accountability," she said, interrupting me again. She began pointing her finger at me for emphasis. She had not done that before. "Our ACT test scores jumped .2 percent this year. We are trending upward. We're phasing out two business taxes. We're making it a smart move to invest in Louisiana. We're the fourth most productive work force in the nation. We have an administration determined to create business opportunities."
"You keep interrupting me," I said.
"It's because your original thought is wrong," she replied. "We acknowledge we have problems. We're not ostriches. But we're seeing movement. The people of Louisiana want something different. They've had it. We had eight years of Mike Foster giving us decent, honest government. We're about to finish one year of the same thing infused with positive energy. I think the people of Louisiana are getting addicted to it. I think they're getting addicted to the feeling of success."