As a candidate for governor, Kathleen Blanco did not exactly set the world on fire. Her oratory was uninspiring, and she took no risks on the tough issues. She was gracious, as she always is, but there did not appear to be a lot of "there" there.
As governor, however, Blanco has even her campaign critics singing her praises. She has proved to be a master at working the Legislature, she has staked out tough-minded positions on ethics and the New Orleans Saints, and she has hit her stride as an effective communicator. She has grown into the job quickly and effectively, and she looks very, very comfortable in the executive mantle.
Tough issues await her in her second year and beyond, to be sure -- health care, education, pay raises for teachers and ever-present budget concerns, just to name a few. But, after one year in office, it's clear that the Governess has charted a course that differs radically from those of her predecessors, both in style and in substance.
The most notable change is in the area of economic development, which is Louisiana's most pressing need. Mike Foster wouldn't leave the Governor's Mansion (or the duck blind) for anything, except maybe to ride his motorcycle or to attend law school classes. He took the classical economic theory of laissez-faire to its most illogical extreme, and Louisiana suffered for it. Edwin Edwards' idea of economic development was finding ways to shake down casinos for himself, his family and his friends.
Compared to them, Blanco is a breath of fresh air. She has already lured several large companies to Louisiana, and she clearly is willing to travel anywhere to sell the virtues of doing business in this state. Her legislative push last year for tighter ethical standards was not as ambitious as some had hoped it would be, but at least it passed. Blanco also sends clear signals that she wants to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the law.
She took some heat recently when her husband, Raymond "Coach" Blanco, accepted a ride on a corporate jet to Louisiana State University's bowl appearance in Florida. She deserved the criticism, but she quickly did the right thing by clamping down on Coach's extracurricular perks in the future. What made things stickier is that the jet ride came from a close family friend, businessman Jim Bernhardt, who is now the new head of the state Democratic Party. Her response to the situation signaled that she is serious about ethics reform. Anybody can screw up one time. If she stays the course, she will leave a legacy of integrity and raise the bar for future governors -- something all our governors should do.
In dealing with lawmakers, Blanco has not hesitated to flex her muscles. This is what being governor of Louisiana is all about, and anyone who winces at that doesn't understand our "strong governor" system of government. Woe to the governor -- or Governess -- who shies from using that power. Early on, Blanco used it to secure passage of business-friendly tax cuts and other measures.
More recently, she issued an executive order barring state agencies and contractors from discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other factors. She was blasted by the so-called religious right, but she stuck to her guns. She also denied that the order fulfilled a campaign promise, thereby sticking to her hallmark middle-of-the-road political course as well.
If she is to be faulted, it's for not being more ambitious in her agenda. She held summits on health care and poverty, but so far no initiatives have come forth. Word has leaked about part of her anticipated plan to overhaul the state's sprawling health care system, and it drew fire immediately from the nursing home industry -- a sure sign not only that she seeks meaningful reform but also that she's in for a tough fight.
In the short run, she will have to finalize the Saints negotiations. This is perhaps where she has stood tallest -- the first governor to stare down Saints owner Tom Benson. She does not want to be known as the guv who lost the Saints, but she also refuses to be viewed as a pushover. At this rate, Year Two promises to be even more eventful -- and perhaps even more historic -- than Year One.