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THE NATION

Ethnicity is no bar to Jindal's dream

Indian immigrants' son was readily elected Louisiana's governor based on tireless work in what amounted to a four-year nonstop campaign.

October 24, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

MONROE, LA. — When Bobby Jindal lost his first Louisiana governor's race four years ago, some experts told him that white people here were not ready to elect a dark-skinned son of Indian immigrants.

On Tuesday, as he dashed across the state in a victory caravan after his historic Saturday landslide win, Louisiana's Republican governor-elect had a message for his rural supporters: Thank you for proving the conventional political wisdom wrong.

Jindal, 36 -- who will become the first Indian American governor of any state, the youngest current governor in the country, and the first nonwhite to lead Louisiana since Reconstruction -- refused to believe that his ethnicity was an obstacle to his political dreams.

He essentially never stopped campaigning after his 2003 defeat to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, an election in which he failed to win over many of the white rural voters who could have been expected to love his conservative positions.

Jindal was convinced that if voters got to know him, they would see him as a fellow native son from Baton Rouge, not an exotic foreigner with an Ivy League degree.

So he made more than 70 trips to northern Louisiana cities such as Shreveport, and the devout Catholic seemingly attended Sunday Mass at every small church in the state, even after he was elected to represent suburban New Orleans in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004.

"In these small Louisiana towns, retail politics is very important," Jindal said in an interview from his tour bus as he rode to the town of Natchitoches. He always believed Blanco beat him simply because she was better known. "I don't think there's any substitute for staring someone in the eye and listening," he said.

Jindal's tireless tours, especially in the conservative northern parishes considered key to his earlier defeat, impressed seasoned political observers, who said that by the time his rivals entered this year's race, Jindal's hard-earned backing in the rural stronghold was insurmountable.

"I have never seen anyone work so hard," said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster and political consultant. "I had a local legislator tell me that he had to go to church more often, because Jindal had been to his church more times than he had."

Jindal wound up winning all but four of Louisiana's 64 parishes -- nearly the entire state except New Orleans. It was an embarrassing defeat for Democrats, who were unable even to force Jindal into a runoff.

Under Louisiana's open primary rules, a candidate who can secure more than half the total vote wins outright. Jindal got 54% despite competing against 11 other candidates.

Blanco opted not to seek reelection this year after her response to Hurricane Katrina drew widespread criticism, and no prominent Democrat stepped in to challenge Jindal. The Democrats' strongest candidate Saturday, State Sen. Walter J. Boasso, was a former Republican who switched parties just before the race.

Though Democrats hold a 2-1 edge in voter registration in Louisiana, recent statewide elections -- such as GOP Sen. David Vitter's commanding 2004 victory, also during an open primary -- have demonstrated a clear tilt to the right.

Piyush "Bobby" Jindal's meteoric rise through the Republican Party ranks is already legend in Louisiana, as is his personal version of the American dream.

His parents moved to Baton Rouge from India shortly before he was born so that his mother could study nuclear physics at Louisiana State University. His father is a civil engineer.

At age 4, Jindal asked his teacher to refer to him henceforth as Bobby, after a character from "The Brady Bunch." His parents worried that he was going through a phase. But they also obliged, and Jindal has been known as Bobby since. When he converted from Hinduism to Catholicism at age 18, he used Robert as his baptismal name.

At 24, the Brown University- and Oxford-educated wunderkind was named head of the Louisiana Department of Heath and Hospitals by then-Gov. Mike Foster, placing him in charge of a $4-billion budget and 13,000 employees -- and on the political fast track.

Yet he learned in 2003 that his sterling resume was not enough to get him elected governor in Louisiana -- and could even serve as a hindrance. Democrats ran ads criticizing the steep cuts Jindal had made as health chief, and questioning whether the Ivy Leaguer was in touch with common folk. The ads seemingly worked.

After that defeat, Jindal launched a statewide charm offensive. Richard Hartley, a former school superintendent from near Monroe who said he helped connect Jindal with local church groups, said he saw the difference Jindal made by repeatedly showing up.

"A lot of people didn't trust him" in 2003, said Hartley, 50. "I think it was a way for people to learn that, yes, he was an Indian American, but also as Louisianan as the day is long. It was never a question after that."

Jindal will never be mistaken for Huey Long on the stump. Nor did his wooden campaign speeches in Alexandria, Shreveport and Monroe on Tuesday bring to mind the oratory of such charismatic characters as former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

But when Jindal, wearing cowboy boots and a dark blazer, spoke about his desire to clean up Louisiana's corrupt image and bring competence to state government, the crowd cheered the policy wonk's every word.

"I think people have finally gotten past that," Jerry Roshto, a 43-year-old machinist, said of Jindal's ethnicity. "I'm not looking at the past, and I don't think he is either. He has a chance to do something special."

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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