[StBernard] In Katrina's Wake

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Sep 9 22:55:34 EDT 2007

In Katrina's Wake
Louisiana's would-be governor says the state needs a sense of urgency.

Saturday, September 8, 2007 12:02 a.m.

BURAS, La.--A church is more than a building, and Faith Temple Ministries
illustrates the point. This non-denominational congregation holds services
in a large white tent behind the frame of its new structure, which is under
construction. Two years ago Hurricane Katrina destroyed the old one.
Buras, a community of about 3,500, is in lower Plaquemines Parish, the
southeastern corner of Louisiana. This is where Katrina first hit, and the
hurricane's effects are very much in evidence on the 90-minute drive from
New Orleans along the Mississippi River's west bank. Partly completed new
buildings stand alongside wrecked ones. Trailers sit on the footprints of
houses blown away two years ago.

Faith Temple Ministries is where Bobby Jindal, the second-term Republican
congressman seeking to become Louisiana's governor, has decided to spend the
evening of Aug. 29, the anniversary of Katrina's landfall. "We're here with
a faith-based community that's done an amazing job, not only in rescue
efforts but in rebuilding efforts," he tells me as we prepare to climb off
the campaign bus.

Mr. Jindal, 36, is an affable policy wonk with a quick mind and a
fascination with the details of governance. Before our interview, an aide
emailed me a series of press releases announcing his 28-point anticrime
agenda, his 31-point anticorruption agenda and his 25-point agenda to curb
spending. As we chat on the campaign bus rolling through Plaquemines Parish,
he is full of ideas.
He faults the state's bureaucratic culture for the slow pace of rebuilding
since Katrina. Congress has allocated tens of billions of dollars, he says,
but "a very small percentage" has reached struggling citizens and
businesses. "The federal government's got its own complicated set of
paperwork. But then after you finally navigate that, for the first time
ever, the state created its own additional bureaucracy on top of that--they
created it after Katrina--and so a lot of these projects, their funding's
been approved . . . and that money's getting caught up in Baton Rouge." He
vows to reduce this red tape and speed the rebuilding of hospitals, schools
and other infrastructure. "I don't think there's been enough urgency. . . .
There's not been a realization that the longer you wait, the less likely
people are to come back."

Post-Katrina New Orleans has the nation's highest per capita murder rate.
Although dealing with crime is mostly the responsibility of local officials,
Mr. Jindal says "there are tools you can give them. . . . For example, crime
labs aren't up and running in full force. . . . They were releasing
prisoners because of paperwork issues, backlog issues. We need to give the
prosecutors that need [it] additional time to make their charges. . . . We
need to make sure there's more protection for witnesses. There was a huge
problem with witnesses not coming forward. We've got a sentencing guideline
that's a maximum five-year sentence for people who intimidate witnesses."

Mr. Jindal's air of earnest proficiency makes for a sharp contrast with
flamboyant past governors like Huey and Earl Long and Edwin Edwards. Yet
while Louisiana has never had a reputation for good government, neither has
it always been known as a failed state. Decades ago, Mr. Jindal says,
"Louisiana was ahead of the South. . . . If you go back to the early
'60s--if you'd gone back then and said Atlanta's going to be the capital of
the New South, they would have laughed at you. . . . New Orleans was bigger
than Miami. It wasn't that long ago that we were the gateway to Latin and
Central America."

What went wrong, Mr. Jindal says, is that Louisiana got caught up in a
boom-and-bust cycle. "The state had all these surpluses, had all this oil
and gas revenues, so there wasn't the fiscal constraint, there wasn't the
fiscal discipline. . . . We've used these dollars and created cycles for
instant gratification." So the state was already distressed when the
hurricane struck. "Even before Katrina, as a state, we were 50th in health
outcomes," Mr. Jindal says. "We were 50th in Forbes as a place to do
business--now we're 49th. We were the only state in the South with . . .
people moving out faster than they were moving in."

The influx of federal money after Katrina, coupled with recent increases in
energy prices, has produced a new boom, and Mr. Jindal hopes to seize the
opportunity to avert the next bust: "The real danger is, you've got a false
economy for a few years, where everybody's building, and you've got
sales-tax revenues increasing; you've got temporary workers here. But what
that could mask is if you're not rebuilding a solid economic foundation. And
where I think the government's best role is there, is setting the conditions
for success, then getting out of the way."

That means changing the conditions that make Louisiana an unattractive place
to do business. "Within New Orleans to be specific, we can go in there and
say . . . now is the time to get rid of the taxes on debt, new equipment and
utilities. Our neighboring states don't have these taxes. Why in the world
are we discouraging companies from job creation?"

Piyush Jindal was born in Baton Rouge just after his parents arrived from
India in 1971. At age 4 he took the nickname "Bobby" from "The Brady Bunch,"
and it stuck. His parents appreciated America as only immigrants can. "Every
day when I was a kid, my dad would tell me, 'We live in the greatest country
in the world. We are so lucky to be Americans,' " he says.
This sensibility resonated with the upbeat patriotism of Ronald Reagan, who
was elected when Bobby was 9. "Reagan was the optimist, the optimistic
conservative, [who] believed in the premise of America, at a time when . . .
there was a 'malaise,' people were doubting the American ideals, the
American dream. I grew up saying, 'What are you, crazy? This is an
incredible place.' " At Brown University and later at Oxford, where he was a
Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Jindal's political views put him decidedly in the
minority, an experience he found exhilarating: "It was great to be exposed
to some very smart, very articulate people that challenged my core beliefs
every step of the way."

In high school, Bobby aspired to be a doctor. But he sought out a
well-rounded education, and this eventually led to a change in plans. As an
undergraduate, he served an internship in the office of Rep. Jim McCrery, a
Shreveport Republican. He earned a master's in political theory, then went
to work as a health-care consultant at McKinsey & Co. While there, he read
an article in the Washington Post about Louisiana's troubled health-care
system. "It seemed to me that they were going to make a bad problem worse.
They were going to have more government-run health care, more spending. So I
wrote up an analysis of what I thought they should do."

It was 1995, and Republican Mike Foster had just been elected governor. Rep.
McCrery and then-Sen. John Breaux were impressed with Mr. Jindal's report
and recommended him to Mr. Foster's transition team. Eventually he met the
governor-elect, who proclaimed Mr. Jindal a "genius" and offered him the top
job in the state's Health and Hospitals Department. He was 24. "I realized:
'Well, I guess I'm not going to medical school anymore.' "

Instead, he spent the next eight years amassing the résumé of a technocratic
wunderkind. He eliminated his department's $400 million budget deficit by
reducing the payroll and aggressively pursuing private hospitals that had
overcharged for Medicaid services. Later he served as executive director of
a bipartisan Medicare advisory commission (Sen. Breaux was a co-chairman),
president of the University of Louisiana system, and an assistant secretary
of health and human services in the Bush administration.

Four years ago, at age 32, he made his first foray into electoral politics,
running to succeed the term-limited Gov. Foster. He finished first in
Louisiana's open primary but narrowly lost the runoff to Lt. Gov. Kathleen
Blanco, a Democrat. In 2004 Mr. Jindal sought and won an open House seat.
After her lackluster post-Katrina performance, Gov. Blanco announced that
she would not seek re-election, and Mr. Jindal jumped into the race to
replace her.

One reason Mr. Jindal believes he can accomplish his ambitious goals is that
this year's election will also bring big changes in the state Legislature,
thanks to a 1995 measure limiting members to 12 years in office. His
detailed proposals are part of a political strategy designed to hold the new
legislators accountable. "Political experts would say, 'You're ahead in the
polls. Why do you give them ammunition to attack you with?' I want people to
know exactly what we're going to do.
"I've already said my first special session as governor will be devoted
exclusively to ethics. It'll be an up-or-down vote on my 31 points." In the
last session, he says, the Legislature approved new disclosure requirements,
but "they killed it in conference committee. So they all go home and say, 'I
voted for it. Don't get mad at me. Those other guys killed it.' Well, I'm
not going to give them anywhere to hide."

Mr. Jindal says Louisianians understand the gravity of the situation: "I
tell people it's our second chance, and they tell [me], 'No, it's our last
chance.' There's a nervous optimism in this state. There's an optimism that,
yeah, we can change, but there's an anxiety that if we blow this, in our
adult lifetimes this will be the last chance."

He is the prohibitive favorite in the Oct. 20 primary. A poll last month
gave him 63% of the vote, to just 14% for his nearest rival, Democratic
state Sen. Walter Boasso. If Mr. Jindal gets more than 50% in the primary,
he wins outright.

The Louisiana Democratic Party, in a desperate attempt to halt the Jindal
juggernaut, last month made an ugly appeal to religious prejudice. Mr.
Jindal, raised in his parents' Hindu faith, is a convert to Catholicism.
Although southern Louisiana, with its French and Spanish heritage, is
heavily Catholic, Protestants outnumber Catholics statewide.

The Democratic attack ad claims that Mr. Jindal "has referred to Protestant
religions [sic] as scandalous, depraved, selfish and heretical" and that he
"doubts the morals and questions the beliefs of Baptists, Methodists,
Episcopalians, Pentecostals and other Protestant religions." In fact, these
are wild mischaracterizations of articles Mr. Jindal wrote for a Catholic
publication, including one in which he praised aspects of various Protestant
denominations' worship and suggested that the Catholic Church could learn
from their example. The campaign asked television stations to stop airing
the ad on the ground that it is defamatory.

It was soon off the air anyway, for it had the opposite of its intended
effect. "Every phone call, every email, every letter we've gotten has been
angry at their ad and supporting us," Mr. Jindal says. "We've literally had
hundreds of Democratic elected officials, pastors and others publicly and
privately saying they condemn the ad and calling on the party to stop this.
. . . Usually with an attack ad, somebody will come up to you and say, 'Hey,
is this really true?' . . . I have not had one person question me."

If the ad was helping him, I ask, why did he ask to have it pulled? My
cynical question draws a high-minded answer: "It coarsens what I think
should be a very important election. . . . It's beneath our state; it's
beneath our voters. I think it's insulting to our voters."

If there is sectarian strife in Louisiana, it is not evident in Buras. This
is a Protestant crowd--Mr. Jindal is preceded on the altar by nearly a dozen
pastors from Baptist, Methodist and unaffiliated congregations around the
state. When it is Mr. Jindal's turn to speak, he delivers a half-hour
oration that is as much sermon as campaign speech. The parishioners respond
warmly to his story of becoming a Christian, a seven-year spiritual quest
that began in high school, when his best friend gave him a Bible as a gift.
"There are people who lost loved ones in this room," Mr. Jindal tells the
worshippers. "There are people who lost their life savings in this room. And
I can't imagine having to walk in the footsteps of so many of our fellow
residents of this state as they had to live their faith through the toughest
times. But they were comforted by a God that says: You keep an eternal
perspective." It is a perspective that may serve Mr. Jindal well come Oct.

Mr. Taranto, editor of OpinionJournal.com, is a member of The Wall Street
Journal's editorial board.

Copyright © 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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