What gives? During Gov. Bobby Jindal's 25 months in office, more than a dozen cabinet officials and staffers have left his administration. If ever there were a political bandwagon worth hitching onto, this would seem to be it, given Jindal's national profile and the amount of action coming from the governor's office on the Fourth Floor of the state Capitol.
The latest to bite the dust is William Ankner, who resigned from his post as secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development earlier this month. By many accounts, Anker had little choice. DOTD has been under fire for awarding a controversial $60 million highway contract to the highest bidder. Apparently, someone had to fall on his sword — and it wasn't going to be the governor.
For now, Jindal & Co. are staying mum, but this isn't the first time a sacrificial lamb has been offered up. After complications with assistance programs in the wake of Hurricane Gustav, Department of Social Services Secretary Ann Williamson "resigned" as well. If anything, it was an early sign that Jindal was willing to roll heads in a businesslike way, as in his way or the highway.
Last July, Jindal's administration reportedly asked for the resignation of Tammie McDaniel, a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who questioned certain budget decisions. (McDaniel stood her ground initially, but resigned from BESE last week.) Last October, Melody Teague, a DSS grants reviewer, was terminated and told it involved her poor performance during Hurricane Katrina four years earlier. (Side note: The day before Teague was fired, she publicly opposed the administration's plans to privatize state services.)
And who could forget Jim Champagne, who had served as the executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission for 12 years before Jindal gave him the boot. In March 2008, Champagne disagreed with Jindal's plan to repeal the state's motorcycle helmet law. He was promptly shown the door.
Others simply couldn't operate within the political climate that Jindal and his top aides created. In June 2008, after serving only six months, Tommy Williams, a respected veteran lobbyist, gave up his legislative liaison post. A year later, Richard Sherburne shelved his title as ethics administrator — after Jindal gutted the Ethics Board's adjudicatory authority and gave it to a set of administrative law judges.
Then there's politics. Some folks became free agents because they wanted their own share of the action. So far this year, Office of Community Programs Director Natalie Robottom quit to run for St. John the Baptist Parish president, and Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Harold Leggett has said he wouldn't mind being a member of the Legislature. Both resigned in January. Executive Counsel Jimmy Faircloth stepped down last July to make an unsuccessful bid for the state Supreme Court.
The private sector has been a draw as well. Tim Barfield, the labor chief who succeeded Faircloth as executive counsel, resigned in December to chase corporate dollars. Luke Letlow, special assistant and director of intergovernmental affairs, followed suit in January.
When you bring it all to a boil, these folks left the Jindal administration either because they were incompetent, thrown under the bus, had a political agenda, wanted more than public service could provide, or couldn't work within the administration's rigid framework.
Overall, the departures speak volumes about Jindal's managerial style: Sometimes it's easier to kill a problem than fix it. No doubt the governor's supporters will paint most of the departures as voluntary and not reflective of any administration turmoil. Others speculate it's a sign Jindal may not seek a second term, on the theory that some of the departed insiders know something we don't — and they want to cash in on their connections while they can. Given the amount of money Jindal has been raising out of state, you never know when or if he might decide he's tired of being governor — or that he's ready for a higher calling.
Whatever the causes of the many departures his administration has seen, Jindal cannot deny that he hired the former staffers amid great promise and high expectations. Now he must account for their collective record as well as his own.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.