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Jewish World Review
Oct. 22, 2007
/ 10 Mar-Cheshvan
Bayou Boy Wonder: Louisiana elects a reform governor. What's next?
John H. Fund
Bobby Jindal can't hold down a job: That's the joke circulating around Louisiana today about the election of Mr. Jindal, a son of immigrants from India, as governor. Mr. Jindal, a 36-year-old Republican congressman from the New Orleans suburbs, won 54% of the vote in Saturday's election, avoiding the need for a runoff next month.
When he takes office in January he will be the nation's youngest governor. But he has already held a glittering array of other positions of responsibility in his short career. As an undergraduate he worked as an intern for Rep. Jim McCrery, now the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. Then he became a Rhodes Scholar, got a master's degree, and did a stint at McKinsey & Co. Gov. Mike Foster appointed him head of the state's $4 billion health-care system at age 24. He went on to serve as director of a national commission on Medicare at 26, became president of the University of Louisiana system at 27, and a U.S. assistant secretary of health and human services at 29.
Four years ago, at age 32 ,he narrowly lost a race for governor to Democrat Kathleen Blanco, who dismissed his calls for reform of the state's creaking bureaucracy as unnecessary. The next year Mr. Jindal won his congressional seat, but he never really stopped campaigning for governor. In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans, and Gov. Blanco's response was so inadequate that she was effectively forced to retire.
Mr. Jindal jumped into this year's campaign promising to shake up a state government whose antigrowth policies have prompted Forbes magazine to rank Louisiana 49th out of 50 states as a place to do business. Even before Katrina, it was the only Southern state with more people moving out than in. The "bright flight" of the state's most promising young people became the most important symbolic issue of the race.
Mr. Jindal applied the political lessons he learned from his 2003 loss. Back then, it was generally conceded that he lost some northern Louisiana parishes in part because he failed to campaign enough there to dispel lingering concerns about his ethnicity (he is Indian-American). This time he visited northern Louisiana 77 times, and it paid off. He carried Rapides Parish (Alexandria) with 54% of the vote, up from 44% four years ago.
One reason Mr. Jindal was able to win votes across ethnic and demographic lines is that while he treats his Indian background as an overall plus, he won't trade on it. He has in the past left the space for "race" on government documents blank. "I'm against all quotas, all set-asides," he says. "America is the greatest. We got ahead by hard work. We shouldn't respond to every problem with a government program. Here, anyone can succeed."
Mr. Jindal is full of ideas for how to improve government. He plans to use his health-care expertise to help the uninsured obtain health insurance. The way to do that, he says, is to work with the three-fourths of the uninsured who have jobs. He proposes insurance pools in which small businesses can join together to get lower-cost premiums and giving the private sector a greater role in provision of health care for the poor.
He plans tax cuts and an expansion of school choice. Part of his philosophy is that the federal government can't be Louisiana's salvation. "New Orleans has suffered from the trauma of three crises," he told The Wall Street Journal last year. "First was Katrina, second was the levees breaking, and the third has been a case study in bureaucracy and red tape at its very worst."
Bureaucracy busting is Mr. Jindal's specialty, and he has already announced he will call the Legislature into special session shortly after he is sworn in and demand an up-or-down vote on his anticorruption agenda, which has 31 points. "Ethics reform is the linchpin for change," he told supporters Saturday night.
But while he prepares to take office with high hopes and good wishes, there are some sobering obstacles that could impede his agenda. Louisiana ranks third in the nation in the number of elected officials per capita convicted of crimes. That means that some power brokers will have real incentives to preserve the status quo. In 2004, the agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans office described Louisiana's public corruption as "epidemic, endemic and entrenched. No branch of government is exempt."
Political analysts in the state recall that Democrat Buddy Roemer (who later became a Republican) was elected as a reform governor in 1987. But he was quickly sidetracked and marginalized by the legislature. He was defeated for re-election in 1991 after Jack Kent, the owner of a company called Marine Shale, spent $500,000 of his own money to attack Mr. Roemer in response to the state government declaring his firm was a polluter.
Mr. Roemer's failure to alter the state's mores provides some guidance for Mr. Jindal. While he won outright election on Saturday, many races for the state legislature will be decided in runoffs next month. With legislative term limits kicking in for the first time this year, many of those runoffs will be in open districts where reform candidates will square off against those more are skeptical of change. If Mr. Jindal wants to be a successful governor, he would be wise not to rest on his laurels but instead to pour his time and energy into making sure a Legislature is elected that will pay more than lip service to his bold proposals.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2006, John H. Fund