Tough love for Louisiana

October 18, 2007|By KATHLEEN PARKER

NEW ORLEANS -- People here haul out multisyllable adjectives to describe the back-to-back storms that devastated Louisiana two years ago. Catastrophic, cataclysmic and apocalyptic are three of the favorites. Biblical is another. Touring New Orleans today, seeing barren lots where homes once stood and giant X's still marking houses to indicate if bodies were found, it is easy to think in those terms.

But hurricanes Katrina and Rita did more than just destroy homes and histories. They seem to have changed Louisiana's personality. Where once cronyism and corruption were tolerated almost as local eccentricities, today they are viewed as the detritus of a benighted past. As voters prepare to elect a new governor and a large slate of legislators on Saturday, ethics is the new byword and brains may trump political brawn.

The political emphasis post-Katrina isn't so much ideological - Democrat vs. Republican - as it is reform vs. status quo. Leading the reform surge, as well as in the polls, is a young politician Huey Long never could have imagined. Bobby Jindal, the wiry and wired Republican son of Indian immigrants, doesn't look like a Louisiana good ol' boy and he doesn't talk like one either.

At 36, he has a r?sum? that should place him closer to retirement than to yet another career. A Rhodes scholar, Mr. Jindal was accepted to the medical and law schools of both Harvard and Yale (though he attended neither).

While still in his 20s, he served as president of the University of Louisiana System and as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He successfully reformed Louisiana's Medicaid program and was elected to the U.S. House in 2004.

Meeting at a Baton Rouge coffee shop late in the afternoon, I was relieved when Mr. Jindal did not have coffee. The man has so much energy already, he could charge batteries. I ordered a double cappuccino.

If elected, Mr. Jindal wants to turn that energy on ethics reform, which might make him popular among voters. With legislators, maybe not so much.

He wants to make lawmakers fully disclose their finances - income, assets and debts. He also wants to forbid legislators from serving as lobbyists or consultants while in office and to prevent people from serving in government and doing business with government at the same time.

Mr. Jindal's tough-love approach to the business of government stems from his belief that Louisiana is at a now-or-never point in its history. If the state doesn't get its programs straightened out, the Big Easy, for one, may go down hard and Louisiana may never recover.

What happens here also affects the rest of the country, as Louisiana is home to a third of the nation's petrochemical industry. As a port and entry point to the Mississippi River, the state is also crucial to distribution of 40 percent of the nation's natural gas and 20 percent of its imported crude oil. A third of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is harvested off the Louisiana coast.

Mr. Jindal has found support in unexpected quarters, including the 65-member Louisiana Sheriffs' Association, all but seven of them Democrats.

The group supported a Jindal opponent when he first ran for governor in 2003, the race Kathleen Babineaux Blanco won. She is not seeking re-election.

The sheriffs' conversion to Mr. Jindal's camp is another of Katrina's legacies. St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens told me that many voters have "buyer's remorse," and, "We've come to place a high value on intellect."

Also, in the days after Katrina, when state and local leaders were tangled up in red tape, Mr. Jindal materialized with his sleeves rolled up - without cameras or fanfare - and said, "What do you need?"

Shortly thereafter, trucks, food and medicine began arriving in St. Bernard, where most of the parish's 27,000 residential units were damaged or destroyed.

Mr. Jindal's double-digit lead in the polls has prompted his opponents to play a deck of cards - from religion to ethnicity. One ad asserted that Mr. Jindal, a Catholic, is anti-Protestant. The state Democratic Party has used Mr. Jindal's given name, Piyush, clearly aiming to rally ethnophobes. In an act of desperation, one opponent ran a television ad noting that, yeah, sure, Mr. Jindal's got brains, but does he have a heart?

Being too smart hasn't been plaguing Louisiana leadership lately. It couldn't hurt to give brains a chance.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@kparker.com.

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