Katrina Alters Vista for Barbour, Blanco

 

Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and Haley Barbour took their oaths as governors of Louisiana and Mississippi two days apart in January 2004. Twenty months later, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf states, tearing apart landscapes and lives and severely testing the leadership of both governors.

Barbour, former Republican National Committee chairman, conveyed a take-charge demeanor in leading Mississippi's relief effort. He quickly convened a special legislative session and appointed a high-octane recovery commission headed by former Netscape chief executive Jim Barksdale.

Barbour persuaded the Legislature to let the shipwrecked Gulf riverboat casinos move 800 feet inland and secured a $25 million package of interest-free $25,000 loans for small businesses.

He also asked Washington, D.C., for $34 billion to help Mississippi rebuild. It was a far cry from the $250 billion that Louisiana's U.S. senators demanded.

Blanco, a Democrat who spent two decades as a state legislator, public service commissioner and lieutenant governor, appeared hesitant in the first days of the disaster. She vented about federal incompetence but had trouble marshaling the resources to rescue the thousands stranded in attics, on rooftops and at the Superdome and Convention Center .

Nonetheless, after a rocky start, Blanco emerged with what The Times-Picayune called "a string of victories" from a 17-day special session of the Legislature, including tougher building codes, business tax breaks, a partial takeover of New Orleans' shaky school system and $600 million in spending cuts.

With nonstop news coverage, the nation glimpsed how these two politicians coped with an epic disaster.

In December, seeking to vindicate her record and Louisiana's reputation, Blanco released 100,000 pages of documents, including e-mails and internal memos that she said demonstrated how state employees "worked tirelessly and effectively … to save many thousands of lives."

Blanco's task, all concede, was far tougher than Barbour's. More than 1,000 of the 1,300 fatalities were in Louisiana. Rebuilding New Orleans, a city of 450,000 and one of America's great cultural and culinary treasures, poses enormous challenges.

The mettle of both governors will be put to many further tests before their terms expire in January 2008. As Blanco put it, "This recovery is not a sprint. It's a marathon."

John Maginnis , a Louisiana pundit, said, "Anyone in that situation would have been overwhelmed."

But pollster Bernie Pinsonat, a partner in Southern Media and Opinion Research in Baton Rouge, said, "Perception in politics is everything. And the perception is that (Blanco) wasn't up for the job and it overwhelmed her."

Blanco faced unusual political challenges. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin , a Democrat who endorsed Blanco's Republican opponent in 2003, often acted independently of the governor. Many around the country and even within Louisiana were wary of pouring money into New Orleans, a city with a reputation for high life, high crime, poor schools and corruption.

Finally, the forced exodus from New Orleans after the levees broke may have altered the state's political balance in favor of the GOP. Blanco won by only 4 points in 2003, while President Bush carried Louisiana easily in 2000 and 2004.

Barbour had his own problems to confront in Mississippi, one of the nation's poorest states. The state temporarily lost the nearly $170 million-a-year revenue stream from a dozen casinos in Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis.

Still, Barbour seemed to strike the right notes as he rallied the state's 2.8 million citizens to the recovery.

"Frankly, in 20 years, we'll be glad Haley Barbour was governor when he was," said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. Wiseman, a Democrat, said Barbour artfully balanced working with the White House and his friends in Washington, D.C., and giving voice to the frustrations of ordinary Mississippians.

Wayne Dowdy, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party and a former congressman, observed, "We have no choice but to do everything we can do to support the governor. He is our best bet."

 
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