Tonight, the man who may well be the Republican Party's brightest hope could take the reins of America's most ungovernable state. If you haven't heard of Bobby Jindal, almost certain to be the next Governor of Louisiana, it's partly because his sense of action and purpose about Louisiana post-Katrina is so strong that it's scared off any credible challengers, making this a boring race. The question is whether Jindal can do the next-to-impossible, clearing 50% plus one and winning Louisiana's "jungle primary" outright. No gubernatorial candidate in an open seat race has ever done that before in Louisiana history.
Normally, an aura of inevitability like this would take years in state politics to establish. If you know little about Jindal, what I'm about to say next will shock you.
Bobby Jindal is 36 years old.
In another year, in another state, the election of a "skinny kid with a funny name" made national headlines. Like Jindal, this precocious young politician was a lock to win. And when he did so in the shadow of the most closely-watched Presidential election in a generation, he made national headlines. The day the papers carried the headlines "Bush defeats Kerry" the next headline was "Obama takes Illinois."
Obama was immediately a national media sensation, and it wasn't because of his track record as a Constitutional Law professor at the University of Chicago. Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, will make no such headlines on Sunday, or four weeks from now when he finishes the job. But unlike Obama, he has actually accomplished some real things. And he actually has chance to become President someday.
The media may ignore Bobby Jindal because he's a Republican, but the story of his political rise is no less powerful. In 1996, the 24-year old Rhodes Scholar and Congressional staffer got noticed by incoming Governor Mike Foster, and was put in charge of Louisiana's health system with responsibility for 40% of the state's budget. He turned his department's $440 million deficit into a $200 million surplus. In 2001, not even 30 yet, he was made an Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services in the incoming Bush Administration. His passion: health care. In his early twenties, he faced the choice between pursuing a joint legal-medical degree at Harvard or Yale, or the path that took him to Oxford and then to public service.For someone who had made a career out of the public eye, reforming cumbersome bureaucracies, Jindal laid a surprisingly strong claim to the governor's office when he first ran in 2003. He finished first in the jungle primary and was anointed by Gov. Foster as his preferred successor.
But it wasn't to be.
In the runoff, Jindal was savaged by negative ads from the campaign of Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. The ads showed a darkened Jindal and called him a heartless bean-counter.
Instead of hitting back, Jindal took the high road. He refused to dignify what he believed were false smears with a full response. Going into the runoff, the race was tied. Jindal would wind up losing to the lesser Blanco by four points. He lost conservative northern Louisiana communities he should have won. That was the last time, Jindal resolved, that he would be blindsided by negative attacks.
Bobby would be back. A few weeks later, he announced for Congress, a race he easily won. It was in his first year that he and the state faced the defining event that would lead to the reckoning Louisiana faces now.
So Jindal told the pilot, "Go in."
"You got me authorization?" replied the pilot.
"Yeah, I'm giving you your authorization right now," said the first-term Congressman.
In a country that's seen the Republican brand sag because of corruption and managerial incompetence, one state stands alone in returning to its Republican roots: Louisiana. That's because they've lived corruption and big government incompetence -- on steroids. And the party that failed Louisiana when lives were at stake were the Democrats. The people who felt the wrath of Katrina most directly blamed local Democrats, and not the distant Republican administration in Washington.
Louisiana has a chance -- a moment -- to reform a culture of corruption and cut its bloated government. While the rest of the South boomed, Louisiana was left behind, mired in a culture of dependence and corrupt, rent-seeking politicians. The one who's set to undo that tragic legacy that culminated in Katrina is Bobby Jindal, the anti-Huey Long.