May 14, 2007
THE LOUISIANA WUNDERKIND
Beholding Rep. Bobby Jindal
JOHN J. MILLER
‘When my dad sat you down and said that you had ‘a lot of potential’ — that was not a good speech,” says Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican. “It meant that you weren’t working hard enough.”
It’s difficult to imagine anybody accusing Jindal of not working hard enough. His life story so far — he’s 35 — is a tale of potential realized. The son of immigrant parents from India, Jindal went to Brown and earned a Rhodes scholarship. At the age of 24, he became the head of Louisiana’s Health and Hospitals Depart¬ment. At 26, he ran a national commission on Medicare. At 28, he became president of the University of Louisiana system. Jindal also served as an assistant secretary of health and human services in the Bush administration and, in 2004, was elected to Congress. He was reelected last year.
Is that good enough, Father Jindal?
The only blemish on this GOP whiz kid’s résumé came in 2003, when he ran for governor of his home state and lost by four points to Democrat Kathleen Blanco. Then came Hurricane Katrina, which laid waste not only to New Orleans but also to Blanco’s reputation as a leader. On March 20, she announced that she would not seek reelection.
Today, Jindal is the most popular politician in Louisiana — and he’s a strong favorite to win the votes for Blanco’s vacated seat from an electorate that’s experiencing a profound case of buyer’s remorse. An April poll gave him a favor¬ability rating of 67 percent, with only 13 percent viewing him unfavorably. Other surveys have showed Jindal clobbering all potential opponents, including former senator John Breaux, a Democrat who re¬cently flirted with running but ultimately de¬clined. Many believe that Jindal will win an outright majority on October 20, when Louisiana voters go to the polls for their famous open primary, and avoid a two-candidate runoff currently scheduled for November 17.
The Jindal juggernaut is welcome news for a Republican party that’s haunted by last year’s congressional disaster and worried about another debacle in next year’s presidential contest. If future historians write accounts of the GOP’s collapse in 2006 and 2008, they will probably place the botched response to Katrina near the center of their narrative. That may have been the moment when the tide of public opinion turned decisively against the Bush administration and Republican governance. Yet Louisiana voters are on the verge of complicating this simple storyline. Instead of conforming to a national trend, they’re preparing to buck it — and advance the career of one of the most impressive young conservatives in the country.
Jindal has bucked trends from the start. In high school, he abandoned his parents’ Hindu faith and became a Christian. In college, he converted to Catholicism — not exactly a the hippest thing to do on an Ivy League campus. At Brown, the student body was so left-of-center that there wasn’t even a chapter of College Republicans. “I was told that the conservatives were the College Democrats,” says Jindal. So he started a Republican group that survives to this day. The experience in Providence toughened Jindal: “I was just about the only person who was pro-life, the only person who thought Ronald Reagan was a good president. Believe me, anybody who leaves Brown as a conservative has had his beliefs tested.”
One summer, Jindal worked on Capitol Hill as an intern. About a week into his job with Rep. Jim McCrery, Jindal asked for more substantive work. “I thought, ‘Oh boy, an eager-beaver college student,’” says McCrery, a Louisiana Republican. “I told him to write a paper on how to improve Medicare. I figured that would keep him busy and I wouldn’t see him again.” Just before the internship ended, however, Jindal dropped a thick manuscript on McCrery’s desk. “It was an excellent piece of work,” says McCrery. “It identified problems, discussed budgetary implications, and suggested reforms.”
That contact helped Jindal land his first big job in government. In 1995, Jindal was working as a management consultant in Washington, and voters in Louisiana were getting ready to elect a governor. The young man phoned his old boss. Would McCrery help him become Louisiana’s next health secretary? The congressman asked his 24-year-old caller whether he would consider something a little more junior, such as assistant secretary. No thanks, said Jindal. McCrery promised to make an inquiry or two. To the amazement of everybody except perhaps Jindal, Gov. Mike Foster hired the wunderkind. Jindal was put in charge of an agency that consumed about 40 percent of the state’s budget. In two years, he wiped out a $400 million deficit.
When people talk about Jindal, the word they most commonly use to describe him is “brilliant.” He’s no intellectual show-off, but in conversations about policy he quickly displays a mastery of detail. Ask him a slightly wonky question and he often begins his reply by saying, “Let me make three points . . .” The downside is that these rapid-fire monologues can seem robotic. “Some people say, ‘Bobby talks faster than I can think,’” says former GOP congressman Bob Livingston, a supporter of Jindal’s. It’s easy to see how this habit might turn off voters, though by most accounts Jindal has learned to slow down and is a much-improved retail politician as compared with four years ago, when he was the Baton Rouge brainiac whose name had never before appeared on a ballot.
Democrats have done their best to portray Jindal (rhymes with “kindle”) as an alien in Cajun country. Shortly before the election in 2003, a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter overheard Blanco complain to a fellow Democratic candidate about Jindal, “A Hindu out-Catholic’d both of us.” Nowadays, the state party puts out press releases that refer to Jindal as “Piyush ‘Bobby’ Jindal.” That’s because his legal name is Piyush. Since he was four years old, however, he has gone by Bobby. According to family lore, he picked up the nickname after watching an episode of The Brady Bunch. When I called the Louisiana Democratic party to ask why it insists on calling him Piyush when virtu¬ally nobody else does, communications director Julie Vezinot explained the reasoning: “He wants to portray himself as one thing, as a wonder boy, but he’s not done wonders. We portray him as he truly is, and he’s truly Piyush Jindal.”
Democratic portrayals of Jindal have raised eyebrows before. Four years ago, a last-minute television commercial for Blanco flashed a controversial picture of Jindal and warned, “Wake up Louisiana! Before it’s too late!” The ad outraged Republicans. “They showed Bobby to be darker than he really is, with his hair messed up even though his hair is never messed up — they made him look like Don King,” says McCrery. “It was a racist ad.” When the votes were counted, Jindal lost in part because he underperformed among white voters in the northern part of the state, where Republicans traditionally have done well.
If Jindal wins this fall, he’ll become the first non-white governor of Louisiana since P. B. S. Pinchback, the son of a freed slave who held the office for 35 days in the 1870s. Although many will see this as a sign of progress in multiracial America, some pundits will attribute a Jindal victory to Louisiana’s post-Katrina demography — and specifically to the reduced number of heavily Dem¬ocratic black voters. “Things have shifted less than some people think,” counters Greg Rigamer, a consultant who worked for Blanco four years ago but this time is with Jindal. Many people who left New Orleans, for instance, didn’t leave the state and they’ll still vote. Some who did leave the state probably wouldn’t have voted anyway. The bottom line, according to Rigamer, is that there will be perhaps 40,000 fewer black voters this year, in a race that probably will see 1.6 million ballots cast. That’s about 2.5 percent. Will it matter? “If Jindal wins by less than 50,000 votes, then it will be possible to say that Katrina gave him a more favorable electorate,” concludes Rigamer.
Right now, it looks like Jindal will win by more than that. Republicans are talking about 2007 as a year of realignment in Louisiana — capturing not only the gov¬ernorship, but also the state house for the first time since the Civil War. (The state senate is expected to remain in Democratic hands.) “I’m hopeful about seeing a whole new wave of fresh faces in the legislature,” says Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican. As a state rep¬resentative a dozen years ago, Vitter authored a term-limits bill that begins to take effect only now, meaning that there are an unusually large number of open seats this year. Republicans are also optimistic about beating Democratic senator Mary Landrieu in 2008. From a national perspective, she is probably the GOP’s top takeover target.
Those are ambitious plans. The first step is to guarantee Jindal’s successful election — and there are few sure things in politics. “The race will be no fun for Jindal,” says one GOP pollster. “Louisiana Repub¬licans don’t win statewide by the margins he currently appears to have. He’s going to spend the next few months watching his lead drop, but I would be stunned if somebody else actually won.” Jindal is currently taking a play-it-safe approach, waiting until this summer before offering a comprehensive platform. And nobody needs to remind him that, in 2003, the polls showed him running ahead of Blanco right up to Election Day.
Maybe now would be a good time for Jindal’s father to remind his son that he’s still got an awful lot of potential.