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Louisiana Politics Show a New Face

An Indian American conservative's bid for governor underscores a break with the past.

October 03, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. — Since Reconstruction, Louisiana has sent an uninterrupted and unchallenged parade of white men to the governor's mansion. Politics have degenerated into sport, played by the connected, observed by the dismayed, and an old adage says governors get two terms here -- one in office and one in prison.

This year, not one of the six leading candidates for governor is under threat of indictment. Audience members at debates have thanked them for being boring. They have spent the summer talking, with civility and sobriety, about the sour economy and what to do next. And analysts believe the two candidates most likely to survive Saturday's crowded primary election and meet in a runoff are a dark-skinned son of Indian immigrants and a woman.

"It sends a signal," said the latter, Democrat Kathleen Blanco, the state's lieutenant governor since 1995. "People are tired of the politics of the past."

Given that spectacle -- from David Duke, long a viable candidate here though he was once a Ku Klux Klan wizard, to Edwin W. Edwards, the former governor imprisoned last year for extortion -- the most remarkable tale is that of the immigrants' son, Bobby Jindal.

Analysts who once dismissed his campaign as a longshot now believe the conservative Jindal is likely to earn a spot in the November runoff and a shot at becoming the nation's first Indian American governor. If he wins, the nation will be introduced to a Republican face that some believe could become very prominent, particularly as the GOP expands efforts to be inclusive.

"People thought there was no way he could win. Not here," said Wayne Parent, chairman of political science at Louisiana State University. "What he's done so far has been amazing."

There are two interpretations of Jindal's success. Both have implications for Louisiana and, to some degree, for the South.

The first, which he prefers, is that race is irrelevant in today's Louisiana, trumped by more pressing issues, such as poverty and poor health-care coverage. Under this theory, Louisiana is perfectly prepared to elect to the governor's mansion a wonky, fast-talking, Ivy League-educated, 32-year-old wunderkind Indian American with no experience in office.

The second is that race remains an important determinant in Louisiana politics. African Americans represent 30% of the electorate, but many believe they are disenfranchised in Louisiana, where whites have long dominated the halls of power. Indeed, polls show African Americans virtually united in their opposition to GOP candidates, including Jindal. That means his support is coming from white social conservatives, which is no less surprising.

Sitting on donated, mismatched furniture in his campaign office this week, Jindal declined to declare victory, despite the fact that an aide has already rented a bus to take staffers to a victory party and has taped up a sign-up sheet for seats.

The office, a cottage with peach-painted walls, lies miles from the home Jindal shares with his wife and 1-year-old daughter and blocks from the Capitol. Volunteers were busy calling supporters. Beside them was a list of talking points: "Bobby was born in Louisiana." "Bobby is a Christian." "Bobby will support tax cuts."

Louisiana has an unusual primary system. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, face each other in a head-to-head race. With 17 candidates, the winners in this round will probably earn less than 25% of the vote apiece. Too much can happen in the final days, said Jindal, his thin fingers interwoven on his lap. But, he said, "we got into this race to win. And we have surpassed people's expectations every single day."

That's been true for a long time.

Shortly before he was born, Jindal's parents moved here from India so his mother could earn a degree in nuclear physics from Louisiana State University. His father is a civil engineer.

At age 4, about the time he learned to read, Piyush Jindal informed his teacher that he wanted to be called "Bobby," the name of the youngest son on "The Brady Bunch." His parents asked their son, not for the last time, if he was going through a phase.

"They asked me: 'Is your name going to be Greg or Peter tomorrow?' " Jindal said.

At 18, when he converted from Hinduism to Catholicism, he used "Robert" as his baptismal name. Again, his parents wondered if it was a phase, but today Jindal calls the conversion a profound intellectual and spiritual experience.

He was attending Brown University at the time, and his prodigal path was becoming clear: While earning straight A's, finishing a double-major of public policy and biology and graduating early, he founded a College Republicans chapter. After a stint as a Rhodes Scholar, he blitzed through a series of high-profile jobs, starting with an internship with U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery, a Shreveport Republican whom Jindal calls his political hero.

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