Jindal Faces a Test in Taming Louisiana Politics

Louisiana Governor-elect Bobby Jindal has promised a revolution in the state's political life as soon as he takes office in January. But he's already found it difficult to keep one campaign pledge on ethics. Still, few in the state seem to mind; they're focused on his promise to reduce corruption.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going next to Louisiana to hear about a new face and an iconic place. The place is a streetcar line through New Orleans, which can once again take you where you desire. And we'll have more in a moment.

We begin with Louisiana's new governor-elect. Bobby Jindal is young, and Republican, and Indian-American, and the first non-white governor of the state since reconstruction. He also says he's going to end the corruption when he takes office in January. That was a major campaign issue for him. But he's already backed off one of his ethics-related campaign pledges.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports from New Orleans.

JEFF BRADY: Louisiana loves its political characters and 36-year-old Bobby Jindal is the latest. Even his first name contributes to his legend. He replaced Piyush with Bobby after watching the "Brady Bunch" as a young boy.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

BRADY: Jindal's election night speech focused on the same issue that he rode to victory.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): We've all become accustomed to thinking that we really can't do anything about the corruption and incompetence in state government. We just can't think that way anymore. I'm asking you to believe that we can turn our state around.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

BRADY: To start, Jindal said he would give up a power unique to Louisiana. Historically, the governor chooses the leaders of the state legislature, the house speaker, the senate president, even down to the individual committee chairs.

Here's Jindal at a press conference the day after the election.

Gov. JINDAL: You know, the Constitution actually says these are separate bodies of government, separate entities of government. I actually believe in the separation of powers.

BRADY: But just a few weeks later, Jindal held another press conference and announced who the new leaders would be, months before lawmakers were scheduled to vote for them. Jindal's campaign says he did not meddle in the selection process. That's not quite right according to political analyst John McGuinness.

Mr. JOHN McGUINNESS (Political Analyst): He didn't really pick the senate president and speaker of the house but he more or less blessed the ones who emerge as the leaders, who are accessible to him.

BRADY: And once that was done, competitors dropped out of the competition. But McGuinness says it would have been a mistake for Jindal to try to change tradition before fulfilling his campaign promises to clean up corruption and improve the economy.

Mr. McGUINNESS: To do those things, he needs to have the power that governs he traditionally has, and if he kind of start seeing that, he may imperil some of the things he once done.

BRADY: McGuinness says people here seem to want a strong governor anyway.

Mr. McGUINNESS: I tell you, most voters don't mind their legislators having some adult supervision, you know, even by a young adult.

BRADY: Jindal's ethics reforms would put lawmakers on a short leash. They won't be able to do business with the state. They couldn't work as lobbyists and legislators at the same time. And if a lobbyist takes them to an LSU game or an expensive steak dinner, that information would be public. Jindal says Louisiana government is about to become more transparent.

Unidentified Male: If I can have your attention please, can everyone hear me?

BRADY: Jindal has appointed seven advisory councils. This one is working on government and fiscal reform. It has 47 members. There are more people on the council than in the audience. He asked the chairs and vice chairs to reveal candidates for a top state jobs and to provide policy recommendations.

This public display of openness pleases Barry Erwin. He heads the Council for a Better Louisiana. It's largely comprised of big businesses worried about the state's reputation.

Mr. BARRY ERWIN (President, Council for a Better Louisiana): I think we've gotten away from a lot of that actual corruption at the top level, at the state level with the governor and that type of thing. But, you know, we still have it. It happens. It occurs from time to time. But I think because it happens in Louisiana, a lot of times it gets more play because we're a colorful state and we have this colorful history.

BRADY: And turning that image around is difficult. Political watchers here hope Jindal's high profile and a special legislative session next year focused on ethics will begin that process.

Mr. WENDELL LINDSAY (President, Common Cause Louisiana): His proposals are good ones.

BRADY: Wendell Lindsay is president of Common Cause Louisiana, and while complimentary, he says there is an important element missing from Jindal's ethics plan.

Mr. LINDSAY: What is needed is something to outset the golden rule of politics, which says that them that gives the gold, makes the rules.

BRADY: There's little in Jindal's proposal that would change campaign finances. He did quite well under the current rules, raising more than $13 million from a wide variety of donors. As one political watcher here noted, he hoped that if everyone buys him, no one owns him.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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