As Gov. Bobby Jindal begins his second term, the question that many people have is this: Will he emerge as the transformational governor that everyone expected him to be when he was first elected to the position four years ago?
His unprecedented involvement in the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education elections and outspokenness on the choice for state superintendent, coupled with the bold agenda for public schools unveiled last week at the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry annual meeting, seem to set the stage, political observers say.
But what remains to be seen is whether Jindal will fight in the trenches after outlining his vision or remain aloof and more involved in the national scene, leaving the local politicking to his staff.
Jindal made history when he took office in January 2008 as the nation’s youngest governor, the nation’s first elected Indian-American governor and Louisiana’s first nonwhite governor since Reconstruction. He received 54% of the vote in a four-way race the first time around and coasted into a second term with 66% of the vote, having attracted no well-known or well-funded opposition. His margin of victory was the largest in a primary election since the state moved to open primaries in 1975.
In the 2007 election, expectations were high for what the former Rhodes Scholar might do for a state saddled with high poverty, low-performing schools, a poor national image, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other problems. His successful campaign hinged on two concepts: progress and change.
“There were many people who had a lot of high expectations,” says Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University. “We have a very young, articulate governor who’s very intelligent. He represented progress and change, or a break from the past. A lot of people anticipated that.”
Observers say that Jindal’s first term wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the major transformation that much of Louisiana was expecting. The governor often appeared distracted or driven to play it safe by his aspirations for a national political stage.
Because Jindal was widely viewed as a policy wonk, supporters anticipated he would be deeply involved in pushing dramatic proposals. Instead, he appeared to adhere to a more textbook leadership model of remaining aloof and focused on a few risk-averse principles designed to maintain strong approval ratings—in this case, securing jobs and not raising taxes.
His much-touted ethics reform, while improving Louisiana’s national image, proved to be a disappointment at home.
“A lot of people, and I put myself in this category, were really frustrated on things like ethics reform,” says Kirby Goidel, an associate professor in LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, co-director of the Public Policy Research Lab and the director of the annual Louisiana Survey. “He comes in working to set a new tone, but then it looks like it’s primarily to get a few headlines about ethics reform.”
Jindal declined to rock the boat on a number of other fronts, preferring to enable former Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell and other staff members to handle negotiations with legislators, which isn’t the typical mode of operation in Louisiana’s governor-centered political culture.
“Lawmakers want to talk to the governor,” Samuels says. “They don’t want to talk to Timmy Teepell. They don’t want to talk to his staff.”
Ironically, one of Jindal’s boldest proposals during his first term—merging Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans—was in trouble when the governor himself appeared before the Legislature to plead its case.
Samuels says the proposal to privatize the Office of Group Benefits was another example of the governor’s seeming reluctance to make the case for his own agenda.
“This administration seems to believe that its agenda is so rational and so commonsensical that they don’t even bother oftentimes with making a logical, cogent argument for why it should be adopted,” he says. “They seem to think, ‘It’s a no-brainer. It’s a no-brainer why we shouldn’t raise taxes. It’s a no-brainer why we should merge UNO and SUNO.’ They don’t even give their opponents the dignity of an argument. But what’s obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else.”
Besides keeping Jindal’s promise of no new taxes, the administration did deliver on economic development and workforce training.
Goidel says the administration has been “super aggressive” on that front, improving the state’s national image in the corporate world and establishing some innovative workforce training initiatives, like Louisiana FastStart.
“At the end of the day, it was not a bad first term,” he says. “There were a number of problems that arose early on as he was balancing his national ambitions verses state interest. He was very cautious in the first term.”
Compared to Louisiana’s previous governors, Jindal rates a “better than average” score, Goidel says. But when it comes to meeting the high expectations that swept him into office, his performance isn’t quite as successful.
“The bar is higher there,” Goidel says. “He benefited from having high expectations, but it also meant that people were expecting a lot. When you look at the long-term issues in the state and how we deal with budgets and most of the cuts to higher education, there were some tweaks around the edges but you can’t look at it and say, ‘Louisiana in 2012 is way different from how Louisiana was in January of 2008 after four years of Jindal.’”
As Jindal begins his second term, expectations are once again high that this term will be different.
If he does have national aspirations, political observers say, he’ll have to be able to point to his accomplishments in Louisiana. So those very same ambitions that some people insist got in the way in the first term might actually be a driving force at home this time.
He’ll have to move quickly, though, before settling too far into his second term and being considered a lame duck. Right now, he’s high on political clout after sweeping into office over a field that included four Democrats, four independents and one Libertarian.
Last week, Jindal made clear that education reform would be his top priority this time around. He proposed some lightning-rod initiatives: gutting tenure, overhauling school funding, and expanding charter schools and vouchers.
“That’s going to be a heck of a fight, and it’s going to take more political capital and require more involvement and more engagement if he really wants to push it through successfully,” Goidel says. “My guess is that given his national ambitions, he’s going to do something about the school system.”
What remains to be seen is if and how he will tackle Louisiana’s other trouble spots: the budget, higher education and health care.
Political observers also are watching to see whether the governor takes a more active role in political negotiations with the Legislature. In October, Teepell left the administration to become a Baton Rouge-based partner in the Alexandria, Va., political consulting firm On Message. He was replaced by Kyle Waguespack, who had held various prominent roles in the administration.
“He’s a fun person to watch,” Goidel says of Jindal, “and he’s a fun person to watch because I think everyone who identified him as a rising star was right.
“He has a certain amount of talent, he has high-end potential, and it’s fascinating. We wonder, ‘Is he going to reach that potential? Or is he going to fall somewhere short and be another one of these people we talk about in a few years who might have really developed into a major national player and for whatever reason didn’t quite make the transition from state politics to presidential contender?’ He could go either way, so it’s really fascinating to watch.”