Yesterday, in a remarkably personal and heartbreaking open letter to the people of Louisiana (which is republished below), former Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) revealed that she is currently battling for her life against an incurable form of liver cancer. The reaction to her letter was immediate and, in many ways, astonishing.
Blanco received a torrent of support and praise from an unlikely bipartisan coalition. Gov. John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, both fellow Democrats, issued poignant statements of support, and so too did a roster of notable Republicans. “Becky and I are praying for Kathleen Blanco,” U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R) tweeted. “Kathleen is a courageous fighter who selflessly served the people of (Louisiana). We pray she finds comfort in her faith and family during the difficult days ahead.” Republican congressmen Steve Scalise and Garret Graves also expressed their support, as did Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser.
Blanco’s letter even inspired an emotional, intensely personal, and moving response from one of her fiercest critics, Moon Griffon, the state’s most well-known conservative talk radio host.
Jarvis DeBerry’s commentary in The Times-Picayune was similarly poignant.
Blanco, who was the first and only woman ever elected governor of Louisiana, led the state through the most devastating natural disaster ever experienced by a major American city. As a direct consequence of the federal government’s negligence, Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans as a Category 2 storm, resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Americans and sank 80% of the city underwater.
And then, less than a month later, Hurricane Rita made landfall.
It is difficult to accurately contextualize the magnitude and consequences of those two horrific hurricanes and the ways in which both of them permanently altered state’s landscape, politics, and culture and forever changed the lives of every single Louisiana citizen. At the time, Gov. Blanco was pilloried for the state’s response to Hurricane Katrina; in hindsight, much of that criticism seems totally unfair, nakedly partisan, and completely misdirected, a fact that many are now willing to directly acknowledge.
We reached out to former Gov. Edwin Edwards, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, James Carville, Donna Brazile, New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, Andy Kopplin and other senior members of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration, and many of the state’s most well-known political advisers and elected officials for their responses to the news that Blanco is now fighting for her life and their opinions on her legacy.
These are their responses, which were given exclusively to The Bayou Brief.
Publisher’s Note: This article will be updated to include additional statements.
“Gov. Blanco is now rightly acknowledged as the most underrated governor in Louisiana history. But that’s only part of the story. The truth of the matter is that she’s also one of the most underrated governors in modern American history.” – James Carville
“I’ve known Kathleen since 1983 and worked with her while she was in the legislature and a member of the Public Service Commission. I was not around while she was governor, but from our mutual friends I know that she served with distinction. Someone with her record of public service and faith in God does not deserve her present status, but she’s the kind of person that can and will handle it with dignity. I do not pray for myself, but never hesitate to pray for a deserving person. And she is certainly one. Trina and I pray for her recovery and stand ready to help in any way we can.” – former four-term Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards
“Kathleen is a true role model for women in public life. Strong, smart, gracious, honest, and very compassionate. She is devoted to her own family, but also called to help millions of other families. At a time when few women ventured into the man’s world of government and politics, she just sashayed right on in to the middle of it all. Louisiana is a better, more just place because of Gov. Blanco’s life of service. -former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu
“I’ve been composing a letter to Kathleen in my head ever since I saw her request for prayers from the people. I believe thousands are praying for her as I write this. I’m reminded of a 2 AM phone call I received in the days following Katrina. These were exhausting times, and it took a while for me to gather consciousness enough from a deep sleep to figure out the phone was ringing. When I answered, a soft voice, little old lady voice said, ‘Are you awake? Wake up. I have an important message for Kathleen. You must tell her. These are dark times, but we are praying, praying without ceasing, for her and for Louisiana. You tell her it’s the old ladies in LaFourche. She’ll understand.’
“I did tell her. And I know she understood the power of prayer, just as she understands the power of words. Here’s something I want to say: The leader does not choose the follower. The follower chooses the leader. I chose to follow Kathleen, and I have never once regretted that choice.” – Phyllis Mayo, former Special Assistant to Gov. Blanco
“When Kathleen decided to run for office decades ago, it was still considered out of the norm for a woman to seek higher office. She is tenacious. She is a woman of valor, a woman of courage. I know her very well. I applaud her leadership. She has given Louisianians the wonderful gift of her life, her public service, her commitment to helping others. She worked to bridge the income inequality gap, to ensure that minorities- people of color- have a seat at the table. I consider her to be a friend. We share the same birthday, and I not only wish her the very best but also a speedy recovery. She has come back from so many odds, and when it comes to fighting, Kathleen has had a ringside seat in the battle for humanity.” – Donna Brazile, appointed by Gov. Blanco to the Louisiana Recovery Authority
“Kathleen Blanco has always been a ferocious fighter for the state of Louisiana and for the city of New Orleans. She refused to back down, even when it meant going against the President of the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. You can’t help but admire that kind of courage and tenacity.” – New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell
“Kathleen Blanco found a place in her great big heart for every person she ever met, which is why so many of our hearts were crushed to hear of her relapse. She’s shown tremendous grace and courage in trying circumstances and those gifts will serve her well in the days ahead.” – Andy Kopplin, former Chief of Staff to Gov. Blanco and founding Executive Director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
“Gov. Kathleen Blanco is a true Louisiana trailblazer. She was breaking glass ceilings before the rest of us knew they even existed. Her love for Louisiana has never been questioned, and although faced with personal and political challenges, she has always been grounded in her faith in God and a resolve to overcome every obstacle in her path. As a public servant she championed economic development, educational excellence and bi-partisan cooperation. We should all be very grateful for her many years of dedicated service to our state.” – Trey Ourso, GumboPAC and Rebuild Louisiana
“Anyone who knows anything about Kathleen Blanco knows this: she is a person of enormous faith. Whatever the future holds for her, she will show us all how to meet it with supreme grace and abiding trust in her Creator.” – Bob Mann, former Communications Director for Gov. Blanco
“Gov. Blanco, from her years in the legislature to her time in the state’s top office, has led with compassion, grace, and strength. It’s this combination of characteristics that made her a rare commodity and a force to be reckoned with in Louisiana’s male-dominated political scene. The former governor is a frequent visitor to the Capitol and to legislative events, and whenever we speak, her gracious and encouraging words are always uplifting. She helped pave the way for many current public servants, particularly women like myself. I am keeping her in my prayers and know she will handle this battle the ‘Kathleen Blanco way’ with compassion, grace and strength.” – State Rep. and Councilwoman-elect Helena Moreno
“Kathleen Blanco and I have been friends for many years, but in 2016 she became much more than that to me. Gov. Blanco was one of the first people I turned to for support and guidance, personal and political, when I ran for the PSC last year. Our friendship grew as she leant me advice, support and encouragement as a candidate, a wife and mother running for office.
“In 1983, I watched her first campaign for the Louisiana legislature and to this day, I love to hear her tell the story of that race and her unlikely victory. She served our entire state at the PSC and when she and my father faced off in the field for Governor in 2003, she and Dad made an agreement not to let the campaign come between the friendship of the Blancos and the Leaches.
“Kathleen has fought many fights on behalf of all of us who call Louisiana home. She has once again inspired and humbled me in her letter to us all this past Sunday. She is a fighter, who always defies the odds, and I have no doubt she will give this battle everything she has with the grace and fierce determination that she has demonstrated for us all time and time again.” – Mary Leach Werner, member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, former candidate for Public Service Commission, and daughter of former Congressman Buddy Leach
“Serving with former Gov. Kathleen Blanco made me a better man and public servant. It put me in better touch with an aspect about myself that I was reluctant to acknowledge or admit that existed, that being my own sexism. Watching her lead in the midst of the challenges of hurricanes Katrina and Rita was both inspiring and revealing.
“To show emotion was viewed as a sign of weakness. The expression of anger was seen as emotional instability. Pointing out the shortcomings of the federal response brought accusations of partisanship. Challenging the disparate treatment between Louisiana and our Mississippi neighbors was labeled as whining.
“Despite it all, Gov. Blanco stood strong and charted a course of repair and recovery that could only be fully understood and appreciated in the surplus-deleting aftermath of her successor. Absent our collective sexism and double standards, it would have been clear that Gov. Blanco had in fact well earned what should have been her second term as our governor. Doing so would have saved us from eight of the most self immolating years in the history of Louisiana governance.
“Veronica and I are praying for Gov. Blanco, Coach, and the entire Blanco family in hopes that in this season of miracles, that she now gets the extra time that’s already been hard earned and is so justly deserved.” – State Rep. and former two-term Mayor of Shreveport Cedric Glover
“Last year I attended a Saints football game and had the opportunity to visit with Gov. Blanco. I have known her for a number of years and felt comfortable asking her about some of the current issues that we were facing in the state. I wasn’t expecting the reply I got from her. She was familiar with all issues and had pointed advice to give on how to deal with them. It was obvious to me that even though she is no longer in office, she still kept up with current events and had sage advice to give. Additionally, I can truly say that she is one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve ever known.” – State Sen. Jay Luneau
“I met Kathleen through a classmate and good friend working on her first PSC campaign. I was immediately impressed with her as I eventually became with her warm and loving family.
“She and Coach inspired my public service. I discovered that you can be a leader, be modest, unpretentious and effective all at the same time.
“Never was Kathleen’s strength and faith more tested as it was with the tragic death of her son Ben. Carla and Lenny Dartez, my wife Marilyn and I went to be with her and Coach that evening and as we sought to console her and Coach, she consoled us.
“The strong faith in God that has accompanied the Blancos through their life of ups and downs will continue to give them comfort.” – former State Sen. Butch Gautreaux
An open letter to the citizens of Louisiana by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco:
Dear citizens of Louisiana, my dearest family and friends,
It is with a heart filled with gratitude that I write today to thank you for the abiding love and prayers you have generously bestowed upon me and my family throughout my entire life and especially during my 24 years of public service.
Without your prayers in 1997, when our son Ben lost his life, we could not have persevered. Thank you for sharing your own joys and sorrows, which brought clarity that we are never alone when our creator asks us to carry special burdens.
I come to you once more to ask for your prayers and loving support.
In 2011, I was diagnosed with an ocular melanoma, a dangerous and rare cancer of the eye. With the help of talented doctors and medical professionals, my eye was treated with radiation, which successfully preserved my vision. The past six and a half years of my life have been busy, filled with blessings and love.
I now face a new challenge. I am in a fight for my own life, one that will be difficult to win, battling the melanoma that has invaded my liver. I knew from the start of my cancer journey this could happen, but with each passing year I hoped this cup would pass me by. It did not.
I have begun a treatment program that hopefully, over time, will quell these cancer demons. No treatments have yet been identified to actually cure this type of melanoma, so a variety of treatments will likely be necessary over time. I would deeply appreciate, if you should see fit, that you offer prayers on behalf of myself, as well as all others fighting to survive life-threatening illnesses.
When you elected me to the state House of Representatives in 1984, I began to see Louisiana as a complex and fascinating kaleidoscope of special people with varied talents and needs. I learned about you, your goals and aspirations, and especially your needs. I began to understand more fully how a well-formed government should be designed to invest in individuals, in education, in basic health care and in other ways that make each of us strong, independent and able to be active contributors to this complex world.
Those early lessons led me from the Legislature, to the Public Service Commission, the Lieutenant Governor’s office and, finally, to the Governor’s Office. All that was possible because you believed in me and guided me on that 24-year journey. I believed in you. I believed we could all be better than we were.
I always felt blessed by God. My life was rich with a mega-sized family, good parents, caring brothers and sisters, a fascinating husband, creative children whose spouses gave me 13 of the best grandchildren, and many talented friends and interesting acquaintances.
In my heart, I always understood God was preparing me for unknown challenges. And of course those challenges came. The first great loss was the death of our son. Many years later Hurricanes Katrina and Rita challenged all of us. I was inspired by the hard work and dedication of the tens of thousands of people who stepped forward to walk hand in hand with those whose lives were endangered and abruptly interrupted.
I thank you, Louisiana citizens and first responders who carried those in need, including the young, old, ailing and dying, from danger to safety. I thank you, survivors, who lost so much, for your dedication and hard work in rebuilding our world, hopefully in smarter, stronger and safer ways. I thank my staff and all of the government workers across the state for the rough hours they spent piecing our world back together. The work was hard, unrelenting and did not stop when the cameras went away. People from every corner of Louisiana pulled together to help each other in those dark days. From across the nation and world, people reached out to us, and I thank them.
I knew from the beginning that the journey would be difficult but with God’s grace we could survive. We did survive. And dare I claim we are thriving in many new ways impossible to have foreseen before those calamities? Louisianans have faced a number of new challenges since the 2005 hurricanes and more will come, but we are a strong people and can face them all. I thank all of you for your courage and hard work while I was your governor.
It has been an honor and blessing to have been chosen, like Esther, to lead our people at such a time as this. Again, please add me to your prayer list. I hope I can survive and thrive as you have done.
I pray for blessings and peace for you and your families as we enter this holiday season that leads us to the blessings of Christmas and a hopeful new year.
Kathleen Babineaux Blanco
Louisiana governor, 2004-2008
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