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Breathing Life into Words 

Gov. Bobby Jindal's opening address to the special session reveals underlying themes of purchased opportunity, careful promises and collective fate.

It is Sunday, the 9th of March, and as the evening news competes with downtown church bells, Bobby Jindal's eyes meet the clear, plastic facade of an electronic teleprompter. His side of the clear panel reveals a 3,391-word opening address that scrolls slowly upward before disappearing into thin air. The reverse, or backside, visible to legislators and the first family on the floor of the House, exposes greasy fingerprints likely left by a ham-handed press flack. The prints flicker like bright flashpoints during Jindal's opening remarks, due mainly to directional lighting, dueling reflections and other matters of physics rarely pondered in the halls of the Louisiana Legislature.

If you were sitting close enough to breathe some of Jindal's rarified air that night, you may have chuckled at the figurative smudge or two connected to the new Republican administration. And, without a doubt, one observation would have been appropriate: a mere smear, no matter the size, often cleans up easily, like most of Jindal's political hiccups since taking office at the year's beginning.

On this night, however, the young governor is in rare form. He makes a football joke at the expense of U. of Alabama and — despite being scripted — the pun is delivered in a tone that isn't lifted from a crash diet of ESPN. The new guy is clearly at ease. That is not surprising, considering the warm welcome Jindal and his entourage received when they walked into the House Chamber a few minutes earlier to begin the governor's second special session in as many months in office.

Legislators, many of whom boiled over when Jindal's enhanced ethics laws shot through the February special session, appear to be on their own roads to Damascus for this new gathering. It is all quite presidential, from Jindal's crimson-and-navy striped tie to the Reaganesque rhythm and state-of-the-union structure of his speech. The numbers are impressive as well: Jindal tells lawmakers he wants to spend more than $1 billion in surplus cash on business incentives and public infrastructure.

In an effort to put a human face on his otherwise mundane policy initiatives, the governor peppers his speech with references to " real" Louisiana people. He invites Gary Chouest, owner of Edison Chouest Offshore and C-Logistics in Lafourche Parish, to stand. He thanks the Louisiana tycoon for his ongoing economic development efforts. Several lawmakers jump to their feet to show they, too, are thankful.

Everyone who is anyone already knows Chouest, though. He donated $100,000 last year to the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, which was formed to forge a GOP takeover in the Legislature — an unrealized dream. Chouest, his companies and his family also have given Jindal tens of thousands of dollars over the years for congressional and gubernatorial campaigns. His daughter, Dionne Chouest, served on one of Jindal's workforce transition teams earlier this year. Another Chouest family company, Slam Dunk, purchased a 25 percent ownership in the New Orleans Hornets last year.

So why is Jindal giving Gary Chouest a front row seat this evening? With a smile to his longtime friend, the governor announces that the state will commit $10 million to the Port of Terrebonne for its planned incorporation of LaShip, which is an Edison Chouest subsidiary. The development, which also had a footing in the previous administration of Democrat Kathleen Blanco, promises to bring in average salaries of $54,000. " One-thousand new jobs mean 1,000 more people — and their families — investing in the local economy, putting down roots in the community and pursuing their dreams right here at home," Jindal says.

By one definition, this is transparency at work, but it also bares the political reality that costly connections can yield prosperous results — even in the shadow of a historic shift in ethics regulation. Jindal does not dwell. He moves along and vows $300 million for coastal restoration and hurricane protection projects.

Jindal then introduces Wilson " Doc" Gaidry, a shrimper and coastal advocate who knows the waters around Cocodrie like others might know their subdivisions. " Doc has lived along the coast of south Louisiana for more than 70 years and he can attest to the deterioration of our coastline just in his lifetime alone," Jindal says, " a deterioration that weakens our abilities to protect against future hurricanes and affects the ecosystem of the entire region."

Jindal offers no specifics as to how the $300 million might be spent, and neither does Doc. The governor asks only that lawmakers deposit the money into a special fund overseen by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), Louisiana's guiding coastal agency, the one with authority to sign contracts and spend money. In fact, the enacting legislation is a scant 188 words in length.

The CPRA will be allowed to interpret the Legislature's intent and is not technically bound to Jindal's promises that 85 percent of the money will be used for construction only. To counter any potential concerns about the arrangement, CPRA chair Garret Graves says public hearings will be held if the funding proposal passes.

The $300 million purse also places CPRA in a position to serve as a real state agency, as intended. The transition is happening sooner than anyone expected. During the minutes before Jindal's entrance, Scott Angelle, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, admitted that some administrative changes are being considered. " We're looking at a few different things," he says, " but it'll hold until next month in the regular session."

Just like Jindal's trusty teleprompter, there are two sides to every issue from the second special session, and the regular session to come. But unlike the governor's plastic electronic placard, the issues are not transparent to the untrained eye. This doesn't seem to bother Jindal, who senses that details have a way of working themselves out; clearly, Jindal is a Big Picture Guy. He has already ushered in notable ethics changes that apparently have dazzled a national audience.

He drives home that point in his speech and describes the latest special session as a way to build on that early momentum. After all, The New York Times and CNN eventually will lose interest in Louisiana's newfound ways — and perhaps its triumphant young governor as well, despite the buzz about a potential vice-presidential nod. Could it be, possibly, that the fates of both are intertwined? " While we have their attention we must move swiftly," Jindal says, turning his attention to lawmakers. " That is the purpose for which I have called you here today. And it is a purpose that touches the lives of everyone in our state."

As promised, Jindal is giving the world another perspective on Louisiana politics, but we're also learning a great deal more about him along the way.

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