La. governor stirs GOP imaginations

Jindal called VP timber and a counter to Obama

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / June 9, 2008

BATON ROUGE, La. - The red T-shirts worn by Bobby Jindal's supporters during last year's gubernatorial campaign may be the closest thing any Republican has come to inspiring Obama-style iconography. They declared "Louisiana Revolution," with the candidate's features imposed on the famous two-tone visage of Che Guevara.

That unusual profile - a 36-year-old Indian-American religious conservative - has launched a prospective vice presidential candidacy. Jindal is imagined as a possible counterpart to Barack Obama's novelty, the Republicans' own jarringly fresh front man for a party looking to redefine itself.

Yet at home, the revolution preached on T-shirts - and backed with the approval of nearly 80 percent of Louisianans - is a more modest one. Jindal, who made his name as a responsible if ruthless steward of statewide healthcare and education systems, stands as a figurehead for the new, and radical by Louisiana standards, preference of competence over charisma.

"He's kind of a professional bureaucrat, in the best sense of the word," said former governor Buddy Roemer, a John McCain adviser.

After taking office in January, Jindal called a special legislative session to enact tough new ethics restrictions. Meanwhile, bills to encourage the teaching of creationism and deny state aid for stem-cell research are expected to receive Jindal's signature upon passage.

It is that impassioned pursuit of two rarely conjoined causes - good-government reform and God-fearing moral crusade - that has led Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and The Washington Times to recommend him as a McCain running mate.

"We have a chance to rebuild and recover and a chance to get things right in a way that we might not have for a generation," Jindal said recently from the colonnaded porch of the Governor's Mansion. "I worry we'll run out of time before we run out of things to do."

Such manic ambition is a signature of the young governor in a hurry. Just one year above the constitutional age minimum for the presidency, he has already held six government jobs, in addition to earning a master's degree and working as a management consultant.

In a state that has long led the nation in production of political vignettes, Jindal is as notable for what he has failed to generate: colorful anecdotes.

"There aren't a lot of good Jindal stories. The characters we've had - he's a total break with all that," said Roy Fletcher, a local strategist. "He has the blandness that comes with technocracy."

In Baton Rouge, Jindal is surrounded by monuments to the grandiosity of his predecessors. The neoclassical mansion was constructed by Jimmie Davis, the "Singing Governor" who wrote "You Are My Sunshine," and the nearby capitol - the only high-rise to house a state Legislature - was the project of another governor, Huey Long, the self-described "Kingfish."

Jindal has no nickname, other than Bobby - borrowed at age 4 from a "Brady Bunch" character as an all-American substitute for his given name, Piyush. His political mentor, former governor Mike Foster, praises him as "a very practical fellow."

Foster hired Jindal, then 24, as administrator of a state hospital system facing bankruptcy, forcing him to slash Medicare reimbursement rates. "He had the unenviable position of making Draconian budget cuts that caused a lot of pain and suffering. He seemed to tackle it with relish," said Bob Mann, then an aide to former Democratic senator John Breaux.

The experience bolstered Jindal's reputation as a serious policy wonk willing to take on complex issues, which led Breaux, chairman of a national bipartisan Medicare commission, to appoint Jindal as its executive director.

When the commission's work ended, Foster named Jindal to be president of the Louisiana University System, seeing Jindal's lack of familiarity with education policy as an advantage, "so he would think outside the box."

In 2003, with Foster's encouragement, Jindal - after a stint at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington - set out to run for governor. He made the runoff against Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco, and found that his sober style was popular with moderate voters.

Meanwhile, Jindal, the child of Punjabi immigrants who converted on his own to Catholicism as a teenager, found the support of religious conservatives with a hard line on cultural issues, such as backing the public display of the Ten Commandments.

Yet Jindal lost a double-digit lead when Blanco supporters charged that he lacked "life experiences" and had made state hospital patients his "victims," which Jindal refused to answer directly. "I told him, 'If you don't respond to this, you'll get your head taken off,' " recalled Foster. "And he didn't."

Blanco carried the black vote overwhelmingly and outran Jindal in the northern part of the state where Jindal supporters have suspected racial attitudes hampered his performance. After his loss, Jindal was elected to Congress from a Baton Rouge district and Blanco, wounded by her ineffectual response to Hurricane Katrina, decided not to face him again for governor. Jindal returned repeatedly to rural northern Louisiana, shedding his jacket and tie for jeans and cowboy boots. "He had these people eating out of the palm of his hand," Mann, now a Louisiana State University professor, said of seeing Jindal speak at a megachurch in early 2007.

Jindal's message of reform found new resonance after Katrina revealed the dysfunction of local government. In the aftermath of Katrina, Jindal's race and inexperience may have helped him.

"We reached a point in Louisiana where we realized we needed to do things differently and change the status quo," said Jim Dardenne, Louisiana's secretary of state. When an opponent renewed the charge about hospital cuts - one anti-Jindal website was titled "Big Brain. No Heart" - it fell flat. In late 2006, Jindal delivered a child, his third, before his wife could get to a hospital; an older son had been born with holes in his heart. "Having a child who had health issues made him more compassionate. I think he's actually softened a lot," said Cheron Brylski, a Democratic consultant.

Jindal won the race without a runoff, carrying all but four of the state's parishes. He displayed a transformative potential - the promise of building a broad coalition based on his unique persona while hewing to a largely orthodox line ideologically - that has made him a possible McCain running mate.

The two met in New Orleans in December to discuss the response to Katrina, according to Roemer, a subject McCain addressed in a speech on a visit to Louisiana in late April.

"John for all of his life has been working to expand the base . . . and I think Bobby reconnects in a positive way with the mainstream Republican and young voters," Roemer said. "Bobby is reminding us of who we can be. It's also the obvious strongest part of Obama - he represents the renewing of America."

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