Goodbye and Good Riddance, Gov. Blanco

New Orleans, 18 months after Katrina, is still a city of considerable ups and downs. Tuesday was no different; as usual, the bad news came first. The first e-mail I received informed me that a block and a half from our new house, at 1:30 in the afternoon, two hold-ups occurred in less than 10 minutes—and I live in the Garden District, still perceived as a "nice" neighborhood, despite the alarming frequency of similar attacks, along with a recent rash of break-ins of both cars and houses (one of them was mine). First, a gunman wielding a "chrome short nose revolver" relieved a sod delivery man of the $30 in his pockets. Next, he snatched a woman's purse, jumped into an "unknown black vehicle," and roared away.

As crimes go in the city with by far the highest murder rate in the nation (96 per every 100,000 people in 2006; more than 40 people overall have been killed so far in 2007), these could actually be viewed as good news—nobody was killed or even shot, after all. But the real good news came in my next e-mail: Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced that she would not seek re-election to a second term.

Blanco, a former high-school business teacher-turned-public servant, elected in 2003 as the first woman governor of Louisiana, became one of the many not-so-happy public faces of Katrina, along with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and FEMA's Mike (Brownie) Brown. In the storm's immediate aftermath, she appeared so disoriented that one press account of her public appearances went so far as to suggest that she seemed "over-medicated." Times-Picayune columnist James Gill reported that "'Me-Maw's tranked' is the word on the street." (Blanco is sometimes nicknamed "Me-Maw" due to her grandmotherly affect.) That general perception was not helped when she was overheard by a CNN producer while still miked, admitting that she hadn't known it was the governor's responsibility to call out the National Guard. She then engaged in a two-day argument with President Bush over whether the guard troops should be federalized, thus keeping those troops ready to go literally waiting on runways around the nation. (When I returned to the city 10 days after the storm, Oklahoma guard troops told me they had been given the heads up that they'd be deployed on Wednesday after the storm, and then sat suited up for three more days before finally being given permission to deploy.) In the end, she opted against federalization.

Indecision and failure to act have been the hallmarks of her administration. In neighboring Mississippi, Haley Barbour had convened two special sessions of the legislature before she called for her first one. Louisiana received the first half of the $7.5 billion earmarked for homeowners' reconstruction efforts in December of 2005, and the second chunk in June 2006. The so-called "Road Home" program offers owners of storm-damaged homes up to $150,000 in aid. But so far, bureaucratic hurdles put in place by the state have meant that only 3 percent of the 115,000 families who have applied for help have received it. Worse, the contractor handpicked by Blanco's administration to implement the process stands to make a jaw-dropping $765 million from the job, though it has further slowed progress with computer glitches and Keystone Kops-style mistakes. By contrast, 78 percent of Mississippi's applicants in a similar, but much less bureaucratic, program have received their checks.

The irony is that when the program was finally launched last summer—with the official name "Governor Kathleen Blanco's Road Home Program"—critics cried foul, saying that she would get too much political credit for the payouts. Now, of course, she has been given all the blame for the lack thereof. A January poll showed her garnering only 24 percent of the votes in a race against U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, her 2003 opponent, who had 59 percent. Since then, she has dropped 8 more points, and last week in yet another embarrassing blow, HUD charged that the state was breaking federal law by requiring homeowners to wait for a series of reimbursements rather than giving them the option of taking a lump sum.

Though the State Recovery Authority agreed to change the program to address HUD's concerns, the feedback from the initial HUD announcement had been so negative that the state Democratic Party put strong pressure on Blanco to bow out sooner rather than later, so that it could field a better candidate. Jindal lost narrowly last go-round due largely to racist voters in northern Louisiana who objected to the widely respected candidate on the basis of his Indian heritage. Until now, he has been viewed as invincible. The current Democratic favorite is former U.S. senator John Breaux, but since he is now a lobbyist whose legal residence is in Maryland, he faces some legal hurdles; the Louisiana constitution requires that candidates be legal residents of the state for at least five years. If Breaux doesn't manage to overcome that particular glitch, other choices include Mitch Landrieu, the effective lieutenant governor who lost last year's mayoral race to Nagin.

No matter who winds up running, the best news for the voters of this beleaguered city is that the election will no longer be a referendum on the past. With two strong candidates, there may even be discussion of the future—of how to solve our health-care crisis, our education crisis, our housing crisis, and on and on and on.

This should be cause for hope for New Orleanians, who have been trying—doggedly, optimistically, and almost entirely on their own—to bring back the city, while existing in what can only be called a leadership vacuum. In the early days after the storm, Mississippi's far superior response had some citizens wishing Haley Barbour could govern both states, and this week he raised $350,000 for his own re-election bid at a single fund-raiser here, far more than Blanco could have dreamed of drumming up. Others half-seriously advocated busting former governor Edwin Edwards out of the federal penitentiary in Oakdale; bumper stickers distributed during this year's Mardi Gras read EDWARDS NOW MORE THAN EVER. It's a far cry from VOTE FOR THE CROOK; IT'S IMPORTANT, the message on the popular bumper sticker during his race against the former Klansman David Duke, but no one has ever doubted his considerable political acumen or administrative skills. Currently halfway through his 10-year prison term for extorting payoffs in exchange for riverboat casino licenses, he has said nothing publicly about the governor's handling of the storm, but he did tell a close friend who visits regularly that federalizing the guard troops would have been a "no-brainer." The 78-year-old former governor, said his friend, "is very concerned about the leadership of this state." So are we all, but our options just got a whole lot better.