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.”
The atmosphere of corruption came with costs beyond the jokes about governors’ rarely visiting the state’s jails without wearing a prison uniform. After a while, businesses noticed that they were often the tax target of choice, and New Orleans gradually slid down in the rankings of great American cities. As Jindal puts it, as he races to a ceremony at a reopened Ormet alumina-manufacturing plant in Ascension Parish, a New Orleans resident of 50 years ago would have been stunned to see Houston being the effective national capital of the energy industry, to hear Atlanta called “the capital of the New South,” and to know that the nation’s banking industry is anchored to Charlotte, N.C.
Jindal’s stump speech often begins with a high-school reunion in Baton Rouge where he noticed how many of his classmates now lived and worked in Houston or Atlanta or other comparably booming cities across the South. He notes that those who grow up in Louisiana speak with nearly limitless affection for the state’s people, and its culture, music, food, and atmosphere. But if Louisianans can’t find a good job, they move away.
With Katrina, the state learned a brutal lesson that entertaining and corrupt elected officials don’t make good leaders in a crisis. Only after hitting bottom, when the existing traditions of governing, educating, managing, and developing had failed so spectacularly, would the state be ready to take a chance on a 36-year-old Indian-American congressman who went to Oxford.
Jindal’s record has been exemplary: transforming the state’s reputation on ethics and corruption, enacting dramatic cuts in spending without provoking much public outcry, implementing careful reforms to Louisiana’s unique traditional methods of providing health care, creating jobs, overhauling the state’s schools, and, finally, knowing how to deal with crises.
When he took office in 2008, Jindal’s first order of business was reforming the state’s notoriously lax ethics laws. Both on the stump and in conversations with the press, Jindal repeatedly cites a Louisiana State University survey of business executives, conducted before he became governor, asking why they were wary about the state as a site for investment. Nearly 60 percent said they considered “perceptions of government corruption and unethical practices” an important factor. In 2007, Forbes ranked Louisiana the second-worst state to do business in, better only than West Virginia, and the preceding year it had been ranked dead last.
Jindal called a special legislative session and pushed through a package of tough ethics reforms and new limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. Before the reforms, the Center for Public Integrity ranked the state 44th in legislative disclosure requirements; now it ranks the state first.
“For us to go from 44th to first place in ethics and disclosure — we were strict,” Jindal recalls. “You’re going to disclose every income and asset and liability, and elected officials cannot do any business with the state. People said, ‘Why do we have to go this far? Most states don’t go that far.’ The point we were trying to make was, we were one of the worst states for corruption, and we have to clean that up and we’re going to go above and beyond. Could you imagine me calling up a company and saying, ‘Hey, you have to move your company here! We were 44th in ethics last year, but this year we’re 39th!’”
The state government now attracts a different type of manager and leader. When Jindal headed the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals at the ripe old age of 24, he recalls, someone offered to set him up in the future with a high-paying lobbyist job in exchange for a favor. Jindal wondered why the would-be briber thought that, with all the possibilities Jindal had before him, his interest would be in lobbying. Today, many of Jindal’s appointees come from the business world and take significant pay cuts in their new jobs, putting successful private-sector careers on hiatus for a few years. In the old Louisiana, those appointed to state positions often saw their new jobs as pay increases and, most likely, perceived a bribe offer as an unequaled financial opportunity.
As a budget-cutter, Jindal puts most other Republican governors to shame, and has made choices that would spur Democratic apoplexy in other states. During his term, Louisiana’s state budget has become $9 billion smaller than when he started, a reduction of 26 percent.
We know what happens on those rare occasions when GOP governors successfully cut a state’s spending: The opposition spotlights hardworking, decent government employees suddenly laid off and denounces the draconian cuts. While the four no-name Democrats have tried to play that card in the current gubernatorial race, they have had no success.
It’s tempting to believe that the pre-Jindal Louisiana state government was so astoundingly wasteful and corrupt that you could cut spending 26 percent without anyone’s noticing, but a big chunk of Louisiana’s savings actually have come from privatization: The state pays a smaller fee to an outside contractor, who, in many cases, offers to hire the old workers, preventing tales of woe from laid-off employees. Jindal’s administration privatized the state’s Office of Risk Management. The Department of Health and Hospitals privatized six in-patient residential-treatment programs around the state, saving $2.5 million. Separately, patients were moved from state-operated institutions that cost $600 or more per patient per day to community-based services and private group homes that average $191 per day, saving another $23.8 million.
But some of Jindal’s cuts are the old-fashioned kind. The state’s Department of Revenue shrank from eight offices statewide to three. There are 9,900 fewer state-government employees than there were four years ago, and the state sold 1,300 vehicles from its fleet of automobiles.
Louisiana’s transportation department shut down a ferry that was used by only 7,200 drivers per year, saving the state roughly three-quarters of a million dollars.
In May 2011, Standard & Poor’s raised Louisiana’s credit rating from AA-minus to AA, citing reduced spending. The upgrade gave the state its first AA rating from S&P since 1984, and its sixth credit-rating upgrade among all three major credit-rating agencies since 2008.
Jindal’s careful budget management is reflected in his handling of health care, a complicated topic that vexes many Republican governors. Louisiana’s health-care system dates back to the 18th century, when Catholic religious orders established a tradition of free hospital-based care. Huey Long expanded that through the state-operated charity hospitals; today there are ten. The system predates Medicaid and Medicare, and any Louisianan can walk in and get free health care — if he or she is willing to endure the long wait times.
This model is well represented by Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge, a run-down monstrosity of a facility that evokes the worst aspects of Soviet architecture. Built in the 1960s, it barely meets reaccreditation standards and was given several extensions and exemptions after Katrina. “Even apart from a dollar perspective, it wasn’t really good for the patients,” Jindal says. “For folks with chronic conditions — diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure — going to an emergency room wasn’t the best way to get your health care. At Earl K. Long, 63 percent of the emergency-room visits are for non-emergency care.”
Replacing Long would have cost the state $400 million; instead the state expanded a nearby urgent-care clinic, and is building on a model used in New Orleans after Katrina, opening and sustaining outpatient clinics that charge patients on an income-based sliding scale, aiming to provide affordable care. (Jindal cites studies that indicate patients are more likely to follow a doctor’s instructions and keep appointments when they pay any portion of the fee, even as little as $1.) Just down the road, the state’s second-largest hospital, the private Our Lady of the Lake, is completing a partnership with Louisiana State University that Jindal’s administration helped shepherd, creating a Level 1 trauma center with a new emergency room the size of two football fields and a nine-story building dedicated to heart and vascular treatment. LSU residents will train at Our Lady of the Lake instead of Earl K. Long. Instead of the $400 million that would have been needed to replace Long, the state is spending $14 million.
Jindal has been equally forthright in tackling the problem of joblessness. Even with the Obama administration’s moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf, which lasted from May to October of 2010, the state’s unemployment rate has remained below the national and southern averages since Jindal took office. Louisiana’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in August, almost two percentage points lower than the national average. Many jobs are being created beyond the state’s traditional industries of oil, gas, fishing, manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. Louisiana now ranks third in film production, after California and New York.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95,000 Louisianans work in financial activities, and 191,800 work in professional and business services (more than in the years before Katrina).
Under Jindal, Louisiana launched a program called FastStart, which seeks out any business that is relocating to Louisiana or is expanding and set to create 15 non-service jobs (manufacturing, distribution, R&D, etc.) or 50 service-industry jobs. The state uses its job-training programs to find and prepare workers to fill all of those slots, and guarantees that every trainee will be ready to work on the first day.
One of the companies using FastStart is Ormet Inc., an Ohio-based aluminum producer. When Jindal visits the Ormet plant in Ascension Parish, he and the company celebrate the reopened facility’s creation of its 250th job, all at a plant that was closed from 2006 until May. Ormet has rehired 70 employees who had worked there before. Michael Tanchuk, the CEO of Ormet, says, “The economic-development program in Louisiana is the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m sorry to tell you I’ve had many years of experience. . . . Political and regulatory uncertainty, resulting in extended delays, can kill a project. In Louisiana, the answers are fast and clear. No hesitation about what can or cannot be done.”
As fundamental as job creation is during a long recession, Jindal is most passionate when discussing changes to his state’s schools.
“The reality is, the New Orleans public-school system was horrific before the storm — even the AP commented that it was one of the worst of the worst of all the public-school systems in the country,” he says. “Over half were academically unacceptable. You couldn’t get basic supplies, like toilet paper. The schools weren’t safe. The U.S. Attorney’s office had 20 different indictments related to the public-school system. In some schools it felt like the kids were coming out knowing less than when they started.”
The state made a couple of key decisions after Katrina. The first was to put most of the New Orleans schools, all but its best, into a “recovery school district” managed by the state and not the city’s school board. The existing collective-bargaining agreement for teachers and other school employees was nullified, ending the practice of firing based on seniority (last in, first out). The state also set out to maximize the use of charter schools. After Katrina, more than 70 percent of the students in New Orleans were in charter schools. That number has fallen, but a majority of students are still in charter schools, the largest percentage of any large urban school system.
The results at one of the charter schools, New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, are a stunning rebuke to those who think that insufficient spending is what holds back students. The school, located in East New Orleans and just north of the Katrina-devastated Ninth Ward, is essentially a series of pre-constructed pods connected by wooden decks — not quite trailers, but only a step above. While the facilities are spotless and completely functional, they clearly are minimal-cost compared with those of most other schools.
Inside, the walls are covered with posters and slogans emphasizing that every student should achieve excellence and demonstrate discipline and drive at all times. Teachers are expected to be available by phone to their students until 9:30 in the evening. When Jindal and his small entourage enter a classroom, a teacher gently admonishes his students, who are buzzing about the newcomers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we often have visitors to this classroom. They are here to see your excellence — what you show me every day. When they come in, they see how hard you’re working. They don’t want to hear your voices. You are not distracted.” The students’ heads return to the worksheets before them.
“At this school, 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced[-cost] lunch, 97 percent are minority, 15 percent are special-ed,” Jindal says. “And 80 percent pass the English graduate-exit exam, and 90 percent of their kids in math. To give you a sense of where they’re starting from, among this year’s freshmen, a majority were reading at the fourth-grade level or below.” In September, Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network awarded Sci Academy $1 million as one of six schools nationwide that are doing well despite the odds.
John C. White, former deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, is now the superintendent of the recovery school district. “There are other places that realize this is what’s working, and are now saying, we’re going to emulate that,” White says, walking through Sci Academy. “Tennessee now has created a set of reforms entirely modeled on Louisiana. Detroit now wants to enact reforms modeled on Louisiana. We’re struggling in our business for what works. It’s going to take enormous political courage to create something like that.”
“For too many years,” says Jindal, “we measured educational success by how many dollars we were spending. The reality is, if you’re not measuring effectiveness, you have no idea if you’re spending it well.” This fall, parents will receive report cards on which every school gets a letter grade of A through F. Jindal explains: “The teachers’ unions went to the [board of elementary and secondary education] and they said, ‘We think you should give letter grades based on if a school is trying to improve.’ Let’s say one of the worst schools in the state gets a little better, they should get an A grade. I said, ‘Where in life does that ever happen? My kids play competitive sports. I’ve never seen the score based upon whether they tried harder than last week.’ There are going to be a lot of surprised parents. Though things have gotten better, there will be more low grades than people are expecting. This will empower parents. They need to have choice, information, and an easy way to evaluate ‘How is my child’s school doing?’”
Teepell and others on the governor’s staff are quick to admit that if Jindal had bobbled any of the state’s high-profile crises, few of his reforms would matter. But when a time of testing came, Jindal shone.
In the summer of 2008, Hurricane Gustav formed in the Gulf of Mexico and appeared dead-set for New Orleans, threatening to reprise or even exceed the worst devastation of Katrina. “We’ve never had to evacuate the entire state,” Jindal recalls, noting that Gustav’s path appeared to aim straight for the center of Louisiana (Katrina hit its southeastern region the hardest). “We had to evacuate 1.8 million people, the largest evacuation in American history, including 11,000 medical cases.” Jindal canceled his appearance at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minn. — ultimately, the convention’s entire first night was canceled — and remained in Baton Rouge, ensuring that the state’s response adapted to the inevitable hitches and surprises. When FEMA assets were unavailable to get hospital patients out of the state, Jindal called Texas governor Rick Perry, who promised that every Texas Air National Guard asset would be there in the morning, before the airspace was scheduled to be shut down in the face of the advancing hurricane.
“On faith, we loaded up those ambulances,” Jindal said. “We had to believe. We get to the airport and you’ve got these ambulances there, and if the planes don’t come, there aren’t a whole lot of options to get those people out on time. The most beautiful sights I saw were those planes. We ended up getting planes from Canada and everywhere else, but the first planes that got here were the Texas planes.” Jindal endorsed Perry for president on September 12.
Then there was the BP oil spill, an ordeal that commanded the national spotlight and played havoc with the lives of Louisianans from April 20 to July 15 of 2010. Jindal is, by nature, affable and wonky, and while he can work a room with the best of Louisiana’s politicians, he is far from a fire-breather when giving speeches. But as the spill continued, his public statements and criticism of the Obama administration became increasingly heated, as if the governor was struggling to control his own highly pressurized leak of frustration.
By mid-June, Louisiana was building sand berms without the approval of the federal government, in an effort to prevent the oil from hitting irreplaceable bayou ecosystems. The berms are believed to have contained no more than 1,000 barrels (out of millions of barrels spilled), and the Obama administration called them a waste of money. Jindal called the berm criticism, from Obama’s oil-spill review commission, “partisan revisionist history at taxpayer expense.” Either way, most Louisianans saluted their governor for trying something and standing up for them, as they deemed the administration and BP useless ditherers for much of the crisis.
Even today, Jindal criticizes the president in tones tame by tea-party standards but pretty disdainful by the standards of his cheery personality: “One of my frustrations [during the BP spill] was his inability or unwillingness to make quick decisions. Our president had never really run anything, other than his campaign, before he got elected president. He’s never had to make that kind of an executive decision. When you’re a governor, you’re going to have to make decisions. You’re going to be responsible for balancing the budget. You’re responsible in times of crisis — a hurricane, an oil spill, or something else, you’ve got to make the decisions. . . . Our president gives a great speech and that’s fine, but you want somebody who’s been tested and who has that executive experience.”
This year, the Louisiana portion of the Gulf Coast enjoyed one of its better summer tourism seasons in recent memory, and the oysters, shrimp, and fish collected from its waters are being widely consumed with no ill effects on health. There are lingering fears about the spill’s effect on the reproductive habits of species key to the Gulf’s fisheries, a phenomenon that will have to be monitored for years to come. (Jindal notes that when discussing the health of the ecosystem, he habitually refers to all of the Gulf’s creatures as “seafood,” whether or not they’re meant to be eaten.)
Jindal spent almost every day last summer in coastal communities, and he has managed a breakneck travel pace during his first term, usually doing at least two events each weekday and often more, the vast majority outside of Baton Rouge. Many Louisianans in rural parishes respond to his first visit pleasantly surprised and remarking that they hadn’t had a gubernatorial visit in years — and then see Jindal return again and again. Jindal and his staff believe his constant zipping around the state in his black SUV is a key element of his appeal, giving as many residents as possible a chance to tell him their concerns face to face.
Jindal, who often seems over-caffeinated, cites a barrage of facts and figures whenever he discusses the results of his policies, but he often comes back to those childhood friends who moved out of state and the out-migration trend they represented. While much ink was spilled about the exodus after Katrina, the storm only briefly accelerated that trend: For the past four years, the state has actually added population, almost 10,000 people in 2010.
If Louisiana can rebound so robustly and comprehensively from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — and, perhaps even more significant, decades of corrupt mismanagement — then perhaps no state is too far gone to salvage. It’s a sign of hope for residents of Illinois, California — and America as a whole, under this presidency gone awry.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on National Review Online. This article originally appeared in the Oct. 31, 2011, issue of National Review.