Bobby Jindal, the fifty-fifth governor of Louisiana, served from 2008 to 2016.
Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, the fifty-fifth governor of Louisiana and a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, was the first person of color to attain the state’s highest office since Reconstruction, when P. B. S. Pinchback briefly served. Jindal was born in Baton Rouge on June 10, 1971, six months after his parents, Amar and Raj Jindal, immigrated from Punjab, India, to attend Louisiana State University. At the time of his inauguration in 2008, Jindal, then age thirty-six, was America’s youngest sitting governor and Louisiana’s second youngest to date; Huey Long had been thirty-five when he took the oath in 1928.
Jindal’s political views reflected much of the conservative Republican platform in the early twenty-first century: he opposed income and corporate tax increases, abortion rights, gun control, gay marriage, and the expansion of Medicare; he slashed funding for universities and public services and advocated privatizing public hospitals and prisons. Jindal enacted a program of state-funded vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools, an initiative later declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court, and he supported the teaching of creationism in public school classrooms. When Jindal announced his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination on June 24, 2015, at a rally in Kenner, Louisiana, he emphasized his Christian faith: “I know that some believe I talk too much about my faith, but I will not be silenced. I will not be silenced in order to meet their expectations of political correctness. They don’t seem to accept the idea that you can be both intellectual and Christian.”
As a child Jindal shunned his traditional Indian birth name in favor of the nickname Bobby, after his favorite character on the 1970s television sitcom The Brady Bunch. In his teenage years, he abandoned his Hindu faith and became a Catholic. He wrote in a 1993 essay for The National Catholic Review: “My parents were infuriated by my conversion and have yet fully to forgive me. … There were heated discussions, many of them invoking family loyalty and national identity.”
Jindal excelled academically. He graduated from Baton Rouge Magnet High School in 1988 and attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he graduated with honors in 1991 with a double major in biology and public policy. While at Brown, he claimed to have witnessed an exorcism of a female friend, which he wrote about in a 1994 issue of New Oxford Review, an article that has been a source of controversy as Jindal’s political aspirations continue. He was accepted by both Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School but studied at New College in Oxford, England, as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1994 he received a degree in political science with an emphasis in health policy from the University of Oxford, where the subject of his thesis was “a needs-based approach to health care.” Jindal turned down an offer to study for a doctorate in politics, instead joining the consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Washington, DC. He then interned in the office of Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, where he worked on health care policy.
In 1996 Gov. Mike Foster named Jindal, then age twenty-four, as Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, an agency that represented about forty percent of the state budget and employed more than 12,000 people. Foster said the appointment was “unorthodox” due to Jindal’s young age, but he declared his appointee “a genius.” During Jindal’s tenure, Louisiana’s Medicaid program went from bankruptcy with a $400 million deficit into three years of surpluses totaling $220 million. Critics charged that the fiscal reforms were made at the expense of the elderly, the handicapped, and the poor, all of whom saw their services decreased. In 1998 Jindal was appointed executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, a seventeen-member panel charged with devising plans to reform the national social insurance program as it faced insolvency with the rapidly growing population of Baby Boomers reaching their eligibility age of 65.
Jindal married Supriya Jolly in 1997; the couple have one daughter, Selia, and two sons, Shaan and Slade, the second of whom was delivered in 2006 by Jindal on the bathroom floor of the couple’s home in Kenner when his wife unexpectedly went into labor before an ambulance could arrive.
In 1999, at twenty-eight years of age, Jindal was appointed to become the youngest-ever president of the University of Louisiana System, a position he left when President George W. Bush appointed Jindal to serve as assistant secretary for the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2001. He resigned from this federal appointment in 2003 to return to Louisiana and run for elected office for the first time. Labeled a wonkish bureaucrat, Jindal gained national exposure as an ambitious first-generation Indian American running for statewide office against a Cajun lieutenant governor/former stay-at-home mother of six children in an unprecedented match for the conservative Deep South. He lost to Democrat Kathleen Blanco in a runoff election, falling short with 48 percent of the vote in a runoff.
Jindal’s quick rise to power accelerated in 2004 when he was elected to the 109th US Congress representing Louisiana’s First District. He served on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the House Committee on Homeland Security, and the House Committee on Resources. Jindal was elected by his Republican peers as assistant majority whip. He was again thrust into the spotlight in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 when Louisiana’s Washington delegation confronted the largest disasters to ever hit the state. Jindal’s accomplishments include the passage of legislation to bring significant offshore energy revenues to Louisiana for the first time and legislation that keeps the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from taxing certain recovery grants as income. During his time in Congress, Jindal voted in favor of more than $126 billion in federal recovery funds for the region affected by the storm. In 2006 Jindal was elected to a second term as a US Representative, winning 88 percent of the vote.
Governor and Partisan Aspirant
Jindal was elected governor of Louisiana on October 20, 2007, defeating two Democrats―state senator Walter Boasso of Chalmette and Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier City―and an independent, New Orleans businessman John Georges, with 54 percent of the vote in the primary, winning 60 of 64 parishes. In 2011, with a $7 million war chest (much of it raised from out-of-state donors), Jindal was reelected, running virtually unopposed against four obscure candidates and garnering 66 percent of the vote (of the 23 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in the first round of voting).
Jindal’s years as governor twere marked by self-declared fiscal and social conservatism, although two-thirds of the state’s budget came from federal sources, and an agenda carried out with punitive measures taken against wayward legislators and administrators who deviated from the party line.
Jindal laid down the gauntlet on taxes, refusing to consider hikes as state revenues shrank in the wake of depleted federal hurricane recovery funds and fluctuating oil prices. He supported the repeal of the Stelly Plan, a move that cut $350 million annually from the state’s coffers. Higher education and health care have taken the brunt of the hit due to constitutional and statutory restrictions. In 2013 Jindal proposed eliminating income, corporate, and corporate franchise taxes altogether and replacing them with an expanded sales tax that could have resulted in rates between 4 and 6.25 percent. Some areas of the state would have had a combined state and local sales tax rate in the double-digits; in New Orleans, those taxes would have totaled about eleven percent. The proposal was withdrawn before it could be submitted to a vote after widespread rebuke by the legislature.
As a rising star in the GOP, Jindal was tapped to deliver the official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. Jindal called the president’s recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “irresponsible” and argued against the $787 million stimulus plan to alleviate a financial crisis that most economists declared the worst since the Great Depression. “The president confirmed that we have gone from the greed of Wall Street to the greed of government,” Jindal said. “Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts.” The speech met with scathing reviews from Democrats and fellow Republicans who were shocked at the Katrina analogy, a blunder largely blamed on the administration of Republican President George W. Bush. Pundits referred to Jindal’s delivery as “wooden” with a “seemingly forced tone” and “devoid of substantive ideas for governing the country.” Jindal responded to critics by saying that he was in the difficult position of following a far better speaker.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. More than 210 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf over the course of three months in what became known as the BP oil spill, creating an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions in Louisiana that lasted until the broken wellhead was plugged on July 15. Jindal proposed building emergency sand berms to stave off ongoing damage to fragile coastal marshes. The plan was initially rejected by federal authorities who declared the option environmentally unsound, but it was eventually approved after Jindal lobbied President Obama and federal officials intensely. The staff of a commission investigating the disaster later declared the ten miles of berms a failure for capturing only a tiny fraction of the spilled oil at an estimated cost of $360 million. Overall, Jindal heavily criticized Obama for the federal response. While Obama maintained that federal agencies were doing all that they could, the governor said he thought “there could have been a greater sense of urgency.” In his memoir of the spill, Leadership and Crisis, published in November 2010, Jindal again criticized the president, writing that Obama was more interested in “political posturing” than in aiding the state.
In April 2012 the Louisiana legislature passed Jindal’s school voucher program, which allowed students from underperforming public schools to obtain taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers to private and religious schools. More than 2,300 students out of 10,300 applicants received vouchers for placement in 125 schools across the state. The plan was lauded by conservatives who believe market forces and competition are the cure for what ails public education. Critics contended that schools receiving the funds were not held accountable for their curriculum—much of which was alleged to be religiously biased. Teachers’ unions and local school boards filed suit against the plan, and on November 30, 2012, state judge Tim Kelley in Baton Rouge declared the voucher system unconstitutional because it used local tax dollars to fund private schools and because it improperly diverted money allocated through Louisiana’s public school funding formula to private schools. The Jindal administration filed an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Jindal declared Kelley’s ruling “wrong-headed and a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education.” In May 2013 the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Kelley’s ruling by a vote of two to one, with Justices John Weimer and Jeffrey Victory in the majority and Justice Greg Guidry dissenting. Furthermore, the court found that Jindal’s calculation of the per-pupil allocation for the 2012-13 school year violated proper procedure and was therefore void from the start.
Jindal backed Texas Governor Rick Perry in the Republican presidential primaries of 2012 but eventually threw his support behind the party’s chosen nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. In the wake of defeat for many “Tea Party” Republican candidates in congressional races and Romney’s loss to Obama in the presidential race, Jindal scolded his fellow party members at a convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in January 2013 for being too strident in right-wing causes and exclusionary of minority voter blocs. He declared that the GOP “must stop being the stupid party. We must stop looking backward. We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters.”