Bobby Goes Home

By Stephanie Grace ’87 / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
Even at the age of thirty-two, Bobby Jindal has been places—lots of them. He’s been to Oxford to study as a Rhodes Scholar; to Washington, D.C., to work as a high-priced, globe-trotting business consultant; and to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to overhaul his home state’s troubled health department and run one of its university systems. He even returned to Washington to manage a bipartisan commission on Medicare and then to help implement President George W. Bush’s health care policies.

On this steamy August morning, Jindal is in Morgan City, Louisiana, helping celebrate the town’s dual livelihoods at the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. Specifically, Jindal is attending a party on the Atchafalaya River, floating aboard a 220-foot offshore supply boat and talking to a clump of young women in satin sashes and figure-hugging casual cruise wear. Each woman is the queen of another festival celebrating a local specialty—rice or strawberries or étouffée or Creole gumbo—and each is on hand to support the newest member of the club, who is the queen of today’s festival. Jindal, though, is there for a very different reason: the cruise is just the kind of place you go to when you’re trying to get elected governor.

So there he is, chatting amiably about life on the festival circuit, while an aide, clad (like the boyish-looking candidate) in a white polo shirt and khakis, stands to the side handing out red, white, and blue campaign stickers.

“Sure,” says the Patterson Cypress Sawmill Queen, “I’ll wear one. Who is he?” Pointed in Jindal’s direction, she pokes him on the shoulder until he turns around. “You’re running for governor?” she shrieks. “That’s great!”

Today’s boat trip is full of conversations like this, as well as a few more substantive ones. It’s all new territory for a guy who has never run for anything other than Brown alumni trustee earlier this year (he won), and who has built his sterling résumé not by making small talk with regular folks but by dazzling people in important positions with his brainpower. Yet over the last few months Jindal has revealed an impressive knack for retail politics. He smiles and laughs easily, and he instinctively seeks out a connection with whoever’s on the other end of a verbal exchange.

Often that’s been a young family, in which case the entrée is Jindal’s toddler, Selia, who is skipping the cruise in favor of a day with her grandparents. Rebuffed by a fussy three-year-old on the supply boat, Jindal puts the girl’s mortified parents at ease: “I’ve got a nineteen-month-old at home. I know all about it.” Commiserating with a mother whose children are thinking of moving to a state with more opportunities, he tells her that’s why he’s running for governor: “So that my daughter can stay home.”

“That’s a really good reason,” the woman sighs.

Indeed, if there has been a theme to the race to become governor of Louisiana this fall, it’s exactly that: being left behind. Quaint festivals don’t cover up Louisiana’s failure to attract the kind of job-producing businesses that have flocked to other southern states. In fact, Louisiana is losing people at an alarming rate; the dominant image of the campaign could well be a college graduate who collects a diploma, loads up a moving van, and heads to Atlanta or Houston for a good job. Against that backdrop, Jindal, the Rhodes scholar and professional wonder boy who could be just about anywhere right now, has gotten a lot of mileage just for being here. “He could walk into a high-powered consulting job and get paid seven figures,” says Shaun Clarke ’82, a New Orleans attorney who cohosted a Jindal fund-raiser this summer. “I admire the fact that a guy with so many options wants to come home and make a difference.”

WHILE THE NATION this fall was obsessed with the Schwarzenegger campaign in California, a very different governor’s race was unfolding 2,000 miles away. Defying the pundits, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, an Indian American Hindu turned Christian turned Roman Catholic Republican, was emerging as the frontrunner in Louisiana’s unusual election system, in which all candidates for governor compete in a single primary against one another, regardless of their party affiliation. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers then compete in a runoff.

Initially considered a long shot because of his youth, political inexperience, and ethnicity, Jindal ignored the skeptics and, after a textbook campaign, won 33 percent of the vote in the primary, beating his sixteen opponents. In the November 15 runoff he faces Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco, a sixty-year-old conservative Democrat who finished second in the primary with 18 percent of the vote after a bruising battle against a pair of more liberal hopefuls. Among the Republicans Jindal left in his wake are a well-liked former speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives and the controversial chairman of the state’s public service commission, who, facing dismal poll numbers, dropped out a week before the primary. Now, no matter who wins on November 15, the state’s next governor will make history, either as the first woman to hold the post or as the first nonwhite since Reconstruction and the first Indian American ever.

Along the way, Jindal has already achieved a traditionally elusive goal for Louisiana Republicans: comfortably uniting both fiscal and social conservatives behind one candidate. His business-friendly platform, heavy on targeted tax cuts and tort reform, appealed to educated urban and suburban voters while his talk-radio ads appealed to rural conservatives by plugging the Ten Commandments and bashing “radical” gun control activists and the permissiveness portrayed in Hollywood films (take that, Governor Schwarzenegger).

The unusual primary system also allowed Jindal to reach out to Democrats and Independents. Although many were put off by his Christian conservative agenda, some moderates and even some liberals set aside their reservations in the belief that Jindal is the best person to sell a twenty-first-century Louisiana to the rest of the world. Mark Vicknair, for example, a New Orleans public defender, signed up with Jindal’s campaign as a volunteer because of Jindal’s reputation, first established during his days as Louisiana’s secretary of health and hospitals, as someone who, in Vicknair’s words, is “incredibly bright” and “never met a problem he couldn’t solve.” Vicknair doesn’t share Jindal’s stands on everything, but he believes Jindal is the candidate most qualified to jump-start the economy, which Vicknair, and pretty much everyone else, sees as the state’s overriding need.

Jindal may have beaten the odds in getting this far, but he didn’t exactly start from nowhere. On his first day as a primary candidate, he collected endorsements from three of the state’s Republican heavyweights: then–state representative Tony Perkins, long the public face of the Louisiana Christian Right and now head of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.; former U.S. Representative Bob Livingston, who is still respected at home despite the sex scandal that forced him to leave Congress just as he was poised to replace Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House; and outgoing governor Mike Foster, the man who first pushed Jindal into the spotlight eight years ago when he put the twenty-four-year-old Jindal in charge of the state’s largest government department. Foster, who is seventy-three, is barred by term limits from seeking a third term, but he wants Jindal to become governor, he says, because “I really want to go home and forget about government for a while and know it’s in good hands.”

Jindal has also drawn enthusiastic support among Indian Americans all over the country, who are sending in checks knowing that if he wins in November, Jindal will be the highest-ranking Indian American elected official in the entire country. He has also developed unmistakable star power, which has helped him emerge from his sponsors’ sizable shadows. You could see it, for example, after a Republican-sponsored candidate forum at a downtown New Orleans hotel in August, when the party faithful dutifully congratulated Jindal’s rivals but then enthusiastically lined up to pose for photographs with him. Later in the hotel lobby, people who’d just witnessed a typically rapid-fire, detailed, and earnest Jindal performance kept interrupting an interview he was conducting to shake his hand. Three strangers in T-shirts promoting one of his rivals stopped by to tell him he’d done a great job. For just a moment, Jindal seemed overwhelmed by it all.

“Wow, that was really nice,” he said.

ALTHOUGH HE’S ideologically the opposite of former president Bill Clinton, another Rhodes scholar who ran for governor at the age of thirty-two, Jindal seems almost Clintonesque in his ability to combine a mastery of complicated policy issues with a knack for connecting with everyday voters. Words, often SAT-caliber words, spill out of Jindal’s mouth as if he’s racing to finish a sentence, yet the sentence always manages to end in the right place. For someone so accomplished and confident, he’s unexpectedly down-to-earth and, well, nice. The same goes for his wife, Supriya, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and an M.B.A. from Tulane and who is now finishing her doctorate at LSU while working full-time. (She is also expecting the couple’s second child.)

Jindal’s ascent has been all the more remarkable for how easy he has made it look. His support in polls grew gradually and steadily thanks to his early radio ads, his personal appearances, and word of mouth; he was on a roll before he’d run his first television ad. While the Democratic contenders aimed their heavy artillery at one another, Jindal spent little and entered the runoff season with a lead and a healthy cash advantage as well.

Beating Blanco in the November 15 election won’t be as easy, though. Jindal won a third of the primary votes, but Democratic candidates picked up a combined 58 percent. Despite Jindal’s buzz and the far more muted enthusiasm for the steady-but-uninspiring Blanco, many of those who preferred one of her more liberal opponents will likely gravitate to her camp—if they bother to show up at the polls a second time.

To make sure they do, Democrats began a strict scrutiny of Jindal’s platform and record almost immediately after the primary. In the new, suddenly party-driven atmosphere, incremental differences are magnified. Blanco, for example, opposes most abortions but would allow them in case of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the woman; Jindal, on the other hand, thinks all abortions should be illegal. Blanco approves of school-based sex education as long as abstinence and the hard truths about teen pregnancy are addressed; Jindal says schools should not teach “how-to” courses in sex.

Although Blanco herself generally shies away from talking about her party affiliation, she has been aiming straight at lower-income voters by portraying Jindal as a program slasher with little concern for the people who suffer under the cuts. She also talks about her two decades in various public offices—Blanco was a legislator and public service commissioner before becoming lieutenant governor—and often refers to Jindal as “this young man.” For his part, Jindal, already the conservatives’ darling, is aiming at the center by talking up unity and downplaying (although not running from) his hard-right stances. He contrasts himself with Blanco by describing himself as a “problem-solver” rather than a politician.

Amazingly, in a state whose voters just a dozen years ago put onetime Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and Nazi sympathizer David Duke into a gubernatorial runoff, Jindal’s ethnicity has not been much of an issue. Democrats, who once viewed Jindal as their preferred opponent—“Bubba’s not voting for Piyush,” one veteran consultant predicted last spring—are now worried. The talk is no longer whether rural conservative whites will support Jindal, but whether he can pick up any support among African Americans, who make up just under 30 percent of Louisiana’s electorate and who normally vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

Jindal publicly dismisses talk of voters’ prejudices, but concern over them has clearly informed his strategy from the start. His standard stump speech includes carefully placed lines emphasizing that he’s more like other Louisianans than he is different. He pegs his decision to run for governor with the birth of his daughter at the same Baton Rouge Hospital where he was born. He talks about growing up middle class in Baton Rouge and attending public high school and marrying a local girl, and says that he and Supriya, like so many voters, want nothing more than to allow Selia and her younger brother or sister to grow up near their grandparents. On the ballot his first name appears not as Piyush, his birth name, but as Bobby, the nickname he took from a Brady Bunch character when he was around four. His introductory television ad featured a supporter assuring voters that Jindal is “a Christian man.”

And when Jindal talks about his family history, he frames it as a variation on the immigrant’s American Dream. His parents came to Baton Rouge six months before his birth because there was so much opportunity: engineering jobs for his father in the railroad and chemical industries, and an LSU nuclear physics program ambitious enough to attract his graduate-student mother all the way from New Delhi. According to Jindal, his father, the first person in his family to go to high school, took pride in Jindal’s academic accomplishments (and those of his younger brother) but also demanded that the boys take nothing for granted. A score of ninety-five on a test would inevitably prompt the question, “What happened to the other five points?”

In fact, Jindal says he traces some of his conservatism to his parents’ belief that government should provide opportunities, not handouts. “For me, it was never a question of do you help people, but how do you help people?” he says. Growing up in the 1980s, he was put off by Democratic Louisiana’s long history of populism and corruption, and was drawn to the reform-minded, underdog Republicans. He was also influenced, he says, by the Christian faith he adopted after the death of his grandfather, which prompted some soul-searching. By the time he arrived at Brown in 1988, his ideology was set, and it made him somewhat of an oddity on campus. When he sought out the College Republicans, he discovered Brown had no active chapter—so he helped found one and later served as president of both the Brown and Rhode Island chapters. He got into frequent debates, both in class and out. Yet he relished the give-and-take and says he never felt any campus hostility toward his ideas.

“What I was impressed by was that people were genuinely curious,” he says. “They wanted to know, ‘How could someone believe that?’ It forced me to think hard about what my views are. It changed some of my beliefs, and it strengthened some of my beliefs. It was great.”

Rex Ruiz ’92, Jindal’s senior-year roommate and his sponsor when he was baptized as a Catholic, said Jindal brought the same intellectual vigor to his quest for a church. “He would ask some very challenging questions that I’m sure the average Catholic wouldn’t know,” Ruiz recalls. As for politics, Ruiz adds that Jindal “was definitely very confident in what his views were. He thought about school vouchers, about fixing the public school system. The health care system was his passion, though.” Ruiz remembers that Jindal was proud of his ethnicity but saw it as only a part of his identity: “He never cared much for the whole PC thing, Third World Weekend. He knew what his heritage was, but he was always his own person.”

Jindal chose Brown for its PLME curriculum, but he decided in his first semester that it was too confining. He opted out of it to explore the many areas and disciplines that Brown offered. In addition to finishing the entire premed curriculum anyway, he double-majored in biology and public policy, wrote two senior theses, took five courses each semester, and graduated with admission offers from the law and medical schools at Harvard and Yale. Instead, he became a Rhodes scholar.

“Bobby as a young man was compassionate, considerate, politically conservative,” says Professor Emeritus of Political Science Edward Beiser, who, as the associate dean in charge of the PLME program, often discussed with Jindal everything from the undergraduate’s future plans to his religion. “He was a gentleman in a somewhat old-fashioned sense of the term. I think he’s a very straight arrow. He’s also a normal human being.”

IN THE SUMMER of his senior year, Jindal met the man who would become perhaps the most important of his many mentors, Louisiana Republican congressman Jim McCrery, who hired Jindal as a summer intern. After a few days of grunt work, McCrery recalls, Jindal asked to speak with his boss in private: “He said, ‘Look, I was just wondering if you might be willing to give me something a little more substantive to work on while I’m here.’ I knew who he was. I remembered this was the guy with the great résumé from Brown. I said, ‘Why don’t you do a paper for me about the problems with the Medicare system?’ ” McCrery figured that would keep Jindal occupied for the rest of the internship, but two weeks later a thick manuscript landed on his desk.

“It was excellent,” McCrery says. “Medicare is a very complex subject. He showed a grasp of it that not many people in Congress have, not to mention undergraduate school.” The two stayed in touch while Jindal was at Oxford and after he returned to Washington for a six-figure McKinsey & Co. consulting job. By then the 1995 Louisiana governor’s race was under way. A prominent news story at the time was about the closing of a federal loophole that had allowed states to use accounting gimmicks to secure a windfall of Medicaid funds, a strategy that Louisiana in particular had fully exploited. Jindal took it upon himself to write a paper on how to reform the state’s health system to make it financially viable once this spigot was shut off.

There are two versions of what happened next. Jindal says that, wanting to put his ideas into play, he sent the paper to McCrery and Congressman Livingston, for whom he had also interned. Jindal said McCrery called and asked if he could send it down to Louisiana. When Jindal said yes, McCrery replied, “Great, I FedExed it last night.”

McCrery, who was close to the race’s early frontrunner, former governor Buddy Roemer, said Jindal’s request was even more audacious. “He just calls me out of the blue,” McCrery says, “and asks me, ‘I know you know Buddy Roemer. Would you mind calling him and recommending me to be secretary of health and hospitals?’ I took a deep breath. I said, ‘I do know him, but just in case he has someone else in mind as secretary of the largest agency in Louisiana, would you be interested in being deputy secretary?’ He said, “No, I’d just as soon stay in my job.’ ” After Roemer was overtaken by Mike Foster, who was then a little-known state senator, Jindal, McCrery says, phoned again and made the same request. McCrery placed a second call.

However it happened, Jindal met with the transition team and wowed them. Soon he was summoned to Franklin, Louisiana, to meet with the incoming governor in a trailer that served as his transition office. Foster, a folksy hunting and fishing enthusiast who lives on a plantation in the heart of sugarcane country, remembers the impression Jindal made on him. “Of all the picks I had to make,” he says, “that was the one where I wanted to have somebody that I was sure could do the job. There was a huge deficit, and it was going to eat us alive if we didn’t get it under control.” His initial reaction was that “this was too big a job for a young man,” but he says he was soon won over by Jindal’s knowledge and sincerity. He hired him on the spot.

Jindal quickly cracked down on rampant fraud and beefed up the department’s ability to go after institutions, especially nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals, that were skimming off much of the federal windfall. He also attacked the budget, laying off 1,000 of the department’s 13,000 employees. The job wasn’t easy—his effort to cut the politically popular Medically Needy Program for low-income people who didn’t qualify for Medicaid drew angry phone calls and a rebuke from some legislators—but his willingness to stand up to powerful lobbyists won him praise, even from some who had to endure the lobbyists’ wrath. And while Louisiana’s health-care system is still plagued with problems, a $400 million shortfall turned into a $170 million surplus on his watch.

Jindal’s work next drew the attention of Louisiana’s Democratic U.S. senator, John Breaux, who picked Jindal to be executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, which Breaux cochaired along with California Republican congressman Bill Thomas. The seventeen-member commission, sharply split along ideological lines, worked for fourteen months to come up with a proposal that would have allowed beneficiaries to buy coverage from private health plans, including HMOs. Breaux, former senator Bob Kerrey, and the commission’s eight Republicans supported the approach, but the commission’s rules required a supermajority of eleven, so in March 1999, with its members hopelessly deadlocked, the commission’s charter expired.

Jindal then headed back to Louisiana for another Foster administration job, president of the University of Louisiana system, made up of eight of the state’s public universities. At age twenty-seven, Jindal was a controversial choice: he had neither a doctorate nor any experience in academia. As he had done at health and hospitals, Jindal attacked the budget. He also pushed each school to focus on specialties, and tried to implement higher admission standards.

Two years later he was lured back to Washington by the new Bush administration, which named him assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services. Jindal’s job included working on Medicare reform, establishing the department’s faith-based office, and leading its $30 billion research coordinating council. Then, in early 2003, he approached governor Foster to say he wanted yet another new job: his. It wasn’t a surprise, in some ways, because Jindal had never sold his house in Baton Rouge and Supriya had never moved to Washington with him. Foster recalls that he again needed to be convinced, and that once more, Jindal convinced him.

And he’s been convincing people ever since. If he persuades a majority of voters in what should be a tight race on November 15, Jindal will surely be an instant national political star. Even if he doesn’t win, he will have proven himself as adept at politics as he is at policy—a potent combination. There are rumors in Louisiana that Breaux will step down next year and leave a coveted Senate seat open, and whoever finishes second in the governor’s race would be in a strong position to enter that race. And even if Blanco wins and serves a second term, Jindal will be only forty when the governor’s office becomes vacant again.

To paraphrase that other Republican newcomer with the highest of political aspirations, even if he falls short this time, it’s a good bet that Jindal will be back.

Stephanie Grace is a staff writer and political columnist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
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