In the late 1950s, Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long once said that the state’s attorney general didn’t know the difference between a jumpsuit and a lawsuit. “If you want to hide something from Jack Gremillion,” he said, “put it in a law book.”
Compared to the current Governor of Louisiana, Uncle Earl would probably have to admit that old Jack Gremillion seems like a legal genius. After more than six years as a tenant of the fourth floor in the House That Huey Built, Bobby Jindal is now the least popular Governor in contemporary Louisiana history and one of the least popular elected officials in the entire country. According to the most recent polling, Jindal is approved by only 32% of Louisiana voters. If he ran for President, he’d lose Louisiana to Hillary Clinton. And in a hypothetical race for Governor against Edwin Edwards, Jindal would get trounced. “Bobby Jindal continues to have the worst poll numbers of just about any elected official in the country,” Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling explains. “If he gets into the Presidential race, he’ll be doing it with very little support from his own state.”
To outside observers, Jindal’s abysmal poll numbers in Louisiana may seem astonishing. After all, Louisiana is considered a reliably, solidly Republican state, and Jindal has spent the entirety of his tenure throwing red meat to the right wing. Even though his response to President Obama’s first-ever address to a joint session of Congress was a huge disaster (and a comedy goldmine), Jindal has somehow maintained his national reputation as a conservative leader. Last year, he was the head of the Republican Governors Association. He’s a regular on the Sunday talk shows and on the conservative conference circuit. He tours the country stumping for fellow Republican candidates and, despite his sinking numbers in Louisiana, he’s still considered a long-shot contender for the Republican Presidential nomination.
There is a conventional explanation for why Jindal’s astronomical popularity (at one point, he was the most popular Governor in the country) has plummeted so dramatically: He seems to care more about building up his own national profile than actually doing the job he was elected to do. If you believe this, then Bobby Jindal is simply the victim of his own hubris, a man who thought Louisiana voters cared more about him being on Fox News than him being in Baton Rouge, a politician who mistakenly believed he was elected to be a celebrity.
That explanation, I’m afraid, is far too generous. Bobby Jindal is unpopular in Louisiana for one simple reason: He’s been a terrible Governor who never understood his own state.
A few years ago, one of Jindal’s closest confidants told me that the Governor had very little patience for lawyers. He intended it as a compliment. Lawyers look for reasons things can’t be done, he explained, and to paraphrase the old adage, Jindal would rather seek forgiveness later than permission first. To some, perhaps that seems like an attribute of a real leader. To me, it seemed like a dishonest and troubling excuse for incompetence. It may seem folksy to attack lawyers for inconveniencing you, but if you’re a lawmaker, your success hinges on your understanding of the facts and the law.
Only a few months after he took office, Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act, a law that was written and promoted by far-right religious organizations seeking to allow the teaching of new earth creationism in the public school science classroom. Although the law has yet to be legally challenged (largely because the State Department of Education pulled back on its implementation), it is most assuredly unconstitutional.
Jindal also championed the passage of a thoughtless, overly broad constitutional amendment that critics rightly warned could allow convicted murderers the right to possess semi-automatic weapons. After Judge Pitre ruled the law did just that, fortunately, the Louisiana State Supreme Court found a creative way to preserve the state’s prohibitions on felons owning guns, though the law is still considered “an immediate threat to any existing and future firearm legislation.”
In the upcoming months, courts will consider the constitutionality of a number of other laws signed and enacted by Governor Jindal, and if his batting average holds steady, the chances are that Jindal will continue to strike out. During the previous legislative session, Jindal signed a law that attempts to shield oil and gas companies from otherwise legitimate lawsuits seeking damages for breach of contract and negligence, a law that was brought to Louisiana at the behest of the very companies who are responsible for the degradation of the state’s coast and marshland and a law that was championed by a State Senator who made his fortune from the oil and gas industry. Notably, the oil and gas industry has collectively contributed more than $1 million to Governor Jindal’s campaign fund, despite the fact that he’s prohibited from running for Governor again until 2019. By signing the law, Jindal potentially keeps these companies off-the-hook for the tens of billions of dollars in damages for which they are allegedly responsible.
This year, Jindal also enacted a pernicious and duplicitous law that would force the immediate closure of three of the state’s five abortion clinics by requiring physicians at those clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a regulation that experts claim to be “medically unnecessary” and almost identical to the laws in Mississippi and Alabama that have both been overruled as unconstitutional during the last two weeks. As the United States Supreme Court held in Casey, a state may not impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to access contraceptive or abortion care, and to paraphrase the court in Alabama, if you’re closing three of the state’s five clinics based on some new law that isn’t even medically necessary, you’re not fooling anyone: This is about imposing an undue burden, and it has absolutely nothing to do with caring for a woman’s health. According to a friend who claims to have publicly exchanged a series of letters with the bill’s author, the State Representative didn’t care about medical care; she cared only about “God’s will,” and apparently, she had deluded herself into believing that she was God’s ordained messenger. With all due respect to her, if a court considers her legislative intent persuasive testimony about the purpose of this bill, they’ll be able to knock it out without ever even considering the other issues.
And I’m just skimming the surface here: There are equally valid and compelling criticisms of Jindal’s stubborn refusal to recognize equal rights under the law for LGBT Americans, his complete dereliction of duty in implementing the Affordable Care Act and in expanding Medicaid, his persistent rejection of federal funds that would be used to build broadband internet capabilities in rural Louisiana and a modest commuter rail line on existing infrastructure in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
I am a progressive Democrat. That much should be obvious. And if you’re even marginally familiar with my work, you likely know that I’ve never been a fan of Governor Bobby Jindal, though, at times, I’ve wanted to be.
I am a true believer in the cult of Louisiana, and even though I’ve spent the last three years away in Texas at law school, I’ve been able to see more, experience more, and learn more about the people, the history, and the places in my home state than I ever did while living in Alexandria. My distance from the state provides some perspective, and my work as a law student provides some flexibility. During the last three years, while living in Dallas, I’ve spent a combined total of five months all over the entire state of Louisiana.
I have family, on both sides, that settled in Louisiana way back in the early 1700s- distant grandfathers and uncles who fought on all sides of those wars. We are, of course, a nation of immigrants, and while my ancestors don’t earn me a special sticker or badge on my driver’s license, I was taught, from a very young age, to appreciate the ways in which our history informs our present: slavery and the Civil War, the complexities of Reconstruction, Prohibition and the Great Depression, Jim Crow and school desegregation, the forced subjugation of African-Americans and the forced assimilation of Cajuns, the strange and complicated definition of Creole, the cultural differences between Bayou Cajuns, Prairie Cajuns, and their more sophisticated neighbors down in New Orleans. I grew up in a city that had been burned down, and I was born into a family that made its living building the city back, literally.
Jindal’s miscalculation isn’t just that he cared more about being a celebrity than a politician, and it’s not simply that he treats the law as an inconvenience. He’s a terrible Governor because it’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t possess a burning and blinding passion for Louisiana, which should be the most important qualification for the job.
He’s just not authentic, and people, inevitably, see right through him. To be clear, this has nothing to do with race or ethnicity; after all, he was elected twice statewide, by large margins. And although Jindal is a first-generation American (his parents actually conceived him from their native India), he was born, reared, and educated here, in Louisiana public schools. But despite his bona fides, he just doesn’t “get” Louisiana, because he’s always preferred Washington, D.C.
Throughout his tenure as Governor, when he’s not traveling the country promoting partisan politics, Jindal has essentially bankrupted his own political capital on policies, reforms, and projects that may appeal to national Republican pundits but that prove tone-deaf to the people of Louisiana. He enacted a series of ethics reforms acts, promising to increase transparency in government. Yet the law’s most notable accomplishment was the expansion of exemptions he provided to himself.
All of his other major legislative achievements eventually became disasters: The tax overhaul, the voucher program, and teacher tenure reform were all plays for national attention, much like the misguided constitutional amendment he supported on deregulating guns or the battle he is currently waging over Common Core and his efforts to effectively ban abortion.
He promised to be a policy reformer, and instead, he has become a hackneyed culture warrior who counts his victories by the number of soundbites he receives in the conservative media. It doesn’t matter how many times he loses in court or how many of his laws are struck down as unconstitutional or how many millions of public dollars are squandered defending laws that should have never been signed in the first place.
Recently, former Governor Edwin Edwards was asked about his thoughts on Jindal. “Doesn’t hunt, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t eat crawfish,” he said. “He likes to travel. Let them make him Secretary of Transportation.”
That may seem like a joke, but considering Jindal’s record, it’s actually sensible career advice.