Not long ago, prompted by a call from a national political reporter seeking to understand likely presidential candidate Gov. Bobby Jindal’s rise in Louisiana, I pulled out an old profile I wrote during his first campaign. And I have to confess that reading it again, after all these years and with so much water under the bridge, was jarring.
Jindal didn’t win that governor’s race back in 2003, although the campaign did turn the previously little-known health care bureaucrat into a rising star.
The interesting part, in hindsight, is how that happened.
Some aspects of the Jindal we now know were already fully formed by then, including the conservative religiosity.
Some had yet to emerge: The governor who would eventually push his anti-tax absolutism to ridiculous lengths hadn’t yet fixated on the idea that this is what he had to do to stay nationally viable, no matter the devastation it might cause.
But what stood out from revisiting that account, which ran in the Brown Alumni Magazine, was how much of Jindal’s public persona was rooted in the fact that this bright, able young Louisiana native, someone who could have succeeded anywhere, wanted to be here.
Here was a 32-year-old go-getter who’d already built an eye-popping resume — an international consulting gig, major policy posts in Washington heading a Medicare reform panel and serving as an assistant cabinet secretary, and, of course, stints as head of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals and the University of Louisiana system.
So what did he want to do with all that talent? Use it to turn his economic backwater home state into a modern, functional, even cutting-edge place, one that would attract college graduates, not lose them to other states offering better opportunities.
That’s what he’d tell person after person on the campaign trail, including a woman carrying a fussy child one morning at the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City. Jindal, then the father of a toddler with baby No. 2 on the way, put her at ease by talking about his own experience as a parent and then segued easily into his pitch. He was running for governor, he said, “so that my daughter can stay home.”
“That’s a really good reason,” the woman replied.
Even the article’s unironic headline drummed home the theme. “Bobby Goes Home,” it read.
Did Jindal ever mean it? I have no idea. I do know that he sold it beautifully, and I watched voters buy it.
And I can’t blame them if they feel duped.
A lot has happened since 2003. Jindal fell short that year but came storming back, first moving to Jefferson Parish to run for Congress (in the process elbowing aside an ambitious legislator named Steve Scalise), then winning his second race for governor, a victory fueled by suspicion that he would have handled hurricanes Katrina and Rita better than the woman who’d beaten him, Kathleen Blanco.
Louisiana is now attracting and keeping college graduates, and politicians have stopped running campaign ads featuring mournful parents helping their grown children pack a moving van.
But ask around, and you’re not likely to hear many people credit Jindal with the turnaround. And you’re even less likely to find someone who’ll say that he did, in fact, put Louisiana first. Quite the opposite.
Taken as a whole, Jindal’s record adds up to little more than one big presidential platform — the ethics reform that impressed list-makers but exempted the governor’s own office; the initiatives aimed at courting conservative Christian voters, including his big push for school vouchers and support for allowing creationism to be taught in public schools; his flip-flop on Common Core; the knee-jerk opposition to all parts of President Barack Obama’s health care law, to the point where he has actively denied expanded, largely federally funded Medicaid coverage to a couple hundred thousand needy Louisianans; his refusal to address structural budget problems for fear of being accused of raising revenue, severely jeopardizing the colleges and universities that are supposed to educate the next generation of bright young Louisianans.
As for the message to constituents who once hoped, and believed, that he’d make Louisiana his priority?
It’s certainly not that home is where Jindal’s heart is. More like he’s just passing through.