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Jindal the Populist 

Much like other Louisiana governors before him, Bobby Jindal is traveling the state's dusty roads to defend plain, common folk from the tyranny of elitist enemies.

Gov. Bobby Jindal may very well go down in history as one of Louisiana's most aggressive campaigners, and that doesn't even count his super-stealth bid to be John McCain's running mate on the Republican ticket. Although he has only been in office for eight months — with more than three years left in his term and the litmus test of re-election still to come — Jindal has tread more local turf than many of his predecessors. In fact, since he wrapped the third legislative session of the year in late June, Jindal has traveled to no less than 28 Louisiana towns and cities to conduct community meetings.

Jindal's public schedule reads like a laundry list of obscure Louisiana locales. He has been to Wisner (population: 1,100), Mer Rouge (only nine new building permits issued since 2000), Dubach ('The Dog Trot Capital of the World") and even Mamou (for more, consult Jo-El Sonnier's "Valse de Grand Mamou"). Jindal also found his way to Pollock, a tiny hamlet of roughly 370 people named for Oliver Pollock, an anti-British financial backer of the American Revolution. Pollock Mayor Jerome Scott says Jindal is the first Louisiana governor to personally visit with local residents in 51 years.

Such comments have been the norm during Jindal's nonstop tour. For instance, the Shreveport Times noted that "no one in Vivian [has met the governor] in the city limits since Dave Treen visited in the early 1980s." But even though residents of these off-the-map towns haven't seen a governor in decades, they know one when they hear one. Jindal often starts his talks by thanking folks for taking time away from work and makes promises to mom and pop on Social Security, farms in danger of going out of business and local jobs.

It's all vaguely familiar and simultaneously off-putting, like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Jindal, a conservative Republican guided by Christian principles, might as well be standing in the back of a flatbed truck in town squares, sweating and rolling up his sleeves as he rails against Big Oil, small paychecks and his political enemies. And in a way, he is — only corruption and complacency are now the culprits, ethics reforms draw the applause and there are no political enemies to speak of (at least in public).

In short, Jindal has become a modern-day populist. He's communicating with the middle-class and working poor like no other politician in the state. During last year's campaign, he constructed the necessary divide, with the people on one side and the political elite — in this case, Louisiana's storied political culture — on the other. "Populists can be conservative, too," says Albert L. Samuels, an associate professor of political science at Southern University in Baton Rouge. "[Former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke was a populist. We have to remember that populism can manifest itself in many different policy descriptions. An enemy to the people has to be defined, and you need a champion to overcome that enemy."

And since populism, as used here, is chiefly a rhetorical and political style, Jindal, a man of many words in short order, excels at the craft. That's not to say, however, that the governor has changed stripes. To the contrary, Jindal is still a tightly scripted, heavily managed chief executive. While he has attended at least 28 town hall meetings, more than half were announced through media advisories just one day before the event — leaving very little wiggle room for promoting the gatherings. If fact, town hall meetings on the same day last month in Many and Winnfield were announced through a media advisory issued on the actual day of the events.

In the meetings, the governor has kept to issues related to the recent legislative sessions — and his vice-presidential ambitions, when prodded — but there's a bit of politicking involved as well. In fact, Jindal has used the town hall meeting format to perfect his constant campaign strategy. Whenever possible, he's out there on the road, pushing his ideas and communicating with voters. Never mind that the election is over. Approval ratings must remain high. Why else would Jindal motor on over to Ball, Columbia, Church Point, Farmerville, Homer, Jeanerette, Jonesville, Kenner, Moreauville, Napoleonville, Oak Grove, Springhill and Vidalia?

If supplementary evidence of Jindal's adoption of the populist style is needed, look no further than his recent odd-couple pairing with Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell. A north Louisiana Democrat who has the country twang to match, Campbell is the archetype of a boisterous Bayou State populist. He ran against Jindal for governor last year as a self-proclaimed populist who did, in fact, take on Big Oil in the tradition of Huey Long.

Jindal and Campbell shared credit last week for $10 million in state funds to assist Louisianians struggling with the high cost of utility bills. The money will be split in half between weatherization programs and individual assistance initiatives. True to form, Campbell went right for the jugular with his prepared comments in a joint press release, calling energy providers a "curse" to Louisiana families. Jindal took a more modest and practical approach, arguing "the money invested in homes [from the weatherization program] will cut costs and lower energy costs for years to come." While the two men differ in style and political philosophy, they both agreed, at least in this case, that the proverbial little man needed some relief.

So, where does this place Jindal in the realm of the great hayride? If former Gov. Edwin Edwards was the last great Louisiana populist, then maybe Jindal is the Louisiana populist reborn. Just consider the following passage when reflecting on Jindal, the man who energized voters last year with bold promises to help Louisiana recover from two hurricanes and a corrupt past:

'[The] election revealed a pattern new to Louisiana politics, a pattern startling and disturbing to those members of the old guard who could perceive what happened. Political divisions in the state had traditionally followed ethnic and religious lines. Suddenly everything had changed. [The new governor], who had lost the election four years earlier at least in part because of cultural and religious issues had now assembled a majority coalition "

That might sound like a sketch from Jindal's 2007 campaign, but it's actually a description of Huey P. Long's populist-fueled victory in the race for governor in 1928, as penned by historian Alan Brinkley. The passage does reveal history's repetitive tendancies, but it also highlights Jindal's own streaks of populism, which, before this recent round of legislative sessions, was barely visible.

click to enlarge Bobby Jindal is pursuing a populist image as he makes frequent public appearances in small towns across the state. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Bobby Jindal is pursuing a populist image as he makes frequent public appearances in small towns across the state.
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