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On the Ropes 

Hurricane Katrina swamped the political fortunes of Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Can she recover in time to win re-election next year?

A crowd of more than 500 people -- a packed house -- sat at rectangular folding tables inside the Baton Rouge American Legion Hall on the evening of March 24. Dressed in official Friday-night casual -- men in dress shirts and sport coats without ties, women in slacks or pants with comfortable shoes -- they drank beer and soft drinks from clear plastic cups and chatted politics as they waited for the show to begin.

The event was the 55th Baton Rouge Gridiron Show, an annual warm-up to the spring legislative session in which reporters perform skits and songs that spoof the political leaders they cover day in and day out.

The politicians are supposed to grin and bear it. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had come once again, but not without trepidation. Two hours earlier, she had the show on her mind as she returned to the Governor's Mansion in a State Police helicopter following bridge and levee groundbreaking ceremonies in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. "The Gridiron Show is unnerving," Blanco said as she looked out the window at the setting sun while the helicopter soared over the Mississippi River.

Blanco fortified herself during dinner at the mansion. As she ate shrimp fettuccine in the back dining room, she could hear a group of staffers in an adjacent office practicing the show's finale, which they would sing with the governor. The group broke into laughter every few minutes. This warmed Blanco. "I think we forgot how to laugh," she said.

At the Gridiron Show, Blanco sat in a folding chair, front and center. Her husband, Raymond

-- a big, bluff man whose chief passions are politics, food and football -- sat next to her. The skewering began immediately. A reporter playing Blanco wrung her hands and, in the face of important policy questions, repeatedly wailed, "I don't know." And so it went throughout the hour-and-45-minute program as the crowd roared at the post-Katrina parodies of Blanco as weak and indecisive.

For her part, Blanco did grin and bear it, saving her laughter for send-ups of the late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom.

Finally, the master of ceremonies made the traditional closing offer: "Governor Blanco, would you come up and give a rebuttal?"

She wasted no time in observing the time-honored rule that calls for a governor to aim a few barbs at herself and the reporters. Then several of her staffers climbed onto the stage, and someone cued up the music for Gloria Gaynor's anthem, "I Will Survive."

Blanco and her aides heartily belted out the rewritten verse, with the governor sashaying first to her right and then to her left. They ended the song by singing, "And so you betta not count us out. And just expect us to bow down.

"'Cause my rifle's locked and loaded. And I'm runnin' you out of town.

"Oh, no, not I. I will survive.

"As long as I play more hardball. I know we'll stay alive.

"I've got all my coast to build. I've got all my term to give.

"And I'll survive. I will survive."

IN NOVEMBER 2004, LESS THAN A YEAR before Katrina, Blanco was riding high, awash in the glow of a 65 percent approval rating. Liberals liked her emphasis on improving education and health care. Businessmen liked that she had cut business taxes and was recruiting new companies to Louisiana. Cultural conservatives liked that she is a devout Catholic who hunts, fishes and opposes abortion. Most everyone liked her efforts to attack political corruption.

Now, as her own Gridiron close demonstrated, Blanco's political survival remains very much an open question. Hurricane Katrina not only killed more than 1,000 people and left 200,000 homeless, but it also crippled the political fortunes of Louisiana's first woman governor. More than eight months after the storm, she is still on the ropes. In the minds of many, Blanco's wounds were self-inflicted. Barely two years into her term, the central question in political discussions across the state has become, Can Blanco rebound in time to win re-election in the fall of 2007?

Blanco's political future is not a question just for the chattering class.

It would be incorrect to say that as Blanco's fortunes go, so goes Louisiana. The state could recover and elect someone else as governor. But there's no doubt that if Blanco can become popular enough to win re-election, it can only mean that Louisiana has roared back from the destruction caused by Katrina and Rita.

The political pros give her little chance.

"Kathleen's finished," says Bob d'Hemecourt, a long-time adviser to former Gov. Edwin Edwards, as he polishes off a shrimp po-boy at Bozo's in Metairie. "The people don't want any politicians, from dogcatcher to governor. The public has been burned. It was the biggest national disaster in this country's history. You can't blame the storm. You have to blame somebody. I can't tell you who will be governor. I can tell you who won't be governor."

It's hard to imagine a more unassuming governor. Blanco didn't grow up wanting to be the Kingfish, plotting each step of the way ("Blanco's Bid," Dec. 7, 2004). Blanco, 63, spent her 20s and 30s following in her mother's footsteps, raising six children, and all that that entailed -- cooking, cleaning, sewing, changing diapers, picking up toys, serving as a chauffeur. "It was a daily struggle to fight dirt," she recalls. "You know what? Dirt always wins." She was 40 when she stopped being a full-time housewife and took a job with the Census Department.

She is a modest person who abhors the political demagoguery that courses through Louisiana politics, and consequently many adversaries have underestimated Blanco -- at their own peril. She has never lost an election, coming from behind to become a state representative in Lafayette, winning a seat on the Public Service Commission, winning election twice as lieutenant governor and finally defeating Republican wunderkind Bobby Jindal in 2003 to win the biggest political prize of all in Louisiana. She showed a steely resolve by holding her family together as lieutenant governor after a falling crane killed her youngest child, Ben, in 1997.

"There will be positive momentum for her going into next year" as homeowners and consumers spend the billions of dollars in recovery money provided by Congress and insurance companies, says Boysie Bollinger, a major Republican financier who owns Bollinger Shipyard in Lockport. "I don't consider her to be dead."

Blanco's problem, everyone seems to agree, stems from her TV performances in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. She was hunkered down at the state's Emergency Operations Center, working on little sleep and looking haggard on early-morning programs.

Roy Fletcher worked as a campaign strategist for Blanco when she ran for governor briefly in 1991. (She ran out of money early and dropped out of the race.) They are fierce enemies now. Over breakfast at the College Drive Waffle House in Baton Rouge, he offers a typically harsh assessment of Blanco.

"With the national spotlight, you can't hide," Fletcher says, as he dips into his eggs (sunny side up) and bacon. "Her shortcomings became quite exposed. Her inability to articulate, her inability to think in a coherent and organized way and her inability to inspire any level of confidence came screaming out of the TV screen. That's what's burned into the public's mind. In a poll, if you asked people to describe her, they would say: not very bright, the job's too big for her. People were astounded that you couldn't deliver water to [people stranded on] the f--ing interstate. Her legitimacy and popularity was gone in two weeks."

In fairness, there's never been a storm like Katrina, and there's no playbook for the largest national disaster in U.S. history. Maybe that's why some of those who are less inclined to gut Blanco are those who, like her, had to shoulder the yoke of public responsibility during and after Katrina. St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, whose community was perhaps the hardest hit of all, has nothing but praise for the governor. "The lady's doing a good job," he says. "If she hadn't put contra-flow in, we'd have been in bad shape. She's doing what she needs to do."

Once known only to locals, Rodriguez has been sought out by reporters from around the world to discuss Katrina, although television producers have treated him more warily since he said "bullshit" during a live interview that left CNN's Anderson Cooper sputtering for words. The 70-year-old, 320-pound Rodriguez has been in public life since 1976. Like Blanco, he has never lost an election.

He sinks into a sofa in the doublewide trailer that serves as his office and his home. Katrina stranded Rodriguez on the roof of the St. Bernard Parish government building for two days, with water up to the second story. Dressed all in black except for gray cowboy boots, Rodriguez talks about "goosing" President George W. Bush by playfully poking the president's rear end with his cane during one of Bush's visits last year. "Yeah, I got him," Rodriguez says with a smile. "He took it well. He put his arm around me and said, 'I bet you're a tough poker player. I'm going to come back, and we'll play poker some day.'"

Rodriguez also "got" Blanco during a meeting in the Capitol Hill office of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader. Rodriguez jokingly told Blanco to hike up her skirt a little bit, that the modest amount of skin she was showing was exciting him, leaving him unable to concentrate. She rolled her eyes and said nothing.

When the discussion turns to Katrina and Blanco, he doesn't mince words. "She took a beating," he says. "Who's around that they can pounce on? Local public officials. Her compassion touched me."

IT'S ONE THING FOR POLITICIANS AND pundits to weigh in, but the more important question is, How are voters treating Blanco?

On the helicopter ride to and from the groundbreakings in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, the question arises. "I get people coming up to me with their support," Blanco says. "They say, 'No matter what they say, we support you.'"

Almost on cue as she stepped out of a State Police cruiser at the second event, in Lafourche, a man in sunglasses calls out, "Hey, Kathleen! How ya doin', babe?" He is an oysterman named Jimmy Lafont. She goes over to greet him. After she has moved on, Lafont says, "She's down to earth. She really is. I'm not so sure she'll win again, though. The base is not there anymore."

Later, over dinner in the Governor's Mansion, Blanco acknowledges that she has fallen politically. But she maintains that her mistakes stemmed from bungled public relations, not from bad decision-making. She begins by saying, "I'm the only public official in Louisiana who didn't break down and say crazy things on TV," undoubtedly referring to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, whose infamous "chocolate city" remark made world news, and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, who broke into tears on network TV. Still, she admits that her television appearances in the hurricane's immediate aftermath "hurt me badly, absolutely. I understand it."

Blanco also says she hasn't gotten the credit she deserves for her role in getting most people out of metro New Orleans ahead of the storm -- and for her role in mobilizing the effort that plucked some 60,000 people off rooftops during the flood. She notes that the full extent of Katrina's danger became evident only two days before landfall, and she takes solace in subsequent investigations that showed the evacuation was the best ever from New Orleans. Ultimately, she notes, while the loss of life was tragic, far fewer people died than experts had predicted given the extent of flooding.

The lack of buses was a fiasco, she admits, but those buses were FEMA's responsibility. She describes the scene on Wednesday, two days after Katrina hit, as her worst day. She had grown increasingly frustrated at FEMA's inability to deliver the buses -- as promised -- to evacuate thousands stranded at the Louisiana Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Ultimately, Blanco believes, she was victimized by a White House smear campaign. "The talking heads in Washington started attacking Bush with his inaction," she says. "People who worked for Bush decided he wouldn't be the only heavy. They didn't like him getting beat on. They said, 'Why my president? Why not that little woman governor?' We had a distinct shift in questions mid-week from the national press corps. [Presidential adviser Karl] Rove turned the stable of [conservative] talking heads on us."

Evidence has emerged to back her up. For example, U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Republican, has acknowledged discussing hurricane matters with Rove, the White House's hardball strategist. Among the documents that the Blanco administration provided to House and Senate committees investigating the response to Katrina was a message from an ABC News reporter to Blanco's press secretary: "2 senior GOP aides have called me to suggest we should be focusing more blame on Governor Blanco."

The White House, she believes, also capitalized on the mixed signals she sent in response to Bush's request that she federalize Louisiana's National Guard. The request came during the president's first visit, on the Friday after the storm. Edwin Edwards, visiting with friends in federal prison, has said she should have accepted the offer and put the onus for the mess on Bush. That strategy, Blanco counters, would have meant shirking her responsibility.

Instead, she says she rejected the request because she didn't believe it was needed. "If you federalize them, they ... would have lost the capacity to back up local law enforcement," she says, adding, "I knew when I was meeting with the president on Friday that we'd emptied the Superdome that day and had started on the Convention Center."

She suspects that Bush administration officials, knowing this, wanted to have the full forces under their command to take credit for improving things in New Orleans.

But that was not the end of that discussion. While Blanco at first declined the president 'sfederalization offer, she told him that she wanted to double-check with her National Guard commander and give a final answer within 24 hours. That created an opportunity for the Bush forces, working with, she believes, a compliant Nagin, to further undermine her. The mayor afterward told the press, "It would have been great if we could have left Air Force One, walked outside, and told the world that we had this all worked out. It didn't happen, and more people died."

Those comments still anger Blanco. "They used Nagin to pop on me," she says. "The White House threw out a lie and forced us to defend it. This was ... while I was trying to save people and get them off rooftops. I said [to my aides] we wouldn't fight the White House. I understood every minute what was going on. But we were in a life-saving mode."

Raymond Blanco sits at the far end of the dining table as she speaks. A one-time football coach who is still known far and wide as "Coach," he is seen by many in Louisiana as the person who really runs the state, acting as his wife's puppeteer. There's no doubt that he is her chief political strategist. He watches her back and offers counsel on the political implications before she makes major decisions. She doesn't always heed his advice, however.

That becomes obvious as she defends her post-Katrina actions -- and "Coach" becomes increasingly agitated. "From the beginning of this thing," he interrupts, "there hasn't been a political strategy [by the governor's office]. We know the game. I know what to do. [Media strategist Ray] Teddlie knows what to do. I tried to talk to her. She chewed on my ass twice."

She breaks in. "We needed to save our energy to save lives."

"Teddlie has suggested that we take all the myths and do TV ads," Coach rejoins.

"That's too expensive," the governor replies, her voice rising. "That's too political. I won't do it."

"Don't beat me up," he says, backing down. "I'm just saying what the political pros say."

The governor goes into the kitchen to get two apples and two oranges. As she rises, she says, "I believe the truth will eventually emerge."

IF NEWSPAPER AND TELEVISION COVERage immediately after Katrina serves as the first draft of history, two upcoming books by top-notch authors will offer the second draft. One is by Tulane University historian Douglas Brinkley. The other is by Jed Horne, a veteran Times-Picayune editor. Blanco is hopeful that both will paint her in a better light than did the media immediately after Katrina.

In the meantime, many critics say she is failing to provide the bold leadership needed to complete the massive task ahead. "She has to be more decisive in her approach, more definitive in what she wants us to do," says former Gov. Buddy Roemer. "She can't do it by herself. She needs to rally us in helping her deal with the Legislature, with George Bush, with Mayor Nagin. Right now she's mush. She's a little of this, a little of that. She needs to be a lot of something."

Roemer says this while eating breakfast at Louie's CafŽ, a Baton Rouge institution since 1941. He sips his coffee. "When she has a problem in a crisis, we have a problem. We need her to be strong."

And what of Blanco's recovery plan?

"I can't tell you what it is," he says. "Her plan has got to include doses of hope, an idea of what the future will look like, demonstrate how we'll make a living for our children. Are we about to downsize Louisiana? Is that our plan?

"I've proposed to Wi-Fi New Orleans," Roemer continues, referring to a plan to give every computer in town immediate Internet access. "The mayor embraced it. I've heard nothing from the governor. No city on earth has it. We could make the infrastructure improvements as the city is being built. I've talked to the staffs of Bill Gates and the president of Google. They thought it would take $50 million. They said their bosses would be happy to do that. Wi-Fi is for the young."

Roemer has also proposed to make New Orleans tax-free for those over 65 years old to attract the elderly. "For people who have left," he adds, "if they would train for a job, they would get free housing. We've yet to hear anything from the governor like this. There is no plan. And I'm coming to the conclusion there won't be one."

Sean Reilly, an influential member of Blanco's Louisiana Recovery Authority, was a Roemer floor leader from 1988-92 when he was a state legislator from Baton Rouge. Now, he disagrees with Roemer about Blanco's alleged lack of a plan. Blanco directed the LRA to draft and oversee a statewide recovery plan, and Reilly produces a slide show on his laptop that he reviewed a week earlier with Donald Powell, President Bush's post-Katrina recovery czar.

Slide by slide, 15 in all, the governor's recovery plan calls for spending $12.1 billion to spur job growth; to rebuild roads, hospitals, sewage systems and bridges; to provide affordable housing to renters; to buy out homeowners in flood-prone areas deemed unsuitable for rebuilding; and to compensate each homeowner for up to $150,000 in damages. The last two parts require $4.2 billion in supplemental spending that the Bush administration is seeking from Congress.

Reilly adds that the plan also will bolster breached levees and floodwalls. "People don't give the governor enough credit for getting all of this into place," he says. "Five weeks after the disaster, she had the foresight to create the LRA. Before the LRA, it was hard to get everyone on one page. People need to know that the pieces are in place so things will start happening in early summer. We're speaking with one voice. It's taken some time to get there."

When told of Roemer's belief that she has no plan, Blanco bristles and suggests that he's acting out of partisan motives. Roemer, after all, is a Republican. Blanco is a Democrat.

But Roemer isn't the only highly educated Louisianan who can't identify "The Blanco Plan." Dr. Wayne Parent is a veteran LSU political science professor, a frequent political commentator and author of Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics. Asked if Blanco has a recovery plan, Parent pauses 15 seconds and then finally answers, "I don't know."

"Apparently, we haven't gotten the message out," Blanco says later, sounding surprised at what she is hearing. "We're drowning in work."

Blanco and her staff clearly have been overwhelmed by the task of having to respond not only to Katrina but also to Hurricane Rita, a storm that swamped coastal southwest Louisiana. But it is equally clear that Blanco needs to better explain her goals, ambitions and vision for Louisiana, in both the short and long terms. Her communications shortcomings have long been well known to reporters -- but now they're legendary among voters as well. And they were on display again recently when she met with two reporters at the Houma Courier. The meeting took place in the paper's main conference room. A beautiful floral arrangement that the newsroom librarian had received was quickly retrieved to replace the roll of paper towels that normally served as the conference table's centerpiece.

Blanco discusses her legislative achievements since Katrina. With her support, the Legislature stripped the Orleans Parish School Board of control of most New Orleans schools, with most expected to become charter schools under state management. The Legislature also consolidated the New Orleans area levee boards and enacted laws to end their corrupt and inefficient ways. Blanco also discusses how the state will use money already provided by Congress and how she plans to use additional money for housing.

But she delivers her message in a flat voice, without a coherent or unifying theme. A listener's mind easily drifts onto other subjects until forced to refocus. Substantively, she has a message -- but she seems to lack the ability sell her plan in digestible sound bites built around the principles of reform, reconstruction and recovery.

Sean Reilly acknowledges her poor performance after Katrina but, after ticking off her recent achievements, concludes, "With the New Year, she began to hit her stride."

Echoes of that view resonate from Garland Robinette, the afternoon talk show host at WWL-Radio in New Orleans. Robinette points to glass shards from a window that blew out during the hurricane and nearly sucked him out of his fifth-floor studio while he was on the air, and he begins by noting Blanco's initial Katrina problem.

"I went to Vietnam for 13 months, 1968-69," Robinette says. "I was on a riverine [patrol] boat. I saw combat. I've seen war. I measure bad times against that yardstick. She didn't measure up. Neither did the mayor or the president. Don't get me wrong. I don't know that I could have done better. But you need one person to say: 'I'm in charge. Like it or not, we're doing it my way.' If I had been in charge, that's what I would have said. She didn't stand up and say that."

Robinette then reflects for a moment and recalls Blanco's refusal late last year to give ground before Republican-led U.S. House and Senate committees that were hell-bent on putting the blame on her. "She let them have it," Robinette says. "That engendered a lot of respect."

He also notes her threat, delivered at the beginning of a post-Katrina special legislative session, to block oil and gas leases off Louisiana's coast if Washington does not give the state a greater share of offshore mineral revenues. "I trashed her pretty good post-Katrina," Robinette says. "I was angry. Just lately, I have begun to get the feeling that maybe my first impression was not the correct idea. There's something I can't put my finger on that tells me she's a whole lot tougher than we give her credit for.

"What I suspect I'm seeing is that the tortoise is catching up with us. I wanted a screaming and ranting leader. I think Kathleen has been very deliberate, not overly emotional. I kind of like where she's leading us now."

WILL BLANCO HAVE THE CHANCE TO lead Louisiana for a second term? A campaign has already begun to recruit former Senator John Breaux to run next year. Contacted in Washington, where he works as a highly paid lobbyist for clients that include the state of Louisiana, Breaux says, "People are talking about me running for governor. No one has heard me talking about running for governor. I am happy doing what I'm doing. I am meeting with the [Bush] administration on a regular basis. I feel I can make a contribution in a different way." However, Breaux says he wouldn't rule out the possibility of making a bid.

Over the course of several days, Blanco and her husband give several hints that she may opt not to run for re-election after all. She has taken a public beating while working around the clock. "This is a thankless job," she says at one point.

When asked about her re-election in light of her low approval rating, she says, "I don't kid myself, ever. I live in a difficult world politically. All I'm going to do is do my work. At the end of the day, I'll make my decisions going forward. God put me here for a purpose. I've not yet discerned the full measure of the purpose. But I'm a willing tool. And I'll fight for my people. They know that."

Coach says that for the first time during her political career, he is not waking up at 3 a.m. worrying about political strategy. "I'm at peace. We won the Super Bowl," he says, referring to his wife's 2003 victory. "We may not win it again, but that's OK."

If Blanco does seek re-election, she may want to heed advice offered by Roemer, who worked as a campaign manager before winning elective office himself. Roemer says Blanco would have to abandon her normally cautious, consensus-building style and make some dramatic -- even unpopular -- decisions that clearly serve the state's long-term interest. "The only way for her to win," Roemer says, "is for people to think she has put aside her natural ambition and pride and put their futures ahead of her future."

Roemer likens her re-election chances to a singer's chances of getting a curtain call. "Kathleen has to figure out how to get an encore," Roemer says. "Some people say the audience forces an encore. I disagree. I think the performer forces an encore. I failed at getting an encore" when he lost his re-election race in 1991. "Some people blamed the state. They said to me, 'The people didn't get it.' No, that's wrong. It's the performer's fault. She needs an encore, and she can't depend on the audience to give it to her. She has to orchestrate it."

If she does decide to seek re-election, Blanco promises a fierce battle. "Anybody else who wants this job will have to come after me," she says, sounding now more like a candidate. "This state has never seen such a hard-working governor."

She laughs, then adds, "If I may say so myself."

Tyler Bridges is the bureau chief for the Miami Herald in Lima, Peru, and a former investigative reporter for The Times-Picayune. He is the author of Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards and The Rise and Fall of David Duke. He can be reached at tbridges@herald.com.

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