Baton Rouge, La. — The Louisiana Democratic party has effectively conceded this year’s gubernatorial race. This does not mean merely that the party could not find a big-name challenger — though they couldn’t — or that they could not even find a token state legislator to be the sacrificial lamb, though they could not do that, either. Technically, four candidates ran as Democrats in the state’s nonpartisan “jungle primary”; the best-known among them was a Haynesville, La., middle-school teacher. No, what really stands out is that the Democratic State Central Committee declined to endorse any of them.
Such is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s record that almost no one in the Bayou State wants to challenge it. Somehow, his achievements have triggered a complete implosion of Democratic gubernatorial ambitions in a state that has had four Republican governors in 125 years, and that’s including Buddy Roemer, who was elected as a Democrat but switched parties while in office.
Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s longtime chief of staff who is now operating as a campaign aide, is half serious when he says he’s disappointed that the governor won’t face a competitive race.
Beyond Louisiana, GOP and conservative leaders gush about Jindal. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell calls him “transformational,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus labels him “a natural leader,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie says he’s set an example for other GOP governors, and Rush Limbaugh says, “Far be it for me to choose veeps, but I like Jindal right where he is. I think he is perfectly suited for the job he has and in time I believe it will launch him to loftier heights.”
So how did one of the worst-run states end up with a governor doing so well that no opposition lawmaker wants to even try to run against him?
Perhaps only an event as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath could get Louisianans to reevaluate every aspect of their political and governmental life. The legacy of Gov. Huey Long seems as far-reaching and ubiquitous in Louisiana as that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Even with his 70 percent job-approval rating, Jindal is careful to begin every reference to his legendary predecessor with, “There’s no denying that Huey Long did a lot of good things for this state, but . . . ”
It was another natural disaster that spurred the election of Long: the Great Flood of 1927, when the Mississippi River remained at flood stage for a record 153 days. Long castigated the state government’s atrocious response to the disaster and criticized “plutocrats” who had suffered the least from the flood, and his election launched a new era of leftist-populist governance. Oil-and-gas companies — incapable of moving their operations away from the natural resources — were taxed heavily, and the state government went on a spending binge, setting up state-run charity hospitals that offered free care and implementing enormous public-works projects, building roads, bridges, and schools. After Long filled the state government with patronage positions, he expected his employees to kick back a portion of their wages into his campaign fund.
Long’s larger-than-life persona and “a chicken in every pot” spending policies set the standard for the state’s politics. For decades, Louisiana’s governing class became synonymous with loud, colorful personalities and rampant, and largely tolerated, corruption. For the most part, voters concluded that even if local officials were skimming money, the lawmakers weren’t really stealing from them. Cajun congressman Billy Tauzin used to joke that half of Louisiana was underwater, and the other half was under indictment.
So long as the oil-and-gas revenues continued, the shipping ports operated, the tourists came for Mardi Gras, and the food remained terrific, the state carried on. Michael Barone began his description of the state in a recent edition of his Almanac of American Politics by declaring that Louisiana “often seems to be America’s banana republic . . . with an economy increasingly dependent on businesses typical of picturesque Third World countries.”