In a state where the scent of corruption swirls around the capital like vapor from a steamy gumbo, there's big news this year. Neither of the finalists in the Louisiana governor's race has a rap sheet. But it's not the candidates' cleanliness that makes the Nov. 15 runoff so unusual. Rather, it's the improbable rise of the Republican contender, a 32-year-old son of Indian immigrants who has never held elected office.
Piyush "Bobby" Jindal is as unlikely a candidate as you could find to become Louisiana's next kingfish. A policy wonk who made his name as a health reformer, Jindal surprised the political Establishment on Oct. 4 when he came out on top in the primary election by promising to end Louisiana's backwater status with a combination of management expertise and conservative principles.
Now, polls show him neck and neck with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco, a moderate. If Jindal wins, he would become America's first Indian-American governor. In a GOP searching for candidates to showcase its commitment to a "color-blind society," Governor Jindal would be an instant star.
Jindal, a Catholic who converted from Hinduism, has cobbled together an unusual coalition. His conservative social views -- he opposes gun control and supports posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings -- appeal to the blue-collar "Bubba" vote. At the same time, a sparkling résumé -- Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey & Co. consultant, official in the Bush Health & Human Services Dept. -- has wowed good-government types. Jindal has also attracted business leaders who believe the ex-McKinseyite can revitalize the economy. Like many states, Louisiana has struggled during the three-year economic slump. Its economy, heavily dependent on tourism, agriculture, and the petrochemical industry, is now smaller than the city of Houston's. "People here want a break with the past," says John Maginnis, publisher of an influential Louisiana political newsletter. "They want someone to sell the state."
Louisiana is the only Southern state that has had a net population loss in the past decade, and the success of neighbors such as Mississippi in attracting manufacturing has prompted calls for less populism and more economic development. "People aren't angry," Jindal says. "But there's a desire to do better."
How would that happen? For starters, Jindal has a reputation as an efficiency expert -- as overseer of the state health department he turned a $400 million deficit into three years of surpluses -- and he says he can squeeze more fat out of the bureaucracy. He vows to restructure a creaky health system, outsource public-works contracts, and nurture entrepreneurship with low tax rates and breaks for employers that locate in the state. "The answer to our problems isn't higher taxes," says Jindal, "it's creating jobs."
In an attempt to stop Jindal, Blanco is depicting him as insensitive to the poor -- a powerful line of attack among black voters, who account for 30% of the electorate. For Jindal to win on Nov. 15, he has to walk the same kind of fine line that a young Southern pol named Bush did: Keep the conservative "Bubbas for Bobby" vote energized with a red-meat social agenda while wooing swing voters with paeans to economic growth. With a Republican tide flowing in the South, political pros give Jindal a good shot at performing that balancing act -- and becoming a hot property in the process.
By Alexandra Starr in Baton Rouge