The Republican candidate in Louisiana's gubernatorial election Saturday is running as the compassionate conservative George W. Bush once promised to be. But Bobby Jindal knows better than to invite the president to campaign for him, because a Bush visit would backfire and cost him votes. Instead, he's campaigning hard for black votes in a state long cursed by the politics of polarization.
Last year, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu ran for reelection against Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell. Both come from prominent New Orleans Catholic families. During the campaign, Terrell accused Landrieu of abandoning her faith for being pro-choice, a crude demagogic swipe in a state with a substantial Catholic population. The two were in a dead heat when Bush arrived to campaign for Terrell. His visit aroused African Americans, who make up 29% of the electorate. A huge black turnout gave Landrieu a decisive victory.
Jindal, 32, a Rhodes scholar, is in his first run for office. He has discarded Terrell's political playbook for his own in a tight race with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a popular Democrat. Jindal is a Catholic and an Indian American, the son of Hindu immigrants. He has campaigned relentlessly for the evangelical vote, a solid Bush constituency. Now, Jindal is reaching out to black voters. Last week, he won the endorsement of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat. Of his audacious move, the mayor joked: "I'm just watching my back. Where's my security?" In a city that is 68% African American, Nagin could suffer politically if Jindal loses.
"Pigmentation-wise, Jindal is colored," says Lawrence Powell of Tulane University, author of "Troubled Memory," a book on the 1991 race between former Gov. Edwin Edwards (seeking a return to the state's top office) and white supremacist David Duke. "But color is a social construction. In the eyes of whites, he's a white person. It is kind of ironic that someone who is darker-skinned than the last two [African American] mayors of New Orleans elicits strong support in north Louisiana among conservative whites. Race, to them, is something very specific: African Americans. People who are brown, or yellow, and outside of the black community, apparently don't fall into the category." It's ironic too that to some middle-class blacks, Jindal is dark enough.
To avoid a backlash among African Americans, Jindal didn't invite Bush to stump for him when the president made a recent campaign swing for GOP gubernatorial candidates in Mississippi and Kentucky, both of whom won last week. Jindal is a solid Republican loyalist. But like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's building a political base tailored for his own state.
Jindal has dazzled audiences with his mastery of arcane policy data. A native of Baton Rouge, he became a Christian in high school and a Catholic as an undergraduate at Brown University. After studies at Oxford, he was 24 when Gov. Mike Foster appointed him head of the Department of Health and Hospitals, a pit of red ink and legal problems under Edwards. Jindal turned the department around. He later went to Washington for a brief stint as a Bush health policy advisor. He resigned to run for governor. Foster's endorsement was pivotal to Jindal's fund-raising.
The irony of keeping Bush at arm's length is all the more poignant in view of Jindal's embrace of faith-based programs, a cause in 2000 that has been largely abandoned by the president. "People of faith should not be required to separate their faith from their daily lives, their professions or from public discourse," announces Jindal's platform. "The public square must always be faith-friendly, and the religious liberty our forefathers so highly valued must always be protected." Jindal's call for "aggressively promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion and closely regulating abortion providers" won evangelical support and has cut into the unusual political base his opponent had slowly constructed.
In the 1980s, as a state legislator from Lafayette, the hub city of Cajun country, Blanco, also a Catholic, appealed to evangelicals in the northern Bible Belt parishes (counties) as a pro-life Democrat. For years, she also visited black churches. As the old populist coalition splintered over issues like abortion, Blanco drew blacks, evangelicals, Cajuns and women into her centrist fold. In 1995 she was elected lieutenant governor; four years later she was overwhelmingly reelected.
Jindal is an absolutist on abortion. He is married with one child and another on the way. Blanco, who raised six children with her husband, a university official, would allow exceptions for rape, incest and to save a mother's life. To Jindal's credit, those distinctions are not a campaign issue.
The lieutenant governor's office is charged with marketing culture and tourism; Blanco touts 21,000 tourism jobs created on her watch and an estimated $400 million in tourism pumped into the state economy last year. "There are two faces of Louisiana," she said. "One is beautiful, creative and energetic. And then there's the other side with undereducated people and an underdeveloped economy."
Many Democrats look beyond Jindal's pitch to the Christian right in the hope that his promises of economic and educational reform will materialize. In the first primary, Jindal ran TV ads attacking liberal policies. In the runoff, he is running radio ads on soul stations. No white candidate could do that. If Jindal wins, he will be a national political figure the next morning.