BATON ROUGE, La. — In a sense, the coincidental timing was the ultimate symbol of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s studious, calculated, thoroughly deliberated young life.
On Mardi Gras night, Feb. 24, while most south Louisiana citizens were enjoying a final, exhausting pre-Lenten fling, the 37-year-old Indian American — to some, the Great Republican Hope to retake the White House in 2012 — delivered a nationally televised response from the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge to President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress.
Catholics appreciated his words about school choice, one of his signature issues, in his response speech. “After Katrina,” he said of Louisiana, “we reinvented the New Orleans school system, opening dozens of new charter schools, and creating a new scholarship program that is giving parents the chance to send their children to private or parochial schools of their choice.”
Those who know the former Rhodes Scholar, who breezed through Brown University in three years with a double major in biology and public policy before going on to Oxford University for a master’s degree in political science, were hardly surprised by his meteoric rise, which shows no signs of flaming out.
The Baton Rouge native, born of Hindu parents, was appointed in 1996 at age 25 by Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster to run the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, which at the time represented 40% of the state budget. Eleven years later, he became the first non-white elected governor in Louisiana history, offering himself to post-Katrina voters as a man of deep Christian faith — he converted to Catholicism at Brown in the late 1980s — stunning intellect and ethical tunnel vision.
In other words, he was the anti-Edwin Edwards, the four-term Louisiana governor who is now serving the eighth year of a 10-year federal prison sentence for extorting cash from a potential riverboat casino operator.
“I would certainly say he’s a man of Catholic conviction,” said New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who was bishop of Baton Rouge in the 1990s and baptized two of the three children of the governor and his wife, Supriya. “He was very much impacted by the Dominicans, who were the chaplains at Brown, and the way in which they expounded the consistency of Catholic teaching. He is a convinced Catholic, and he loves to solve problems. His service to the poor is through problem-solving.”
Louisiana Sen. Mike Michot of Lafayette was a freshman in the House of Representatives in 1996 when Jindal was the fresh-faced secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals. He saw Jindal and his then-fiancée, Supriya, at Mass one Sunday at St. Jude Church in Baton Rouge.
“I was really impressed with his commitment to his faith and also with his love and devotion to Supriya,” Michot said. “Two years before he was elected governor I had a very in-depth, private discussion with him about his faith, and I could see how well-grounded he was in his faith. Being a convert to Catholicism, Bobby probably knows more about the history of the Catholic faith than many of us who have been lifelong Catholics.”
Pro-Life in College
On a public policy level, Jindal received a 100% pro-life voting record from the National Right to Life Committee while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from Louisiana’s 1st Congressional District from 2005-08. But Jindal did not come late to the pro-life party. At Brown, he was heavily involved in the university’s pro-life club, to the extent that he issued a public debate challenge to any student from the pro-choice side.
“Those groups never took us up on the offer, and it never happened,” said Sabrina Arena, who attended Brown with Jindal. “Bobby loved debating, and he was good at it. He was extremely smart, but he also was extremely normal. Brown was a very pro-choice campus, and I was a little worried about being part of a pro-life group. But I went to a meeting one day, and as soon as I saw Bobby, I immediately said, ‘Yes, I’m in.’ I became very involved.”
Jindal used significant political capital during the last legislative session to back a groundbreaking voucher bill — he calls it a “scholarship” program — that provided state money to families with children in failing Orleans Parish public schools so they could choose to attend Catholic or other faith-based private schools. Michot said the governor would support another bill in the upcoming legislative session to permit faith-based entities to receive state funds to operate charter schools.
“He’s obviously committed to competition in education as a way of breaking through the challenges that nationwide we have experienced with public education today,” Archbishop Hughes said.
“I had supported choice in education and introduced voucher bills in the past, but we really never had the support of the governor that we’ve had with this governor,” Michot added.
Jindal’s public policy decisions do not always square with Church teaching. He signed a law in 2008 that allows for the chemical castration of those convicted of sexually assaulting children.
He also supports the death penalty.
The 2005 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI, teaches: “Given the possibilities which the state now has for effectively preventing crime by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm, the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (No. 469).
When Pope Benedict met Philippines President Gloria Arroyo in 2006, she presented him with a copy of legislation she had signed banning the death penalty. “Well done,” he said. Pope John Paul II often intervened to plead for clemency in death penalty cases.
“I think he is struggling with the issue of capital punishment,” Archbishop Hughes said of Jindal. “But I think he’s open to coming to understand and apply Church teaching appropriately.”
Jindal received high marks from voters in 2008 for successfully pushing forward an ethics reform package. Citizens were less enamored of his initial decision not to interfere with legislators’ efforts to double their pay. Jindal vetoed the pay raise only after a public outcry, and in the end, some lawmakers felt they had been double-dealed.
Jindal said his very visible speaking engagements in states such as Iowa — the opening battleground for the 2012 presidential nomination — have provided him with an opportunity to promote Louisiana’s recovery, not raise money and awareness for a national campaign.
“I just think the speculation about that is not helpful,” Archbishop Hughes said. “I would like to keep him focused on Louisiana. We have a wonderful opportunity right now with him as governor to make a difference in this state. I hope he remains for a while.”
Michot said Jindal’s selection to respond to President Obama’s address to the joint session of Congress was a clear signal: Watch out for the man from Louisiana.
“The Republican Party is looking to him to represent the future of the party, with not only his youth and enthusiasm, but also because he represents racial diversity, which the party needs to embrace,” Michot said. “I think the party is going to continue to put him in a very high-profile position when it comes to the national spotlight. Every time he speaks in public, he represents Louisiana, and it speaks volumes that we have embraced change and racial diversity.”
Peter Finney writes
from New Orleans.
Gov. Jindal: ‘Americans Can Do Anything’
Here is part of the governor’s speech in response to President Obama’s address to Congress on Feb. 24:
To strengthen our economy, we also need to make sure every child in America gets the best possible education. After Katrina, we reinvented the New Orleans school system — opening dozens of new charter schools, and creating a new scholarship program that is giving parents the chance to send their children to private or parochial schools of their choice. We believe that, with the proper education, the children of America can do anything. And it should not take a devastating storm to bring this kind of innovation to education in our country.
To strengthen our economy, we must promote confidence in America by ensuring ours is the most ethical and transparent system in the world. In my home state, there used to be a saying: At any given time, half of Louisiana is under water — and the other half is under indictment. No one says that anymore. Last year, we passed some of the strongest ethics laws in the nation — and today, Louisiana has turned her back on the corruption of the past. We need to bring transparency to Washington, D.C. — so we can rid our Capitol of corruption … and ensure we never see the passage of another trillion dollar spending bill that Congress has not even read and the American people haven’t even seen.
As we take these steps, we must remember for all our troubles at home, dangerous enemies still seek our destruction. Now is no time to dismantle the defenses that have protected this country for hundreds of years, or make deep cuts in funding for our troops. America’s fighting men and women can do anything. And if we give them the resources they need, they will stay on the offensive … defeat our enemies … and protect us from harm.
In all these areas, Republicans want to work with President Obama. We appreciate his message of hope — but sometimes it seems we look for hope in different places. Democratic leaders in Washington place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you — the American people. In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government. We oppose the national Democrats’ view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government. We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington and empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and create jobs.
In recent years, these distinctions in philosophy became less clear — because our party got away from its principles. You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility. Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust — and rightly so.
Tonight, on behalf of our leaders in Congress and my fellow Republican governors, I say: Our party is determined to regain your trust. We will do so by standing up for the principles that we share … the principles you elected us to fight for … the principles that built this into the greatest, most prosperous country on earth.
A few weeks ago, the president warned that our nation is facing a crisis that he said “we may not be able to reverse.” Our troubles are real, to be sure. But don’t let anyone tell you that we cannot recover — or that America’s best days are behind her. This is the nation that cast off the scourge of slavery … overcame the Great Depression … prevailed in two World Wars … won the struggle for civil rights … defeated the Soviet menace … and responded with determined courage to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The American spirit has triumphed over almost every form of adversity known to man — and the American spirit will triumph again.
We can have confidence in our future — because, amid today’s challenges, we also count many blessings: We have the most innovative citizens … the most abundant resources … the most resilient economy … the most powerful military … and the freest political system in the history of the world. My fellow citizens, never forget: We are Americans. And like my dad said years ago, Americans can do anything.
Thank you for listening. God bless you. And God bless America.