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.
Jindal and his reform movement had the good fortune and timing to storm the political establishment during the first election season affected by a 1995 term limits law. The attrition of the old guard left him with 60 new legislators of 105 who weren’t wedded to the old ways.
He was also helped along by members like Charmaine L. Marchand of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, who whined about the meal cap, "If it's $50, I think we're going to be eating at Taco Bell." A local radio station sponsored a contest to see who could spend $50 at Taco Bell, and the governor’s office chalked it up to a cheesy, crunchy P.R. victory.
The success earned him praise even on the front page of the New York Times, whose pre-election coverage deemed his reform talk “conscientiously detailed” but “hardly revolutionary,” and his newfound support among white voters all over the state as a “racial breakthrough of sorts… with qualifiers.” Jindal had lost the governor's race to Blanco in 2003, partly due to misgivings among very conservative, white voters in Northern Louisiana, a region he's since visited more than any other Louisiana governor.
A second special session was just as productive, as the legislature approved an end to the tax on manufacturing equipment—one of only three such taxes in the nation—eliminated taxes on capital investment and business utilities, and passed a tax deduction for private school tuition, homeschool families, and other educational expenses.
Jindal’s simple theory: “If you want to discourage something, tax it. If you want to encourage it, don’t tax it.”
Up next? A host of aggressive school reforms that already have the teachers’ unions squirming.
“That’ll be the biggest fight of the session,” he said. “But we campaigned on this. It’s no surprise.”
To Jindal, the big-government response to Hurricane Katrina betrayed conservatives’ lack of confidence in their own ideas, and his first three months in office have gone a long way toward showing he has all the courage of conviction he needs.
The Republican Party remains the party of ideas in Louisiana, under Jindal’s leadership. And, as the unabashed policy wonk runs through four-point plan after four-point plan in his detailed recipe for Cajun-style reform, his 3-year-old son big-wheeling through the foyer of the governor’s mansion, one can’t help but think, “So this is what real change looks like.”