Louisiana Elects First Female Governor

Times Staff Writer

Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, riding an eleventh-hour surge in support and fending off a political upstart, was elected Louisiana's first female governor Saturday, dashing Republicans' hopes for a sweep of governor's seats in the Deep South.

Blanco, 60, a conservative Democrat, seventh-generation Louisianan and lieutenant governor for the last eight years, becomes the seventh woman governor in the nation.

She beat 32-year-old Republican policy expert Bobby Jindal, who was making his first run at elected office. Jindal, the son of immigrants from India, would have been the first nonwhite to serve as governor in the Deep South since Reconstruction. He also would have been the nation's first Indian American governor.

At a late-night victory party, Blanco appeared before boisterous supporters. Barely able to fit on a packed stage and interrupted repeatedly by applause, Blanco hugged her mother and led the room in prayer.

Her voice hoarse and her eyes brimming with tears, she thanked Jindal for his "devotion to Louisiana," and said she saw her victory as a rejection of the caustic and often corrupt history of state politics.

"We have sent a message out to the nation that this is a new Louisiana," she said. "You have demanded change. We will deliver. We are going to do this by working together."

In the ballroom of a French Quarter hotel in New Orleans, Jindal walked through a service entrance, holding his 1-year-old daughter in his arms, and thanked his supporters, who mustered a chant of "Bobby! Bobby!"

Jindal shook his head as he remembered the days -- not long ago -- when he was considered an "asterisk in the polls." Polls had shown Jindal with a sizeable lead just a week ago, but Blanco made a strong run in the final days of the race.

"I stand here tonight disappointed but not discouraged," Jindal said. "Although we didn't win, we did succeed. It has been an honor, a great honor, to represent the aspirations, the hopes, of thousands of hard-working Louisianans."

Jindal did not mention Blanco in his speech.

Louisiana has sent only white men to the governor's mansion since Reconstruction. Because the race would have broken new ground for the state regardless of the winner, the election was one of the most closely watched in the storied history of Louisiana politics.

Jindal, in particular, garnered significant national attention, partly because of his youth, but largely because former Klan wizard David Duke was still a popular political candidate among white conservatives in Louisiana just a decade ago.

Blanco and Jindal received the top two vote totals among 17 candidates in a primary last month, earning the right to meet head to head Saturday.

"It's phenomenal," Blanco said when asked about the pair's success. "Louisiana has a deep yearning to be a part of mainstream America."

As in many states that have suffered economically in recent years, the glow of victory may not last long. Louisiana is expected to face a budget deficit of more than $300 million next year, even as it shoulders a host of problems -- a poor education system, high numbers of residents without health insurance, and a devastating erosion problem that devours large pieces of coastal land each day.

"Most citizens recognize that the next governor is going to be facing a fiscal challenge, and they know that there are not going to be a whole lot of new programs coming out of the government," said John Maginnis, a Baton Rouge writer and a leading analyst of Louisiana politics.

"The candidates have been selling lower expectations as far as what you can expect from government -- besides hustle and good will. They will have a challenge just to maintain the status quo."

As the state's lieutenant governor, Blanco has overseen tourism promotion, cultural development and state parks, museums and libraries. Under her watch, she says, the state created 21,000 tourism-related jobs -- and she made job creation one of the central focuses of her platform.

Overall, she has served in public office for nearly 20 years, starting with her 1984 election to the Legislature. A former high school teacher and government consultant, Blanco and her husband, Raymond, have six children and five grandchildren.

A Cajun born in Louisiana's Acadiana region, near the briny bays that form the rim of the Gulf of Mexico, Blanco is a business-friendly, conservative Democrat.

A Catholic who says her faith is central to her character, Blanco is opposed to abortion rights, except in cases of rape or incest, or when a mother's life is at stake. She is opposed to affirmative action and is an avid duck hunter and gun collector -- her favorite is an antique Winchester rifle.

Jindal is the son of parents who immigrated to Baton Rouge from the Punjab province of India shortly before his birth. He and his wife are expecting their second child.

Jindal has been seen as a political wunderkind. In 1996, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, who could not run this year because of term limits, named Jindal secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, giving him stewardship of a $4-billion annual budget and 13,000 employees. Jindal was 24 at the time.

Jindal then directed a federal commission on the future of Medicare, served briefly as president of the 80,000-student University of Louisiana system and was as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Jindal ran on his record as a high-level bureaucrat, but Blanco had chipped away at his credentials in recent weeks, fueling her late surge.

Jindal is widely credited with erasing a $400-million deficit at the Department of Health and Hospitals. But Blanco produced state-generated studies this week showing that more than 65,000 people lost Medicaid coverage during the time Jindal was carrying out his cuts in spending. More than 1,000 state government workers also lost their jobs to the cuts, according to the reports.

Jindal said most of the people lost coverage because the economy improved and they found work, making them ineligible for government aid. As for the jobs that were lost, he said he was simply trying to make government more efficient.

A Jindal victory would have given the GOP simultaneous control of the governor's mansions in the five Deep South states -- Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

In addition to the recent win in Mississippi, Republicans have won governorships in California and Kentucky.

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