Louisiana Race Defies Convention

Times Staff Writer

Stanley Anthony has always been a Democrat.

The owner of a roadside body shop in this town where deer heads are mounted on market walls and kids rest their bikes against fences without fear of thievery, Anthony figured he'd vote Democrat in Saturday's election for governor. Then he opened a letter from a Louisiana organization of small businesses.

The letter said the group was backing Republican Bobby Jindal. It did not matter to the group that Jindal's Democratic opponent had a virtually identical pro-business platform. And it did not matter to the 55-year-old Anthony.

With his vote, an efficient political machine would have gained another tiny triumph -- and perhaps contributed to a recent string of GOP victories in the South.

If Jindal wins, it would mark the first time since Reconstruction that the GOP has simultaneously held the governor's seat in every Deep South state: Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi. A Jindal victory arguably would be the most remarkable yet.

In a state where former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke was a viable political candidate into the 1990s, many of Louisiana's white, conservative voters could cast their ballots for a man who looks nothing like the people they have voted for in the past -- a 32-year-old, Ivy League-educated, dark-skinned son of immigrants from India.

The race is not settled. Though some polls show Jindal with a 10-percentage-point lead over Kathleen Blanco, analysts say lingering racism could erode his support.

Still, that Jindal has survived to this point speaks to a new era in Louisiana politics -- and his masterful job of shoring up the conservative vote while making surprising inroads elsewhere.

"It is a new day," said Earl Black, political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "Jindal is really showing Republicans how to put together a new coalition of voters."

Jindal's campaign initially decided that he had a face for radio. Speaking frequently on conservative talk shows, he was able to shield his skin color while staking out conservative positions.

He opposes abortion, including in cases of rape and incest, opposes allowing gay couples to adopt children and, as a proponent of reducing oversight, opposes motorcycle helmet laws -- saying riders "want to feel the wind in their hair."

When he finally stepped into the spotlight, his youth and ethnicity became an attraction. Jindal sold himself as "an agent of change," said Susan Howell, political science professor at the University of New Orleans. He is seen, Howell said, as someone who can energize and modernize an impoverished state.

Jindal, following a debate Wednesday in New Orleans, said he is "ready to change our state," and he reiterated that Louisiana voters are ready to look beyond skin color. "It's not about being red, white or black. It's about being red, white and blue," he said, reciting one of his favorite lines.

Beneath its litany of characters and plots, Louisiana politics has been fairly simple at its core. Conservative thought, more often then not, prevails. White men, most of the time, win. And when a Democrat runs head-to-head against a Republican, the Democrat -- assured of a large African American vote and some of the white vote -- typically wins.

This election has confounded the most seasoned veterans of Louisiana politics.

Pundits gave neither Blanco nor Jindal -- a woman and a minority, respectively -- a chance at the race's start. But last month, from a pack of 17 candidates, they received the top vote totals, sending them to meet in Saturday's runoff. Initially, the conventional wisdom was that Blanco would win. But the campaign continues to defy expectations.

Blanco's conservative stances -- she opposes abortion rights and affirmative action -- have caused her trouble securing a Democrat's typical support among African Americans in the state. Sensing an opening, Jindal has doggedly pursued endorsements within that community.

Last month, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, endorsed Jindal. That prompted Nagin's entire advisory commission on gay rights to resign in protest.

Then, shocking the political establishment, a powerful organization called BOLD, the Black Organization for Leadership Development, backed Jindal. Jim Singleton, one of the group's founders, said Jindal essentially badgered the group into sitting down with him for two hours so he could explain his proposals to create jobs.

"He was more aggressive," Singleton said. "In the end we decided to look at Bobby not as a Democrat or a Republican. We looked at him as a person who best represents the interests we have."

Jindal also worked to earn the support of many business groups, such as the Louisiana chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. That is the group that sent Anthony, the body shop owner, the letter asking him to vote for Jindal.

"I don't think anybody knows who the best candidate is, to be honest," Anthony said. "But I got this thing in the mail, and they said to go for Jindal, so I'm going to do it."

A Jindal win would mark the fourth GOP gubernatorial victory in less than two months, starting with the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Earlier this month, Republican Rep. Ernie Fletcher broke a 32-year Democratic hold on the Kentucky governor's mansion, and Haley Barbour, former Republican National Committee chairman, defeated a Democratic incumbent in Mississippi. Republicans also triumphed in several Senate and governor's races in the South in 2002.

Debra DeShong, the Democratic National Committee's communications director, said there is "no national trend to be extrapolated" from the GOP victories. "These races are won and lost on local issues," she said. "We really don't see this as any sort of bellwether."

But GOP leaders are more than happy to point to a trend and say their candidates have been in lockstep in persuading voters to come along for the ride. "Republican candidates are attacking problems. Democrats are attacking Republicans," said Christine Iverson, a RNC spokeswoman.

Even as Jindal has benefited from changing demographics in Louisiana -- including the ascension of a small but thriving East Indian community -- there is anecdotal evidence that Blanco's gender has hurt her. A woman, Democrat Mary L. Landrieu, represents Louisiana in the U.S. Senate. But in interviews, more than a dozen voters said Louisiana is not ready to elect a woman governor -- a position seen as more local than a Senate seat.

"I don't think that could happen in a million years," said Dana Pate, a Jindal backer and Gonzales resident who owns a car lot with her husband.

Blanco, 60, said she remains confident. Her aides said she has had some success poking holes in Jindal's record as a bureaucrat. That record is central to his campaign, since he has never held office.

In 1996, Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who cannot run this year because of term limits, named Jindal secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals. At 24, he had stewardship of a $4-billion budget -- and a deficit of $400 million. He erased the deficit, though his cuts raised concern in the health-care community.

Blanco has produced state-generated studies showing that more than 65,000 people lost Medicaid coverage while Jindal was implementing his cuts. "There was a lack of thoughtfulness on his part," Blanco said. "He ... didn't understand the impact of what he was doing."

Jindal, who went on to serve as president of the University of Louisiana system, disputes that contention, saying most of the people lost coverage because the economy improved and they found a job, making them ineligible for government aid.

But a slew of health-care professionals have publicly supported Blanco's claims, charging that a Jindal governorship could have a negative effect on the state, especially since the state must wrestle with a budget deficit estimated at more than $300 million.

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