There once was a man who campaigned on a message of hope and change. In his victory speech he promised never to succumb to a worldview in which “lobbyists begin to look larger and the people begin to look smaller.” In exchange, he asked voters to help him “defeat cynicism” by believing in him and themselves.
For schools, for government, for business, “change is not just on the way…Change begins tonight,” he proclaimed, his quick grin and young family breathing life back into a process gone sour, his unique life story bringing voters from unexpected backgrounds.
Sound familiar? It should. You’ve heard the media tell the story a thousand times a day. They’re just telling it about the wrong guy.
These days, Bobby Jindal is working for change in a city that could eat the ethical foibles of Obama’s Chicago for breakfast, like so many shrimp upon a bed of grits. Elected governor of Louisiana in 2007, he replaced the politically deflated Kathleen Blanco, who did not seek reelection.
Jindal is keenly aware of the problematic legacy he inherits. Inside Huey Long’s sky-scraping capital building, “I wonder what crimes were committed here?” is a not infrequent visitor question, posed not quite jokingly. The state’s political history is fraught with the kind of men Southerners often euphemistically call “colorful,” who given proper federal investigation, end up being very uneuphemistically corrupt.
He’s also aware of the opportunity his state offers. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were talked about, on a national level, as revelations of persistent poverty in America. In Louisiana, they were a reminder, too, of the political perfidy that’s perpetuated it.
“Shame on us if all we build is what was here before,” Jindal told a small group of bloggers at the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge last week.
Unwilling to accept Louisiana as it was—one of the most uneducated, unethical, and unhealthy states in the union—Jindal made ethics reform his first priority, working on the theory that being a national punchline doesn’t draw business investment.
The 36-year-old governor slid into a January special legislative session on the strength of his political capital and came out with one of the strongest ethics reform packages in a nation awash with attempts at reform.
The law of the land now requires full disclosure of all income for legislators and prohibits any legislator doing business with the state, period. Lobbyists must also disclose assets and income, and are prohibited from spending more than $50 per legislator on any meal, moving the state from a score of 43 of 100 on the Center for Public Integrity’s disclosure survey in 2006 to a 99 in 2008.