Gov. Kathleen Blanco, whose popularity plummeted after two hurricanes devastated Louisiana during her term, has announced she will not seek re-election.
Blanco has been burdened by the sluggish pace of recovery and by pressure within the Democratic Party, but she said she wanted to push through important initiatives without having to worry about political considerations.
"I am doing this so we can work without interference from election year politics," she said in a televised appearance from the governor's mansion Tuesday evening.
She had already broken the news in phone calls to legislative leaders, a meeting with her Cabinet secretaries and in a letter to her staff.
Low polls 'played no role in it'
Blanco, a Democrat from the state's Cajun country, had already drawn a half-dozen challengers for this fall's election - including popular Republican U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal. She defeated him in 2003 with 52 percent of the vote to become Louisiana's first female governor.
Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a popular Democrat who said he wouldn't enter the race if Blanco was a candidate, has said he will decide soon whether he will make a bid for the job.
Blanco's chief of staff, Jimmy Clarke, said the governor made her decision at the end of last week and that low poll numbers and Breaux played no role in it.
"She would much rather be governing than campaigning," Clarke said.
Blanco was seen as so politically weakened by hurricanes Katrina and Rita that Democratic powerbrokers questioned behind the scenes whether she was re-electable or whether she should step aside to give another Democratic candidate a better chance at the post.
Blanco, 64, had been widely criticized not only for her response immediately after the storms, but also for a bureaucracy-bogged recovery effort.
That effort included the "Road Home" program, designed to funnel billions in federal dollars to pay hurricane-struck homeowners for repairs or buyouts. More than 117,000 people whose homes were damaged in 2005 by hurricanes Katrina and Rita have applied for Road Home aid. As of this week, about 3,800 have received grants.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, Blanco was criticized for not requiring an evacuation of the city earlier and not sending in buses sooner to take stranded residents from the city's shelters. Criticism also fell on President Bush and Mayor Ray Nagin for a government response seen as inadequate at all levels.
Time magazine labeled Blanco one of the nation's worst governors, saying she should have had a plan to evacuate the poor and the elderly. Rita hit southwestern Louisiana almost a month later, causing more devastation and adding to Blanco's problems.
Eight months until election
Blanco's hope for a political recovery had been largely pinned to the Road Home effort. But months dragged by with few receiving aid.
Her decision still leaves the party time to find a strong candidate for elections this fall, said Chris Whittington, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
"Eight months is a lifetime," Whittington said.
Blanco, a former high school business education teacher, started in politics as a consultant on redistricting issues. She was elected as a state representative in 1984 and later moved on to the state's utility regulatory body, the Louisiana Public Service Commission, and served as lieutenant governor.
The governor's decision makes her a lame duck six weeks before lawmakers return to the state Capitol for their regular legislative session. Only days ago, she proposed a record $29.2 billion state budget for next year.
Blanco, who has blamed national Republicans for shortchanging the state on aid and of playing politics in the storms' aftermath, took a swipe in her brief Tuesday night speech at opponents who "attempted to exploit those tragedies for partisan gain." But she focused mostly on the April 30 legislative session and her hopes for the remaining nine months of her term.
Jindal, wishing Blanco and her family well, said Tuesday: "This is the governor's day, not mine. Campaigning can wait."