Even before officially joining the presidential sweepstakes, Gov. Bobby Jindal spent far less time in Louisiana than his predecessors.
Since announcing June 24 that he was seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Jindal has been in Louisiana only one day, according to campaign news releases and the lieutenant governor’s records. And with just six months left in his administration, Jindal is expected to spend more and more time in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
He’ll be governing Louisiana by cellphone.
“He has a tremendous amount of horsepower and bandwidth,” said Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s longtime political strategist. “He’ll be able to campaign and handle his duties as governor without a problem. He will keep a very busy schedule.”
Even before he announced, Jindal spent a lot of time tending to politics out-of-state.
So far this year, he has spent four days out of every 10 somewhere other than in Louisiana, which is about the same rate he was gone in 2014, according to the records of lieutenant governor, who by law is supposed to take over when the governor leaves the state.
The governor’s office has stopped issuing press releases alerting the public when Jindal is gone. But just like before the announcement, Louisiana taxpayers are paying the salaries and expenses of the State Police troopers who provide security for him, which includes renting and driving the black Suburbans in which Jindal travels.
The governor’s aides send the lieutenant governor a notice when Jindal leaves the state, as required by law, but otherwise there is no coordination or communication with Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who is technically in charge. “The governor is chief executive at all times,” Jindal’s Communications Director Mike Reed said.
Though it may not look good, computers and cellphones make it a lot easier for an absent chief executive to keep abreast of the issues and make decisions, former Gov. Mike Foster said in an interview last week.
“I don’t really see it as a big deal. It’s something somebody can gripe about. Whether it hurts your efficiency, I doubt that,” said Foster, who was criticized in his day for not traveling very much.
Short of a something like a hurricane or the Mississippi River flooding, Foster said, Jindal’s presence in Baton Rouge isn’t necessary.
“I’m sure if there’s a hurricane he would be back here. I would be surprised if he weren’t,” Foster said. “You know when they are coming, and you have time to get back.”
But maybe the timing for a presidential run is a little off, said former Gov. Buddy Roemer, who ran for president in 2012.
“He can do that. That is fun,” Roemer said of Jindal’s presidential bid. “But his responsibility is governor. And for that he should stay with the job or quit. Let the lieutenant governor do it. I want to make that point. I don’t mind Bobby running for president, just not as governor.”
Similarly, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco criticized Jindal’s divided attention. “I don’t know how a governor can take off so much time from his job, but my experience was different,” she said.
Her last six months in office were wall-to-wall work as Louisiana recovered from the 2005 hurricanes. Usually her trips out of state were to Washington, D.C., to argue with congressmen and federal officials about the conditions and requirements of loans and grants needed to rebuild flooded homes, damaged schools and weakened levees.
Seventy-three-year-old state Sen. Francis Thompson, who just finished his 40th legislative session and has seen five other governors wind down their administrations, said all the state’s chief executives have their own styles. Some are more hands-on; others, like Jindal, delegate authority and responsibilities. But all governors rely on their staffs to keep an even keel, particularly during the final days of their tenure.
“It’s so critical that the staff stays engaged,” said Thompson, D-Delhi. “They still have a role to play. Capital outlay goes nowhere without them. We still have a number of lawsuits. We are still fooling with BP,” the British oil giant responsible for the historic crude oil release in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident.
Though a state government budget crisis — lawmakers had to fill a $1.6 billion deficit — was averted this year, the solutions are precarious. Its balance could be upset by any number of factors, such as another drop in oil prices or a lack of confidence in the state by credit rating agencies or the success of a lawsuit, like the one filed last week by the Louisiana Chemical Association, challenging the constitutionality of one of the revenue-raising rollbacks in tax breaks that impact businesses.
But short of a calamity like that, being in Baton Rouge is not that necessary, said Terry Ryder, who was Blanco’s executive counsel and Foster’s deputy chief of staff. “He’s got staff in Baton Rouge that can handle it and, as needed, consult him by cellphone. There’s the signature machine (to sign documents),” said Ryder, now a Baton Rouge lawyer.
Jindal receives a binder every morning with briefing materials about what is going on that day. He usually reaches out by breakfast with questions, said his chief of staff, Melissa Mann. The governor calls throughout the day to walk through the questions and issue directives.
“My job is to keep everything running on time. If legislators have issues, I help them sort through them,” Mann said June 26 at the end of her first week on the job. “If the cabinet brings up issues that rise to the level of the governor’s attention, then we have additional conferences on the phone.”
An Oak Grove native who joined the administration in 2008 after graduating from LSU, Mann got the fourth-floor corner office on June 19 after Jindal’s fourth chief of staff, Kyle Plotkin, joined the presidential campaign team.
“We have a pretty good idea of when the governor needs to be briefed on something, when it rises to his level and when we need input and decisions,” Mann said. “We understand the positions and the policies. We’ve been doing this for seven and a half years, so there’s going to be some hard guardrails we understand.”
Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols is Jindal’s chief budget adviser and is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the state government bureaucracy. Nothing much has changed for her. Over the years, she has met with Jindal regularly — daily during legislative sessions or weekly, depending on what’s going on. She contacts Jindal through the chief of staff.
The rhythm Nichols and Jindal have developed over the years is in-depth briefings on issues like the budget, operations of state government, upcoming discussions with the Legislature, forecasting future finances and major contracts that are being considered, she said.
“After having been with him for this length of time, I have a good feel of what really needs to be decided by him. But I certainly always brief him on issues that need to be brought to his attention,” Nichols said.
“He’s always got his finger on the pulse of what’s going on here,” said Revenue Secretary Tim Barfield, who, like Nichols, has served in several jobs during the Jindal administration. “From the things I see in my department, I don’t see his physical presence necessary.”
“We’ve finished our final legislative session. We are not going to be advancing a lot of new initiatives,” Mann said. “We’re going to be more overseeing that transition and ensuring that cabinet agencies are prepared for the transition period. ... We’re going to make sure we finish well.”
Will Sentell, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.