Is the 'Cajun Grandma' Getting a Bad Rap?

It was four days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, standing at a podium with dark circles under her eyes, warned rioters and looters in New Orleans that the National Guard troops were under orders to "shoot and kill."

The statement made headlines in many newspapers, mostly unflattering to Blanco, a Democrat, but it also thrust her further into the spotlight after the horrific natural disaster that devastated New Orleans. As she becomes a recurring feature on national newscasts, many outside Louisiana are wondering, "Who is this woman?"

Blanco, 62, is a rarity, a female governor of a big Southern state. As a rising political star in a Southern state, Blanco made many firsts. In 1984, she became the first woman ever elected to the state legislature to represent the city of Lafayette. Five years later, she became the first woman commissioner elected to the Public Service Commission. Four years into her tenure, she became the commission's first chairwoman (1993-94).

Blanco's ascendancy to the governorship was tinged with some controversy. Her narrow victory over Bobby Jindal in a November 2003 runoff raised questions of race. Some pundits suggested that many white Louisianans had voted for Blanco as a vote against Jindal, the son of immigrants from India.

Nevertheless, she was nicknamed the "Cajun Grandma" and won the election to become the top elected official in the state.

Put to the Test by Katrina

As governor, she was one of the first of Louisiana's elected officials who Americans saw and heard from after the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.

She has received criticism both from other public officials and commentators in the press.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, was one of several politicians who said that Blanco was at fault for problems with the Katrina relief effort.

"The buck stops with the governor," he said.

Blanco publicly denied a rift with the Bush administration, but tensions continue. She complained on Friday that radio equipment and portable generators she requested from the federal government a week ago had yet to arrive.

Blanco "has come across as a nice person," wrote New York Post columnist Deborah Orin, but she seems "overwhelmed instead of inspiring."

Politics in the South are in some ways a distant relative to Northern politics. Race and gender play heavier roles in elections. But when it comes to national disasters and the response by elected officials, the same requirements hold true, says Earl Black, Rice University professor and author of "The Politics of the Modern South."

"The critical question when it comes to a time like this is, how do you perform in a dire situation?" Black said of the impression Blanco has made so far. "The people of Louisiana are looking to their governor for support. In this case, her response is not one that resembles Rudolph Giuliani's after 9/11. A governor really has to be on top and so far it does not seem like she has governed that way."

Some have seen Blanco's sometimes teary and emotional statements as a sign she cannot handle the situation.

"In times of crisis people tend to think women are not as effective and not able to move fast enough," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist.

As the response to the Gulf Coast devastation continues, Blanco is likely to remain in the national spotlight. Time will tell if the Cajun Grandma becomes a political star or a symbol of the slow relief effort in the aftermath of the tragedy.

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