A new style and tone for Louisiana politics

Kathleen Blanco's election as state's first woman governor gives Louisiana - and the Democratic Party - a new voice.

The election of Kathleen Babineaux Blanco as Louisiana's first woman governor marks a significant change in style and tone in one of the nation's most raucous political states - and a rare boost for the Democrats in the South.

As a low-key career politician and middle-of-the-road Democrat, Ms. Blanco is expected to move Louisiana away from the big-personality politics of the past and instead emphasize more mundane issues like the business climate.

Experts say the watchword here for the next four years may be tax codes and corporate flight rather than the flamboyance, and often corruption, that has dominated so much of the state's politics of the past from both sides of the aisle.

Almost overnight, Blanco will also become a prominent face in the Democratic Party nationally. Her victory Saturday, by a 52-to-48 margin over an Ivy League whiz kid Republican, gives the Democrats something to boast about. Finally.

After last week's loss of the governors' mansions in Kentucky and Mississippi, as well as the recent ouster of California Gov. Gray Davis in a recall vote, Blanco represents the first Democrat to carry a state so far this year. Perhaps more important, her victory keeps the Republicans from anointing a new star. Her opponent, Bobby Jindal, was vying to become the first Indian American to run a state in US history. Though only 32, he had already served as a senior health-policy official in the Bush administration, ran Louisiana's biggest cabinet-level department and its largest university system. The former Rhodes Scholar had captured widespread national attention as a politician to watch.

The outcome reflected both tactical elements and deeper forces at work in Louisiana. Political analysts here pin Mr. Jindal's loss, in part, on the failure to answer a series of negative political advertisements in the final week of the campaign. Blanco successfully shifted her strategy, trying to define the differences between the two candidates - particularly on health care and education.

Blanco also sought to portray herself as a warm, family-oriented public servant, while depicting her opponent as a heartless number cruncher. Her 20 years in public office - as a former state representative, the first woman on Louisiana's powerful Public Service Commission, and most recently as lieutenant governor - clearly resonated with some voters.

An election about change

Yet no matter who would have won, there is little doubt this election was about change. With the exception of a black Republican who served as acting governor for 35 days during Reconstruction, Louisiana has sent only white men to the governor's mansion. "This is about the New South emerging," said US Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), as she barnstormed across the state with Blanco in a Winnebago.

Moreover, many of the governors or would-be governors of the past have been colorful characters. David Duke, a well-known white supremacist, ran for governor as a Republican 12 years ago and managed to garner 39 percent of the vote. Edwin Edwards, a Democrat, is now serving time in federal prison for taking kickbacks on offshore casino contracts.

He devised the open primary system in the 1970s that surely contributed to Blanco's Democratic victory. In those days, when the Deep South was a one-party Democratic region, all the Republicans in Louisiana could have almost fit onto one Mardi Gras float. In 1975, Edwards got 62 percent of the vote. Natives here rank him second only in political charm to the Godfather of Louisiana politics, Huey Long.

A popular Cajun

Blanco is a Cajun, of French descent, and is popular in the heavily Cajun precincts across southern Louisiana. She held her victory party in the heart of Acadiana, in Lafayette rather than New Orleans, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She picked up a large percentage of the women's vote, despite being an antiabortion Catholic.

Blanco also did well with African-American voters, especially in New Orleans, in spite of a tradition-breaking endorsement of Jindal by black Mayor Ray Nagin. "I think it represents the desire for Louisiana people to really make a serious change and put our crazy politics of the past behind us," she said after the election. "We want to be part of the mainstream of America."

Of the three crucial constituencies in Louisiana, Jindal did well with white Protestants in the northern half of the state, but ended up with only 42 percent. Republican Gov. Mike Foster, unable to run for reelection after eight uneventful years in office, supported Jindal, his protégé, publicly proclaiming his brilliance for turning a $400 million Medicaid deficit into a $220 million surplus. Jindal ran a series of radio ads taking a strong stand against abortion, gun control, gay marriage, and Hollywood.

Social conservatism

On the campaign trail and in debates, he touted his faith and his conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism while a student in a Baton Rouge high school. He also supported public display of the Ten Commandments, a hot button political issue in much of the South. But his conservative Christian stands, and his testimonial of coming back home to turn his state around, were not enough to propel him into office. Louisiana is the only state in the Deep South that suffered net out-migration in the past decade. At least 75,000 more people left than moved in.

The business climate ended up being the main theme in the campaign. It was an issue both candidates agreed on, which may have disappointed those who watch Louisiana for the carnival of corruption that has entertained in the past. The Better Government Association ranks Louisiana 46th among the states on its Capital Integrity Index, and many here thought Jindal could be the one to turn the state around. Now it will be up to Blanco.

Wire service material was used in this report.

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