THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
In Katrina's Wake
Louisiana's would-be governor says the state needs a sense of urgency.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, September 8, 2007
BURAS, La.--A church is more than a building, and Faith Temple Ministries illustrates the point. This non-denominational congregation holds services in a large white tent behind the frame of its new structure, which is under construction. Two years ago Hurricane Katrina destroyed the old one.
Buras, a community of about 3,500, is in lower Plaquemines Parish, the southeastern corner of Louisiana. This is where Katrina first hit, and the hurricane's effects are very much in evidence on the 90-minute drive from New Orleans along the Mississippi River's west bank. Partly completed new buildings stand alongside wrecked ones. Trailers sit on the footprints of houses blown away two years ago.
Faith Temple Ministries is where Bobby Jindal, the second-term Republican congressman seeking to become Louisiana's governor, has decided to spend the evening of Aug. 29, the anniversary of Katrina's landfall. "We're here with a faith-based community that's done an amazing job, not only in rescue efforts but in rebuilding efforts," he tells me as we prepare to climb off the campaign bus.
Mr. Jindal, 36, is an affable policy wonk with a quick mind and a fascination with the details of governance. Before our interview, an aide emailed me a series of press releases announcing his 28-point anticrime agenda, his 31-point anticorruption agenda and his 25-point agenda to curb spending. As we chat on the campaign bus rolling through Plaquemines Parish, he is full of ideas.
He faults the state's bureaucratic culture for the slow pace of rebuilding since Katrina. Congress has allocated tens of billions of dollars, he says, but "a very small percentage" has reached struggling citizens and businesses. "The federal government's got its own complicated set of paperwork. But then after you finally navigate that, for the first time ever, the state created its own additional bureaucracy on top of that--they created it after Katrina--and so a lot of these projects, their funding's been approved . . . and that money's getting caught up in Baton Rouge." He vows to reduce this red tape and speed the rebuilding of hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. "I don't think there's been enough urgency. . . . There's not been a realization that the longer you wait, the less likely people are to come back."
Post-Katrina New Orleans has the nation's highest per capita murder rate. Although dealing with crime is mostly the responsibility of local officials, Mr. Jindal says "there are tools you can give them. . . . For example, crime labs aren't up and running in full force. . . . They were releasing prisoners because of paperwork issues, backlog issues. We need to give the prosecutors that need [it] additional time to make their charges. . . . We need to make sure there's more protection for witnesses. There was a huge problem with witnesses not coming forward. We've got a sentencing guideline that's a maximum five-year sentence for people who intimidate witnesses."
Mr. Jindal's air of earnest proficiency makes for a sharp contrast with flamboyant past governors like Huey and Earl Long and Edwin Edwards. Yet while Louisiana has never had a reputation for good government, neither has it always been known as a failed state. Decades ago, Mr. Jindal says, "Louisiana was ahead of the South. . . . If you go back to the early '60s--if you'd gone back then and said Atlanta's going to be the capital of the New South, they would have laughed at you. . . . New Orleans was bigger than Miami. It wasn't that long ago that we were the gateway to Latin and Central America."
What went wrong, Mr. Jindal says, is that Louisiana got caught up in a boom-and-bust cycle. "The state had all these surpluses, had all this oil and gas revenues, so there wasn't the fiscal constraint, there wasn't the fiscal discipline. . . . We've used these dollars and created cycles for instant gratification." So the state was already distressed when the hurricane struck. "Even before Katrina, as a state, we were 50th in health outcomes," Mr. Jindal says. "We were 50th in Forbes as a place to do business--now we're 49th. We were the only state in the South with . . . people moving out faster than they were moving in."
The influx of federal money after Katrina, coupled with recent increases in energy prices, has produced a new boom, and Mr. Jindal hopes to seize the opportunity to avert the next bust: "The real danger is, you've got a false economy for a few years, where everybody's building, and you've got sales-tax revenues increasing; you've got temporary workers here. But what that could mask is if you're not rebuilding a solid economic foundation. And where I think the government's best role is there, is setting the conditions for success, then getting out of the way."
That means changing the conditions that make Louisiana an unattractive place to do business. "Within New Orleans to be specific, we can go in there and say . . . now is the time to get rid of the taxes on debt, new equipment and utilities. Our neighboring states don't have these taxes. Why in the world are we discouraging companies from job creation?"
Piyush Jindal was born in Baton Rouge just after his parents arrived from India in 1971. At age 4 he took the nickname "Bobby" from "The Brady Bunch," and it stuck. His parents appreciated America as only immigrants can. "Every day when I was a kid, my dad would tell me, 'We live in the greatest country in the world. We are so lucky to be Americans,' " he says.
This sensibility resonated with the upbeat patriotism of Ronald Reagan, who was elected when Bobby was 9. "Reagan was the optimist, the optimistic conservative, [who] believed in the premise of America, at a time when . . . there was a 'malaise,' people were doubting the American ideals, the American dream. I grew up saying, 'What are you, crazy? This is an incredible place.' " At Brown University and later at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Jindal's political views put him decidedly in the minority, an experience he found exhilarating: "It was great to be exposed to some very smart, very articulate people that challenged my core beliefs every step of the way."
In high school, Bobby aspired to be a doctor. But he sought out a well-rounded education, and this eventually led to a change in plans. As an undergraduate, he served an internship in the office of Rep. Jim McCrery, a Shreveport Republican. He earned a master's in political theory, then went to work as a health-care consultant at McKinsey & Co. While there, he read an article in the Washington Post about Louisiana's troubled health-care system. "It seemed to me that they were going to make a bad problem worse. They were going to have more government-run health care, more spending. So I wrote up an analysis of what I thought they should do."
It was 1995, and Republican Mike Foster had just been elected governor. Rep. McCrery and then-Sen. John Breaux were impressed with Mr. Jindal's report and recommended him to Mr. Foster's transition team. Eventually he met the governor-elect, who proclaimed Mr. Jindal a "genius" and offered him the top job in the state's Health and Hospitals Department. He was 24. "I realized: 'Well, I guess I'm not going to medical school anymore.' "
Instead, he spent the next eight years amassing the résumé of a technocratic wunderkind. He eliminated his department's $400 million budget deficit by reducing the payroll and aggressively pursuing private hospitals that had overcharged for Medicaid services. Later he served as executive director of a bipartisan Medicare advisory commission (Sen. Breaux was a co-chairman), president of the University of Louisiana system, and an assistant secretary of health and human services in the Bush administration.
Four years ago, at age 32, he made his first foray into electoral politics, running to succeed the term-limited Gov. Foster. He finished first in Louisiana's open primary but narrowly lost the runoff to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. In 2004 Mr. Jindal sought and won an open House seat. After her lackluster post-Katrina performance, Gov. Blanco announced that she would not seek re-election, and Mr. Jindal jumped into the race to replace her.
One reason Mr. Jindal believes he can accomplish his ambitious goals is that this year's election will also bring big changes in the state Legislature, thanks to a 1995 measure limiting members to 12 years in office. His detailed proposals are part of a political strategy designed to hold the new legislators accountable. "Political experts would say, 'You're ahead in the polls. Why do you give them ammunition to attack you with?' I want people to know exactly what we're going to do.
"I've already said my first special session as governor will be devoted exclusively to ethics. It'll be an up-or-down vote on my 31 points." In the last session, he says, the Legislature approved new disclosure requirements, but "they killed it in conference committee. So they all go home and say, 'I voted for it. Don't get mad at me. Those other guys killed it.' Well, I'm not going to give them anywhere to hide."
Mr. Jindal says Louisianians understand the gravity of the situation: "I tell people it's our second chance, and they tell [me], 'No, it's our last chance.' There's a nervous optimism in this state. There's an optimism that, yeah, we can change, but there's an anxiety that if we blow this, in our adult lifetimes this will be the last chance."
He is the prohibitive favorite in the Oct. 20 primary. A poll last month gave him 63% of the vote, to just 14% for his nearest rival, Democratic state Sen. Walter Boasso. If Mr. Jindal gets more than 50% in the primary, he wins outright.
The Louisiana Democratic Party, in a desperate attempt to halt the Jindal juggernaut, last month made an ugly appeal to religious prejudice. Mr. Jindal, raised in his parents' Hindu faith, is a convert to Catholicism. Although southern Louisiana, with its French and Spanish heritage, is heavily Catholic, Protestants outnumber Catholics statewide.
The Democratic attack ad claims that Mr. Jindal "has referred to Protestant religions [sic] as scandalous, depraved, selfish and heretical" and that he "doubts the morals and questions the beliefs of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals and other Protestant religions." In fact, these are wild mischaracterizations of articles Mr. Jindal wrote for a Catholic publication, including one in which he praised aspects of various Protestant denominations' worship and suggested that the Catholic Church could learn from their example. The campaign asked television stations to stop airing the ad on the ground that it is defamatory.
It was soon off the air anyway, for it had the opposite of its intended effect. "Every phone call, every email, every letter we've gotten has been angry at their ad and supporting us," Mr. Jindal says. "We've literally had hundreds of Democratic elected officials, pastors and others publicly and privately saying they condemn the ad and calling on the party to stop this. . . . Usually with an attack ad, somebody will come up to you and say, 'Hey, is this really true?' . . . I have not had one person question me."
If the ad was helping him, I ask, why did he ask to have it pulled? My cynical question draws a high-minded answer: "It coarsens what I think should be a very important election. . . . It's beneath our state; it's beneath our voters. I think it's insulting to our voters."
If there is sectarian strife in Louisiana, it is not evident in Buras. This is a Protestant crowd--Mr. Jindal is preceded on the altar by nearly a dozen pastors from Baptist, Methodist and unaffiliated congregations around the state. When it is Mr. Jindal's turn to speak, he delivers a half-hour oration that is as much sermon as campaign speech. The parishioners respond warmly to his story of becoming a Christian, a seven-year spiritual quest that began in high school, when his best friend gave him a Bible as a gift.
"There are people who lost loved ones in this room," Mr. Jindal tells the worshippers. "There are people who lost their life savings in this room. And I can't imagine having to walk in the footsteps of so many of our fellow residents of this state as they had to live their faith through the toughest times. But they were comforted by a God that says: You keep an eternal perspective." It is a perspective that may serve Mr. Jindal well come Oct. 20.
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