A new face rises in bayou politics

If Jindal wins Nov. 15, he'll be Louisiana's first non-white governor since Reconstruction.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

He's been called a wunderkind, a whiz kid, and a political neophyte. And if he wins the runoff election on Nov. 15, 32-year-old Bobby Jindal will become the country's first Indian-American governor.

But when he topped a field of 18 candidates in the Louisiana race earlier this month, his father had one question: "Why didn't you win the election outright?"

It wasn't too far-fetched an expectation. Since attending Brown University and Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Jindal has been the secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals, president of the University of Louisiana system, and assistant secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

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He's known for turning around struggling agencies and fixing broken budgets. But perhaps most important in the steamy bayous of Louisiana - where racism has been a persistent part of the mental fabric - Jindal would be the first non-white to hold the state's top office since Reconstruction.

"Jindal represents something very different for the state," says Wayne Parent, head of the political science department at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. "We've finally gotten to the point where a minority can participate in the very highest levels of government.

"Louisiana," he adds, "feels very good about itself this week."

Indeed, across the state, residents are buzzing about the upcoming runoff, which pits Jindal, a Republican, against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. Political analysts are saying that it will be a close, highly competitive race and that both candidates have a lot of work ahead of them.

Part of that work may be outlining their differences: Both, after all, represent the changing face of Louisiana politics. Lieutenant Governor Blanco, the most conservative Democrat in what had been a crowded field, is closely aligned with Jindal on issues from abortion to gun control. The former schoolteacher has spent two decades in public office, and enjoys wide name recognition; Jindal, who emphasizes his youth, has been criticized for being less experienced and too bureaucratic in the way he confronts policy issues.

But thus far, he seems to have shored up the conservative white male vote. Ironically, it's this same group that overwhelmingly voted for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan wizard, in a gubernatorial runoff 12 years ago. Pundits say Jindal reached out to the far right by deriding gun control, pushing a pro-marriage, "pro-life" posture, and touting the virtues of the Ten Commandments.

Sitting on donated furniture at his campaign headquarters last week, he says in bursts of rapid-fire response that his conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism when he was 18 is the basis for most of his social perspective. He refers to his church's teachings and the pope's writings freely.

"I think my faith is an important part of how I approach life - how I raise my daughter, how I approach my job," he says. "I don't think you can separate your faith from who you are."

Jindal's parents emigrated from India to Baton Rouge in 1971 so his mother could study nuclear physics at LSU. Their first child, Piyush Jindal, was born six months later. At age 4, Piyush informed his family he wanted to be known as "Bobby."

He says it was his father, a civil engineer, who encouraged him and his younger brother to take advantage of the opportunities they had and, in turn, give back to the community.

"He was always pushing us to be better, always pushing us to work harder. He was the kind of father who, when we brought home a 90 percent, he wanted to know about the other 10 percent," says Jindal.

So it was that he grew up pushing limits. He graduated from college early. After whizzing through a number of high-profile jobs, he was named secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals by Gov. Mike Foster (R), who isn't running for reelection because of term limits.

After cutting $400 million from that budget, Jindal moved on to become president of the University of Louisiana system and then assistant secretary in President Bush's Department of Health and Human Services. He left that appointment in February to run for governor. The Sunday after the primary, Mr. Bush called to congratulate him and offer his support. Governor Foster also backs Jindal and helped fill his campaign coffers.

The Jindal campaign began slowly but gained momentum over the summer. He spoke on economic development, honesty in government, strong education, and affordable health care. He believes the No. 1 challenge facing the state is its brain drain.

"We are the only state in the South losing its people, and it's because we don't have the economic opportunities. People don't feel like they can pursue their dreams here in Louisiana. So first is creating jobs, and second is fixing our schools so our kids can compete."

So far, though, these ideas aren't garnering much support among certain groups. Jindal won 24 out of 64 parishes in the primary, but he received very few votes from African-Americans, who make up 30 percent of the state's population.

Many have long felt disenfranchised by the steady stream of white men into the governor's mansion, say political analysts. But it's going to take more than a dark-skinned candidate to alter their overwhelmingly Democratic voting record.

"I find it very odd, the connection that's being made between Asian-Americans and African-Americans. The kinship is not there," says Dr. Parent. "African-Americans have such a distinct history of discrimination."

But Jindal's youth and energy may bridge some of those gaps. College student Alan Brown says every one of his friends voted for Jindal. "Things are changing," he says, studying economics at a local coffee house near the LSU campus. "This is the first time we haven't had a white man running for governor, and everybody's excited. I guess we finally got tired of good old boys."

More important, says his friend Greg Mancina, "We wanted a governor with integrity, somebody who wouldn't wind up in prison."

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