La. Governor Bobby Jindal In National Spotlight

This was supposed to be the week Bobby Jindal emerged into the national spotlight at the Republican National Convention. But then came Gustav — and now Louisiana's governor is in the spotlight for a different reason.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This was supposed to be the week that Bobby Jindal emerged into the national spotlight. After weeks of speculation that he was on John McCain's short list for vice president, Louisiana's governor was lined up for a primetime speaking gig at this week's Republican National Convention.

Then came Hurricane Gustav, and Bobby Jindal's plans changed.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): There are 1,800 additional troops from other states en route to Louisiana. We've requested another 16,000 additional Guards troops. We expect…

LYDEN: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in the spotlight today, but not for his politics. NPR's John Burnett has been following the 36-year-old governor, and his profile starts with a small-town appearance in Louisiana.

Unidentified Man #3: I want to thank everybody for coming to Ball today. I especially want to thank the governor on his third trip through Ball.

JOHN BURNETT: The mayor of the town of Ball in central Louisiana introduces his distinguished guest. Bobby Jindal stands awkwardly in the city council chambers, wearing a blue blazer and khakis, no tie. He's got a lopsided grin, and he's really thin. He looks more like an engineer, which is what his father does, but Governor Jindal revels in his differentness.

Gov. JINDAL: We started with a special session on ethics. Why do we start there? We've all heard the jokes. You travel, you tell people you're from Louisiana, they kind of nod, and they kind of smile at you, and they say oh yeah, things are different down there.

Billy Tauzin, a congressman from down here, went up to D.C. and said my home state of Louisiana is half underwater, half under indictment.

BURNETT: In his first few months in office, Jindal has gotten high marks for pushing through tougher financial disclosure and ethics rules for the legislature and for trimming the state budget.

A devout Catholic and social conservative, Jindal signed bills supporting school vouchers, opposing public stem-cell research and allowing public-school teachers to offer alternative viewpoints on such topics as evolution, human cloning and global warming.

His support of a law dealing with sex offenders was especially popular here in Ball.

Gov. JINDAL: I signed into law a bill passed by the legislature that says on first offense, judges have the option of castration. On a second offense, it's mandatory.

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: Jindal has been head of the state university system and the state hospital system, and he was nominated as top health-policy adviser in Washington, all before he was 30. He was also elected to two terms in Congress, the second interrupted when he became governor.

On this afternoon, two weeks ago, a questioner in Ball wanted to know if he had higher aspirations.

Unidentified Man #4: I appreciate the job you're doing, and we know you're on the VP short list for McCain. I was wondering if you were planning on finishing your term out…

BURNETT: Jindal had insisted for months that he has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fix the state's myriad problems, among them hurricane recovery, a dwindling population and poverty.

Gov. JINDAL: I'm staying as your governor, whether you like it or not.

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: Bobby Jindal came into office on a tailwind. He inherited a billion-dollar budget surplus from oil and gas revenues, and he had a big mandate to make government more efficient and clean up corruption in Baton Rouge.

One of his most popular actions to date has been his veto of a pay raise for the legislature, this after lawmakers say he promised them a pay hike if they voted for his agenda. John Thunderbirk(ph) drives a bread truck.

Mr. JOHN THUNDERBIRK (Resident, Louisiana): I haven't had a pay raise in five years. You know, why should the legislature get one that they vote for themselves, you know? And we just love his integrity. We love his honesty. He's a man of action, and in those seven months, I think he's accomplished more than the last two or three governors we've had.

BURNETT: Even Democrats, like state Representative Billy Chandler, have climbed on Jindal's bandwagon.

State Representative BILLY CHANDLER (Democrat, Louisiana): Any time you can reduce a budget in this inflationary period and reduce taxes and provide more road money that we've got in quite some time (unintelligible), you've got to be doing a good job.

BURNETT: For all the adulation he's receiving, Jindal's critics point out that the ethics bill is something of a disappointment. It hands enforcement of ethics laws to appointed judges. Moreover, the governor's office itself is not subject to the same strict transparency rules that the legislature now is.

Wayne Parent is a political scientist at Louisiana State University.

Mr. WAYNE PARENT (Political Scientist, Louisiana State University): There are big critics of his ethics bill that say it's not cleaning up the government the way it is. It's keeping he in his office insulated from ethics charges. There's a lot of debate about all that, but in the public's mind, he passed a major ethics bill, and he seems to be really stringent in his budget requirements.

BURNETT: Whether they agree with his politics or not, folks here are flattered by all the national attention their governor is getting. He's been showing up frequently as a McCain surrogate on national political talk shows and even on "The Tonight Show."

(Soundbite of television program, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show"): Please welcome from the great state of Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal.

Mr. RON FLETCHER (Political Consultant): For the first time, a public official in this state is being touted as the future of something, not only of Louisiana but of a national party and potentially of a nation.

BURNETT: Ron Fletcher is a long-time political consultant in Baton Rouge.

Mr. FLETCHER: It's kind of humbling to this state because so often, we've had politicians live with, how would you say, flexible morals.

BURNETT: The tradition in Louisiana is for voters to elect a straight-laced reform governor, such as Dave Treen in 1979 and Buddy Roemer in 1988, and then replace him the next term with a colorful populist like Edwin Edwards, but then there's never been a governor quite like Bobby Jindal, and nobody expects his spectacular rise to end in the governor's mansion. John Burnett, NPR News.

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