Retail politics pays off

After losing the Louisiana governor's race in 2003, Bobby Jindal began a relentless campaign that ended with his election to the office last week

In Focus -- Politics

October 25, 2007|By Miguel Bustillo | Miguel Bustillo,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MONROE, La. -- When Bobby Jindal lost his first Louisiana governor's race four years ago, some experts told him that white people here were not ready to elect a dark-skinned son of Indian immigrants.

This week, as he dashed across the state in a victory caravan after his historic landslide win Saturday, Louisiana's Republican governor-elect had a message for his rural supporters: Thank you for proving the political wisdom wrong.

Jindal, 36 - who will become the first Indian-American governor of any state, the youngest current governor in the country and the first non-white to lead Louisiana since Reconstruction - said he refused to believe that his ethnicity was an obstacle to achieving his political dreams.

He essentially never stopped campaigning after his 2003 loss to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, an election in which he failed to win over many of the white rural voters who should have loved his conservative positions.

Jindal was convinced that if voters got to know him, they would see him as a fellow native son from Baton Rouge, not a foreigner with an Ivy League degree.

So he made more than 70 trips to northern Louisiana cities such as Shreveport, and the devout Catholic seemingly attended Sunday Mass at every small church in the state, even after he was elected to represent suburban New Orleans in Congress in 2004.

"In these small Louisiana towns, retail politics is very important," Jindal said in an interview from his tour bus as he rode to Natchitoches. He said he always believed Blanco beat him simply because she was better known. "I don't think there's any substitute for staring someone in the eye and listening," he said.

Jindal's tireless tours of Louisiana, especially here in the conservative northern parishes that were considered the keys to his earlier defeat, impressed political observers, who said that by the time his rivals entered this year's race, Jindal's hard-earned backing in the rural stronghold was insurmountable.

"I have never seen anyone work so hard," said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster and political consultant. "I had a local legislator tell me that he had to go to church more often, because Jindal had been to his church more times than he had."

Jindal wound up winning all but four of Louisiana's 64 parishes - nearly the entire state except New Orleans. It was an embarrassing defeat for Democrats, who were unable to even force Jindal into a runoff election. Under Louisiana's open primary rules, a candidate who can secure more than half the total vote wins outright. Jindal received 54 percent, despite competing against 11 candidates.

Blanco chose not to seek re-election this year after her response to Hurricane Katrina drew widespread criticism, and no prominent Democrat stepped in to challenge Jindal. The Democrats' strongest candidate Saturday, state Sen. Walter J. Boasso, was a former Republican who switched parties just before the race.

Piyush "Bobby" Jindal's meteoric rise through the Republican Party ranks is already famous in Louisiana - as is his personal version of the American dream. His parents moved to Baton Rouge from India shortly before he was born so his mother could study nuclear physics at Louisiana State University. His father is a civil engineer.

At age 4, Jindal asked his teacher to refer to him henceforth as Bobby, after the character from The Brady Bunch. His parents worried he was going through a phase but also obliged, and Jindal has been known as Bobby since. When he converted from Hinduism to Catholicism at age 18, he used Robert as his baptismal name.

At age 24, the Brown University- and Oxford-educated Jindal was named head of the Louisiana Department of Heath and Hospitals by then-Gov. Mike Foster, placing him in charge of a $4 billion budget and 13,000 employees, and on the political fast track.

Yet he learned in 2003 that his resume was not enough to be elected governor in Louisiana - and could even serve as a hindrance. Democrats ran ads criticizing the steep cuts Jindal had made as health chief and questioning whether the Ivy Leaguer was in touch with common folk. The ads worked.

After his defeat, Jindal launched a statewide charm offensive. Richard Hartley, a former school superintendent near Monroe who said he helped connect Jindal with local church groups, said he saw the difference Jindal made by repeatedly showing up.

"A lot of people didn't trust him" in 2003, said Hartley, 50. "I think it was a way for people to learn that, yes, he was an Indian-American but also as [Louisianian] as the day is long. It was never a question after that."

Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Jindal facts

Name: Bobby Jindal (originally Piyush Jindal)

Born: Baton Rouge, La., June 10, 1971

Occupation: Member of Congress; governor-elect, Louisiana

Education: Brown University, 1991; Oxford University, 1994

Family: Wife, Supriya Jolly; children Selia, Shaan, Slade Ryan

Religion: Roman Catholic

Career: Associate, McKinsey & Co., 1994-1996; secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, 1996-1998; president, University of Louisiana System, Baton Rouge, 1999-2001; assistant secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001-2003; unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor, 2003; U.S. representative, Louisiana, 2005-present; elected governor, Oct. 20, 2007 [Source: Marquis Who's Who in America]

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