La. to choose a governor today

GOP candidate, son of Indian immigrants, unlikely leader in polls

November 15, 2003|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GONZALES, La. - Stanley Anthony has always been a Democrat. The owner of a roadside body shop in this town where deer heads are mounted on the market walls and kids rest their bikes against the fence without fear of thievery, Anthony figured he would vote Democrat in today's election for governor. Then he opened a letter from a Louisiana organization of small businesses.

The letter said the group was backing Republican Bobby Jindal. It did not matter to the group that Jindal's Democratic opponent has a virtually identical pro-business platform - phasing out taxes, for instance, on manufacturing equipment. And it does not matter to the 55-year-old Anthony. With his vote, an efficient political machine will have gained another tiny triumph - and perhaps contributed to a recent string of Republican victories in the South.

If Jindal wins, it would mark the first time since Reconstruction that the Republican Party has simultaneously held the governor's seat in every Deep South state: Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi. And a Jindal victory might be the most remarkable.

In a state where former Ku Klux Klan Wizard David Duke was a viable political candidate into the 1990s, many of Louisiana's white, conservative voters will have cast their ballots for a man - a 32-year-old, Ivy League-educated, dark-skinned son of immigrants from India - who looks nothing like the people they have voted for in the past.

The race is not settled. Though polls show Jindal with a 10-percentage-point lead over Kathleen Blanco, more than 10 percent of voters remained undecided in the latest surveys.

Still, that Jindal has survived to this point speaks to a new era in Louisiana politics - and to his masterful job of shoring up the conservative vote while making surprising inroads elsewhere.

"It is a new day," said Earl Black, a political science professor at Houston's Rice University. "Jindal is really showing Republicans how to put together a new coalition of voters."

Jindal's campaign initially decided that he had a face for radio. Speaking frequently on conservative talk shows, he was able to shield his skin color while staking out conservative positions.

He opposes abortion, including in cases of rape and incest, opposes allowing gay couples to adopt children and, as a proponent of reducing oversight, opposes motorcycle helmet laws - saying that riders "want to feel the wind in their hair."

When he finally stepped into the spotlight, his youth and ethnicity became an attraction. Jindal sold himself as "an agent of change," said Susan Howell, political science professor at the University of New Orleans. He is seen, Howell said, as someone who can energize and modernize an impoverished state.

Jindal, after a debate Wednesday in New Orleans, said he is "ready to change our state," and he reiterated that Louisiana voters are ready to look beyond skin color.

"It's not about being red, white or black. It's about being red, white and blue," he said, reciting one of his favorite lines.

Historically, Louisiana politics has been simple at its core. Conservative thought, more often then not, prevails. White men, most of the time, win. And when a Democrat runs against a Republican, the Democrat - assured of the large black vote and some of the white vote - typically wins.

This election has confounded the most seasoned veterans of Louisiana politics.

Pundits gave neither Blanco nor Jindal - a woman and a minority candidate - a chance. But last month, from a pack of 17 candidates, they received the top vote totals, sending them to meet in today's runoff. Initially, the conventional wisdom was that Blanco would win. But the campaign continues to defy expectations.

Blanco's conservative stances - she opposes abortion rights and affirmative action - has caused her trouble securing a Democrat's typical support among blacks. Sensing an opening, Jindal has doggedly pursued endorsements within that community, with marked success.

Blanco, 60, said she remains confident. Her aides said she has had success poking holes in Jindal's record as a bureaucrat. That record is central to his campaign, as he has never held office.

In 1996, Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who cannot run this year because of term limits, named Jindal secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals. At 24, Jindal had stewardship of a $4 billion budget - and a deficit of $400 million. He erased the deficit, though his cuts raised concern in the health care community.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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