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March 31, 2011

Packed house at ULM as Blanco discusses career in public office

Former Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Louisiana's first female governor, delivered a sweeping talk to a packed audience at the University of Louisiana at Monroe Library on Monday, March 28, covering both the heights and depths of her decades-long career in public service.

The ULM Diversity Committee hosted Blanco in celebration of Women's History Month at ULM.

ULM President Nick J. Bruno thanked the committee for bringing Blanco to campus as he recognized the "contributions of women in all aspects of our society."

Vice President for Student Affairs Wayne Brumfield introduced Blanco, noting her election to four different public office positions during her 24 trailblazing years.

"Her name was on the ballot nine times in tough races and runoffs, and she has never been defeated," Brumfield said.

Blanco was quick to say her most important contribution during her tenure as governor was making education a priority, which included funding teacher pay and higher education at the Southern Regional average for the first time in 25 years.

She said she was proud of the progress at ULM in spite of massive budget cuts in recent years.

"At the end of my term, I had fulfilled all my campaign promises," she said. "The most important one was making Louisiana's education a No. 1 priority.

You don't do that with empty words. You do it with money. Money makes the world go round and it's no different in education."

Blanco served as governor in the weeks and months following the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a point which she touched on in her speech and addressed in the question and answer session that followed.

"I dealt with a stubborn Congress, a disappointingly political White House and a overly complicated FEMA," Blanco admitted. "No one could see past the destruction, but as governor, I had to. I took a licking for all of my decisions, but they were the right decisions."

Saying she would not change any of the tactics her administration used after the hurricanes, she quipped that "this once shy country girl got this state $29 billion to help Louisiana get back on its feet," to which the audience approvingly responded.

Blanco also thanked northeast Louisianans for embracing the throngs seeking safety in shelters across the region, especially the former State Farm Building, which now houses ULM's College of Pharmacy.

In 2003, Louisianans elected Blanco governor over 19 men, many of them prominent political figures.

She was also the first woman in Louisiana elected to the Public Service Commission, where she was named chairperson, and was re-elected for a second term with no opposition.

She touched on her political breakthroughs and addressed the barriers that still crop up for many women and minorities in the public sphere, particularly when an individual lacks self-confidence.

"We think as women we are not qualified to hold office, whatever that means," she said. "We create safe little spaces around ourselves, and unless a dramatic event occurs, most never venture outside those corrals."

Blanco said it occurred to her that if she could build fences, she could build gates which, she said, "let us out to explore the larger world ... you see what building those gates did (for me)."

In addition to prioritizing education, Blanco said she successfully marketed Louisiana to businesses and industry to bring jobs to the state.

She was nationally recognized for her economic development accomplishments, and left a balanced budget and a $2 billion surplus by the end of her term as governor.

Blanco was the first in her family to graduate from a four-year university. She became an educator, but retired briefly to help raise her six children with husband Raymond before making the decision to enter Louisiana politics.

Now retired from public office, Blanco said she is happy to contribute to political life from behind the scenes and is spending much of her free time writing her autobiography.

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