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Oil Spill Crisis Puts Jindal Back On Center Stage

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Oil Spill Crisis Puts Jindal Back On Center Stage

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Oil Spill Crisis Puts Jindal Back On Center Stage

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Steve Inskeep.

The big oil spill has thrust Louisiana's conservative young governor back into the national spotlight. Bobby Jindal was a rising star in the Republican ranks, but his reputation dimmed a bit after a lackluster rebuttal to President Obama's first address to Congress. Now Jindal is pushing the Obama administration to do more to help his state's imperiled coastline. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Just about every day since the oil spill began, Bobby Jindal has been in south Louisiana, near the marshes and bayous threatened by the never-ending gusher.

Mr. R.J. FRICKEY (Shrimper): It broke my heart to see that heavy oil in Barataria Bay. I don't know if you saw it the last couple of days.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Yeah, I did.

ELLIOTT: Here he is talking with R.J. Frickey, a third-generation shrimper from Lafitte, Louisiana, and promising to hold BP accountable.

Gov. JINDAL: This is only done when they've mitigated the damage and they've restored our wetlands and our wildlife back to what it was pre-spill. Then and only then.

Mr. FRICKEY: How long's that going to take to get our life back?

Gov. JINDAL: Yeah, that's right. Well...

Mr. FRICKEY: If we ever get it back.

Gov. JINDAL: That's right. Well, and that's why we've got to be playing offense on. We're not winning this war right now. We only win this war...

ELLIOTT: He sounds like a general, and his war is as much against the federal government as it is with the oil. For weeks, Jindal badgered the Obama administration to build a series of sand berms to protect Louisiana's coast from the incoming oil.

Now he's furious that regulators stopped the $300 million project because the state was dredging for sand in sensitive areas that were not approved.

Gov. JINDAL: We don't have time for meetings. We don't have time for red tape and bureaucracy. We're literally in a war to save our coast. Every hour matters. Every day matters.

ELLIOTT: He waged a similar battle to get vacuum barges sucking up oil in the marshes, and filed a court brief arguing against President Obama's moratorium on new deep-water drilling - which was struck down by a New Orleans federal judge last week.

Gov. JINDAL: Nobody in Louisiana wants to see another explosion, another loss of life. Nobody in Louisiana wants to see another drop of oil wash up on our coast. But at the same time, we don't want to devastate the same coastal communities that are struggling with this oil spill with this arbitrary six-month moratorium.

ELLIOTT: Jindal's fast-talking, wonkish approach, his youth and Indian-American heritage make him a different kind of Louisiana leader, but one state voters appear happy with. Most recent polls show him with approval ratings of 61 percent or higher.

When there's a disaster, people expect their governor to be there, and Jindal has been, says Louisiana political columnist´┐ŻJohn Maginnis.

Mr. JOHN MAGINNIS (Columnist): Even if sometimes he seems like he's beating his head against the wall or trying to hold back the sea, they give him credit for being out there and persisting and for raising hell at times.

ELLIOTT: Jindal's political career has been on a rocket trajectory. The Rhodes scholar was head of Louisiana's largest state agency at the age of 25, president of the University of Louisiana system at 28, elected to Congress at 33, and moved into the governor's mansion at 36 years old. He made John McCain's vetting list for a running mate in 2008 and quickly became the freshest face on the Republican national circuit.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Gov. JINDAL: Good evening and Happy Mardi Gras. I'm Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana.

ELLIOTT: In 2009, Jindal was the GOP's choice to deliver the rebuttal to President Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Gov. JINDAL: Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts. Let me tell you a story.

ELLIOTT: But the performance was widely panned, and Jindal disappeared from the national stage.

Now he's back again with a similar theme and a similar contradiction. He's against big government, but calling on the Feds to do more. Jindal argues that in times of disaster, it's the government's responsibility to act. John Maginnis says the governor is navigating a tricky line.

Mr. MAGINNIS: He's caught a lot of criticism for being someone who's always argued for less government, but here he is wanting government to respond.

ELLIOTT: Some Louisiana environmentalists and scientists are skeptical about Jindal's plan to build a giant sand wall to protect the coast. They believe he's pushing it for political, not scientific reasons.

Mr. LEN BAHR (Former Official, Governor's Office of Coastal Activities): And this goes back to the Katrina dynamic, which is in reverse.

ELLIOTT: Len Bahr is the former head of the state Office of Coastal Activities. He's referring to the ineffective working relationship between then-Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and Republican President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. BAHR: It's to the governor's political interests to make the president look ineffectual, by stalling on permits. No matter what he hears, he's gung-ho to do this and at all costs, and I think that's just a totally unfortunate situation.

ELLIOTT: Others question Jindal's staunch defense of offshore oil and gas drilling, given that the industry is among his top campaign contributors. But it also accounts for one in three jobs in the state and has an estimated $70 billion economic impact.

In south Louisiana, people whose livelihoods are threatened by the oil spill don't see a conflict. Seventh-generation oysterman Mike Voisin owns Motivatit Seafoods in Houma and thinks the governor is doing what he should be.

Mr. MIKE VOISIN (Owner, Motivatit Seafoods): You know, he's a hands-on kind of guy. He is calling on BP aggressively to take responsibility in many different facets. He just, he has a grasp, and he's acted.

ELLIOTT: The question is whether Jindal's response to the oil spill has catapulted him back into the national political arena. The governor says he's only interested in running for re-election in Louisiana next year. And after all, at 39 he's got plenty of time to ponder higher office.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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