Gov. Bobby Jindal’s day of prayer went off without a hitch Saturday — and without much commotion.
Jindal didn’t make “the big announcement” regarding a presidential run. About 3,000 to 4,000 people prayed, hands lifted to the sky, for reconciliation among the races, the old and the young and men and women. The crowd sang uplifting, contemporary Christian songs along with a band, though the turnout was less than some organizers had hoped.
Outside LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center, about 400 LSU students, faculty and others peacefully demonstrated, calling for equality for gay people and lesbians, an end to education funding cuts, and unity among the races and religions. Despite the controversy and concern it spawned in the weeks leading up to Jindal’s much-discussed prayer rally, those who attended said they left the event feeling uplifted.
Diane Delaune, of Destrehan, said she came to the prayer rally with a group from church.
“I thought it was fabulous,” she said of the rally. “I just want to serve the Lord, and I’m proud to be here.”
She said she didn’t feel the event was political or strictly focused on Jindal.
“God bless him for doing this,” she said. “It was all about being a Christian.”
Those who protested said they felt good about speaking out for themselves. The American Family Association, the Mississippi-based main sponsor of the event, has been accused of promoting discrimination against gay people and other minorities.
Shamaka Schumake, of Baton Rouge, was among the protestors outside the PMAC. She said she wanted to get involved in the protest because of what she sees as anti-Muslim and anti-gay rhetoric from AFA and others involved.
“It’s not the prayer aspect; it’s the rhetoric,” Schumake said. “That can’t be the voice of Baton Rouge or the voice of LSU.”
Dressed in a blue button-down shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and a blazer with no tie, Jindal spent about 15 minutes telling the crowd how he became a Christian while a teenager living in Baton Rouge.
Raised Hindu, Jindal said several people tried to convert him. He said he felt like it finally hit him at a chapel on LSU’s campus 27 years ago when he watched a black and white film on Jesus’s crucifixion. “God chose that moment to hit me harder than I’ve ever been hit before,” he said.
It’s a story he’s told before, but the crowd seemed responsive and clapped, though many already had filtered out of the PMAC before Jindal’s testimonial.
Jindal took the stage two other times over the course of the day. During one of the prayers, he asked that God give President Barack Obama “the strength to do his job.”
Though he and others have stressed repeatedly that the prayer rally wasn’t political, the event offered Jindal another chance to court evangelicals and the Christian right as he weighs a run for president. Critics had accused him of putting on a political show, just days after his supporters launched a political action committee that would set up a financial framework if he decides to seek the GOP nomination.
He also spoke briefly to an anti-abortion rally at the outdoors Greek Theater on campus while the prayer rally was in progress nearby.
About 900 miles north, in Des Moines, Iowa, Republicans were being sized up for 2016 consideration at the Iowa Freedom Summit, seen as a conservative precursor to the Iowa caucuses early next year. At least nine potential candidates for the GOP nomination were scheduled to speak to the crowd of Iowa voters and national media — giving them a chance to try to stake out their turf in the still-crowded field.
Jindal’s Saturday event was in the works before the date was announced for the Freedom Summit in Iowa.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s similar event in 2011 drew an estimated 30,000. Perry announced his run for president just a few days later.
Jindal’s political allies had estimated as many as 10,000 attendees at the Louisiana governor’s event on Saturday, according to emails obtained by The Advocate through a public records request. Rolfe McCollister, a Jindal appointee to the LSU Board of Supervisors and treasurer of the super PAC launched to support his possible run for president this week, emailed LSU facilities staff to arrange for use of the PMAC.
When asked about 2016 on Saturday, Jindal repeated a line he’s often said: “We’re praying and thinking about what to do next.”
He said he still needed “a couple of months” to make an announcement.
But he stressed two points that he could argue work to his advantage if he does run.
He said he believes voters don’t want to give the GOP establishment an opportunity to hand-pick a nominee. “I think voters are looking for a big change,” he said.
Jindal, a former head of the Republican Governors Association, seems to be trying to position himself outside the “establishment” realm.
He said he thinks governors make better leaders — a small dig at the U.S. senators, congressmen and others who have been mentioned as potential candidates.
He also said he thinks the deep GOP bench is good for the party.
“The more the merrier,” he said.