Louisiana favors Indian-American for governor

NEW ORLEANS — Something is happening in Louisiana.

The race for governor 12 years ago pitted an ethically challenged incumbent against a devotee of the Ku Klux Klan. Both now reside in federal prisons.

This year, with a first round of gubernatorial voting today, the front-runner is a 32-year-old former Rhodes scholar with an Ivy League pedigree, a gold-plated record in public service and unchallenged integrity whose rivals — when they are not murmuring their admiration for his intellect and good manners — are stammering that his career advancement may have been too swift.

He's Bobby Jindal, a son of Indian immigrants who served as a senior Bush administration health-policy official and ran Louisiana's biggest university system as well as its largest Cabinet-level department, all by the time he was 30. Now, as a Republican newcomer to electoral politics, he not only is leading the pack but is doing so partly by staking out conservative positions that appeal to the same rural whites who backed Klansman David Duke in 1991.

That the sensation this political season in Louisiana is a dark-complexioned young policy wonk who neither hunts, fishes, drawls nor feeds from the public trough has astounded every political pro in the state — to say nothing of his five major opponents, all of whom are old enough to be his parent.

"He has amazed us in getting as far as he has," said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge. "He's captured that biggest bloc of Southern and Louisiana voters, rural social conservatives, and he seemed like the most unlikely person to do that."

Jindal didn't exactly start from scratch. He began with the endorsement of Louisiana's popular eight-year incumbent, Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who pronounced his protégé "brilliant" for having turned a $400 million Medicaid deficit into a $220 million surplus as head of the state's Department of Health and Hospitals.

Jindal quickly has fashioned a strategically savvy campaign, blending his formidable track record as a technocrat with tough radio ads attacking abortion, gun control, gay marriage and Hollywood and embracing his Catholic faith and the Ten Commandments. Mild-mannered, amiable but sublimely confident, he has peddled a detailed agenda for economic development, health care, education, government ethics and coastal restoration in a rapid-fire, 16-point-action-plan speaking style that tends to leave audiences wowed.

Starting in the spring from low single digits in the polls, Jindal has vaulted into the lead despite being the last major candidate to advertise on television. In surveys published Thursday, Jindal had a substantial lead over his two closest contenders, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and Attorney General Richard Ieyoub.

Collectively, Jindal's main adversaries — four Democrats and a Republican — have 84 years of experience in elective office; one of them, Claude "Buddy" Leach, had been ousted from Congress amid vote-buying charges by the time Jindal was in fourth grade.

But the main question at the moment is which of them will manage enough votes in the primary today to face Jindal in a second-round runoff Nov. 15. That race is expected to be much closer as African Americans and other Democrats coalesce around his eventual opponent.

Still, Jindal has a hefty campaign war chest, built partly from contributions from Indian Americans across the country, and he also may receive a boost in the form of a campaign visit from President Bush next month. If elected, he would be the nation's first Indian-American governor.

If Jindal's success has astonished pols and analysts in Louisiana, it hasn't shocked many who have known him for years.

Named Piyush, he announced at age 4 that he wanted to be known as Bobby, from the youngest of the boys on TV's "Brady Bunch." Surprising his Hindu parents, he became a Christian while in high school and was baptized as a Catholic soon after arriving at college.

At home, expectations were high.

"My dad is from one of those families where if you brought home a grade — a 90 — he'd always ask what happened to the other 10 points," Jindal said.

He enrolled at Brown University, wrote two honors theses, graduated magna cum laude and made a name as a forthright conservative at a notably liberal school. Selected as a Rhodes scholar, he turned down medical- and law-school acceptances at both Harvard and Yale in favor of two years of postgraduate study at Oxford, followed by two years as a consultant for McKinsey and Co. in Washington.

Few were prepared for his next move. During a 45-minute talk with Foster, Jindal wowed Louisiana's new governor and was named the state's new Secretary for Health and Hospitals, taking charge of the state's scandal-ridden Medicaid system, a department of 10,000 employees and an annual budget of $6 billion, about 40 percent of all state spending.

His shake-up was swift and sweeping; he recovered more than $30 million in fraudulent payments to state psychiatric hospitals, cut spending by $1 billion and slashed the department's payroll by 1,000 jobs. Before long, Louisiana newspapers were writing that the state's most dynamic reformer was a 24-year-old bachelor who still lived at home.

The next year he married his high school crush, Supriya Jolly, an Indian American who also had converted to Catholicism. Insisting on practicing the ethical reforms Jindal preached, the couple refused wedding gifts from doctors and health-care workers.

He spent a year in Washington as executive director of a federal commission charged with saving the nation's Medicare system, then two more years in Louisiana as president of the University of Louisiana system, overseeing eight four-year universities, 80,000 students and 4,000 faculty members. He joined the Bush administration in 2001 as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation for the Department of Health and Human Services — against the advice of Foster, who publicly urged him to stay home and run for office.

Jindal's star-studded résumé and even-keeled oratory have impressed suburban moderates and country-club Republicans, softening the more ideological pitch he has made to the party's social conservatives. The question is whether he can maintain his considerable momentum through the first round of voting this weekend and on to the runoff next month.

"I think his momentum will continue to build over to the middle-of-the-road voter," said John Maginnis, who publishes a newsletter on Louisiana politics. "He elicits excitement, and his record isn't one the Democrats can rake over too much."