Coup in the bayou: New Governor Jindal promises change in Louisiana
Inaugurated Monday, he promises to clean up corruption.
Baton Rouge, La. — Little is ordinary about Louisiana's new governor, Piyush "Bobby" Jindal. He's the nation's youngest governor, the first whose parents are from India, and his state's first nonwhite chief executive since Reconstruction. A convert from Hinduism to Catholicism, he likes fast food and rises early – like 3 a.m. – to lift weights.
But all that pales in comparison to the extraordinary task he's promised to undertake: cleaning up a state government widely considered one of the most corruption-prone in America. Perhaps equally extraordinary: Some political observers say he can do it. Governor Jindal was inaugurated here in Baton Rouge Monday amid the booms of a 19-cannon salute and a children's choir singing "The Crawdad Song."
"We've had this sort of political revolution before," says Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University here in Baton Rouge. "Louisiana is wellknown for dramatically throwing someone out and dramatically throwing other people in, but there's something different in Jindal – not in the person, but the situation." In a word, the aftermath of hurricane Katrina has shaken Louisiana politics to its core.
With government flaws exposed by the 2005 storm, "the stars are now aligning" for deep reforms in a state infamous for having more imprisoned politicians per capita than any other, Jindal says.
"After years of scandals and jokes, it's almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy that there was this Louisiana way. Now, people are optimistic that we can actually do something about it," he adds.
Jindal won all but four parishes
Jindal used that message to win 60 of the state's 64 parishes – the biggest margin by a nonincumbent in Louisiana history.
"The storms changed the psyche of Louisiana voters and people, because they saw the consequences of corruption," he says. "A lot of the institutions that weren't working before the storm have been damaged, and it's now up to the state to decide how to rebuild, or whether to rebuild, and how to provide those services. No one is arguing the storm was a good thing, but out of that destruction there is a choice about how we rebuild."
Jindal has some advantages over previous reformers. He inherits the largest class of freshman legislators in state history and a $2 billion budget surplus.
Jindal has a "powerful mandate," says Michael Kurtz, a retired history professor in Hammond, La. "He's a fresh face, kind of a do-gooder type.... He's a whiz kid."
Jindal plans to call two special legislative sessions soon: One to implement ethics reform to curb the influence of lobbyists in Baton Rouge; the second to reform the state's tax structure, which critics call regressive because it's focused on sales taxes. Louisianans see both as crucial to turning around the fortunes of the state.
Outsiders may take a lot of convincing, however.
When Jindal met with President Bush after his election in October, Bush said, "So, Bobby, are we going to able to send money down there to rebuild without it ending up in somebody's pocket?"
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Jindal parlayed an Oxford education into a job with McKinsey & Co. in Washington. He has worked for the Department of Health and Human Services and also ran the state's university system before becoming a US representative, on the Republican ticket, all by age 36.
Connecting with rural voters
In the process, Jindal learned to slow his machine-gun speaking style and connect to the rural Anglo-Protestant voters, mostly in northern Louisiana, who once voted in force for KKK leader and gubernatorial candidate David Duke. "It was a huge hurdle," says one aide.
Once they met him, voters say they found Jindal humble and down-to-earth, a convert to Catholicism who shared their socially conservative values.
Not everyone is impressed. Some observers worry that he will try to impose his strict creationist philosophy on Louisiana's schools. Others are concerned that Jindal will go the way of past reform candidates, such as Edwin Edwards, who is now serving time in a federal prison. Still others wistfully remember the "viceroy" era of powerful governors in Louisiana, which changed when the state rewrote its Constitution in 1972 to give the legislature more influence in state affairs.
As he promised to get down to work after the inauguration Monday, Jindal says many Louisianans sense that what happens in the next four years may define the state for their lifetimes.
"We've underperformed because we have not expected better from ourselves," Jindal says. "The most important thing we can do is raise people's expectations to say, 'Why not Louisiana?' "
Although well-known in Louisiana because of a previous run for governor, Jindal had to work hard to win last year's election. After losing a runoff to Kathleen Blanco for the governorship in 2003, Jindal almost immediately hit the campaign trail again. His behind-the-scenes work in the aftermath of Katrina to procure trucks and ammunition for parish sheriff's departments also provided a poignant counterpoint to Governor Blanco's uncertain leadership in the wake of the storm. Hampered by her performance and ties to the much-maligned Road Home recovery program, Blanco chose not to run for reelection.
Jindal was also helped when his strongest potential opponent, former Sen. John Breaux, declined to run.