Gulf Watch: Brown: While Katrina victims were dying, White House played partisan politics

White House officials sought to federalize the Hurricane Katrina response effort in Louisiana because Gov. Kathleen Blanco was a Democratic woman, but it wanted to leave Gov. Haley Barbour at the helm in Mississippi because he was a Republican man.

So charged former FEMA Director Michael Brown in a lecture on the politics of emergency management that he delivered Friday at a Manhattan college, the Associated Press reports:

Brown, speaking at the Metropolitan College of New York, said he had recommended to President Bush that all 90,000 square miles along the Gulf Coast affected by the devastating hurricane be federalized, a term Brown explained as placing the federal government in charge of all agencies responding to the disaster.

"Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking, 'We had to federalize Louisiana because she's a white, female Democratic governor, and we have a chance to rub her nose in it,'" he said, without naming names. "'We can't do it to Haley [Barbour] because Haley's a white male Republican governor. And we can't do a thing to him. So we're just gonna federalize Louisiana.'"

Brown declined to name names, saying he learned of the discussion through Blanco's office and from federal officials, according to the AP.

The remarks have sparked a firestorm, with Blanco blasting the alleged partisanship as "disgusting," the Baton Rouge Advocate reports:

"This is exactly what we were living but could not bring ourselves to believe. Karl Rove was playing politics while our people were dying," Blanco said late Friday through a spokeswoman, referring to President George W. Bush's top political strategist.

"The federal effort was delayed," Blanco said, "and now the public knows why. It's disgusting."

Bush appointed Rove, the former White House deputy chief of staff and Bush's chief political advisor, to take charge of the reconstruction effort, as the New York Times first reported on Sept. 15, 2005. Brown had resigned from FEMA three days earlier, shortly after onsite command of the feds' botched Katrina relief effort was shifted to Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen.

For its part, the White House says there is no truth to Brown's statements, the AP reports:

Eryn Witcher, a White House spokeswoman, denied Brown's claims. "It is unfortunate that Mike Brown is still hurling false statements about the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina," she said. "The only consideration made by the administration at the time of this tragedy and since are those in the best interests of the citizens of the Gulf region."

However, the fact that Rove pressured the Blanco administration to hand control of the storm response to federal authorities was already detailed in a Washington Post article published Dec. 5, 2005:

Shortly after noon on Aug. 31, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) delivered a message that stunned aides to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who were frantically managing the catastrophe that began two days earlier when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

White House senior adviser Karl Rove wanted it conveyed that he understood that Blanco was requesting that President Bush federalize the evacuation of New Orleans. The governor should explore legal options to impose martial law "or as close as we can get," Vitter quoted Rove as saying, according to handwritten notes by Terry Ryder, Blanco's executive counsel.

Thus began what one aide called a "full-court press" to compel the first-term governor to yield control of her state National Guard -- a legal, political and personal campaign by White House staff that failed three days later when Blanco rejected the administration's terms, 10 minutes before Bush was to announce them in a Rose Garden news conference, the governor's aides said.

The revelations come as the president prepares to deliver his State of the Union address tomorrow. Though it's not been reported whether Bush plans to discuss the status of Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, the Democrat who will deliver his party's formal response to the speech -- Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia -- has said he favors cutting off funding for Iraq reconstruction to pay for storm recovery instead, USA Today reports.