Reflecting on his legacy, Gov. Bobby Jindal optimistic about Louisiana's future, no regrets about 'rocking the boat'

After spending months on the presidential campaign trail, Gov. Bobby Jindal returned to Louisiana in November to wind down an eight-year tenure that has become defined by poor polling and criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

It’s not how it was supposed to be.

A decade ago, Jindal was seen as the “boy wonder” of the Republican Party and a ray of hope in Louisiana politics.

He was the nation’s youngest governor when he took office and the first Indian-American governor. He promised to clean up Louisiana’s political reputation and to help the state recover from one of the nation’s most devastating natural disasters.

Despite the perception of unpopularity, Jindal says he’s optimistic about the state’s future and the legacy he leaves behind as he prepares to leave office Jan. 11.

“I’m very grateful to the people of Louisiana for giving me the privilege of serving as their governor,” said Jindal, who recently met with The Advocate at the Governor’s Mansion to reflect on his time in office. “When I think about what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done, we were elected to make big changes, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Jindal, naturally fast-talking, frequently calls up lists he says back up his view that his tenure’s been a success.

Among his accomplishments, he cites ethics reform, which he says has helped usher in economic development, the implementation of the K-12 school choice system and job growth.

“I wanted to make this a better state so people could stay here instead of leaving the state,” he said. “You look at the projects — the employers coming in and those who are expanding — we’ve seen tremendous progress.”

Much of the criticism that has been lodged at Jindal has centered on the state’s financial struggles.

As Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards prepares to take the helm from Jindal, Edwards’ chief budget architect, Jay Dardenne, has acknowledged the state’s financial problems are far worse than previously thought, and tax hikes could be eyed as a solution.

Edwards, a Democrat, as well as Dardenne, the Republican candidates for governor, frequently criticized Jindal’s handling of the budget during the fall campaign.

But Jindal remains defiant about his plans that have frequently relied on one-time funding to plug recurring government expenses.

“We intentionally reduced the size of government,” Jindal said. “Every year, we’ve had a balanced budget, and we’ve done it without raising taxes.”

Jindal, the Baton Rouge-born son of immigrants from India, graduated from Baton Rouge High and went to Brown University before being named a Rhodes scholar. He often jokes that his parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he was instead drawn to politics.

He was appointed to lead the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals at age 24 and the University of Louisiana System just three years later.

He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2003 before winning the office four years later. He took office just two years after Hurricane Katrina killed about 1,500 Louisiana residents and displaced tens of thousands more.

“One of the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was that — when we were elected in 2007 — there was a growing demand for change,” he said.

Jindal said outsiders often misunderstand Louisiana’s troubles — blaming the storms for problems that already existed.

“The storms exacerbated problems, but our state had problems before the storms,” he said. “I would never say there’s a silver lining — that’s ridiculous and offensive — but I do think Louisiana had a choice in how to rebuild. People said, ‘We are ready to make some big changes.’ ”

Jindal has often described being Louisiana’s governor as his “dream job,” and he frequently marvels at how unlikely or unpredictable it is that he got it. His parents came to Baton Rouge from India while his mother was pregnant with him. His father sought employment by cold calling companies in the phone book.

“Every day during my first year in office, I would come home and say, ‘This is the best job I’ll ever have,’ ” Jindal said of his time in the Governor’s Mansion. “I’ve felt that every day in eight years as governor. Every day, I’ve felt like this is the best job I’ll ever have.”

After his quick ascent to governor, speculation has consistently swirled about what would be in store for Jindal’s political future: the White House? The vice presidency? An upper-level Cabinet post?

Jindal hasn’t announced any future plans since he dropped his run for president, except that he and his family will stay in Baton Rouge.

“This has been a great state to us,” he said. “This is a state I care deeply about.”

While it’s not unusual for a governor to become a boogeyman of sorts for the opposing party and especially during fiscal troubles, Jindal’s sagging popularity following eight years in office illustrated displeasure from Democrats and Republicans.

Former Gov. Buddy Roemer, another Ivy League-educated Louisiana politician, said Jindal’s slide from popularity is of his own making. He blamed Jindal’s presidential ambitions, which were at the root of the policies he pursued and took up an increasing amount of his time, even as the Louisiana he created faced a deepening fiscal crisis.

“He spent all of his energy and most of his time somewhere else. Did you realize Jindal was going to do that when he was elected? I didn’t,” Roemer said. “He abandoned Louisiana, and the people know it. Look, Bobby is smart. He’s a reformer. And he’s very ambitious. And, like I’ve said before, it’s the ambitious part that got in the way.”

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Jindal adopted policies pushed by big-money Republicans and those that were flashier on the national scene — even when it wasn’t in the state’s best interests.

“He took these people’s theoretical policies and applied that to your state. There’s a big disconnect. And the people of Louisiana began to understand that, eventually,” Blanco said.

In the past year, Jindal’s talking points frequently have leaned on socially conservative issues, including gay marriage, abortion and immigration.

But several of his close allies remain quick to defend Jindal’s legacy. Stephen Waguespack met Jindal in Washington, D.C., where he worked for congressmen, conservative think tanks and trade associations. A Louisiana native, Waguespack had grown up in St. Louis but married a woman from New Orleans.

During the 2007 campaign, Jindal asked Waguespack to join him in Baton Rouge “and help him rebuild” Louisiana. Waguespack came without nailing down an actual job with the Jindal administration. Over time, he would serve throughout as one of Jindal’s closest advisers, serving in several staff positions, including general counsel and chief of staff. Waguespack now is head of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the powerful lobbying group for the business community.

“His legacy,” Waguespack said about a governor he calls his mentor, “are probably a few things, but first and foremost is job creation and economic development.”

About $60 billion in major projects have been slated for the state, largely because of cheap natural gas but also because Jindal-inspired laws and programs have made Louisiana a business-friendly state, Waguespack said.

Jindal’s other high point, Waguespack said, was how well the governor organized responders and delivered supplies and services during natural disasters. Jindal oversaw government responses to two hurricanes, Mississippi River flooding and the largest oil spill in history.

“He set the blueprint for how leaders should deal with disasters,” Waguespack said.

Jindal was well-organized, could distill large amounts of data and could recall that information when needed. Jindal had high expectations and held people accountable. “He never shied from making decisions,” Waguespack said.

On the other hand, Waguespack said, “the chronic deficits are also part of that story line. Not being able to get into a more stable budget. A lot of it was not of our own making — the temporary economy (from recovery of the 2005 hurricanes) followed by the national recession. We kind of lingered in trying to get a handle on it.”

Jindal chalks up criticism of his time as governor as hard feelings over the decisions he’s made. He still stands by those decisions, he said.

“I was very up front in my campaigns that we needed to change the direction of this state,” he said. “Making changes is hard. People don’t like it when you rock the boat.”

And he’s optimistic about how the Jindal administration will be seen over time.

“The battle scars are still fresh,” he said. “I think that will heal with time.”

He’s not worried about his legacy, he said.

“I’ve never for a minute given thought to that. I’ve always done what I thought was best for the state of Louisiana,” he said.

E.L. “Bubba” Henry said Jindal’s run for the presidency highlighted his tendency to push policies that looked good on the surface but failed to adequately address the situation in Louisiana. The solutions also failed to live up to the hype and spin, mirroring in many ways the same lack of depth that has always plagued government in Louisiana.

“Look, in our past, too many politicians looked out for themselves. Too many arms of state and local government did not get results. And the world took note,” said Henry, a former House speaker who also ran for governor. He’s now a Baton Rouge lobbyist for big insurance companies.

Jindal’s flaws became even more apparent in 2015 as he capped eight years in office.

Much of his revamp of public school education has been hung up in the courts.

The Center for Public Integrity, which provided the checklist for his “gold standard” of ethics, has given his administration a failing grade — not for the laws he passed but for his failure to enforce them.

The poverty rate in Louisiana increased slightly under his watch.

The economic expansion he pushed using tax exemptions to entice businesses failed to materialize, leaving the state with unemployment rates higher than the nation’s and a budget that structurally could not produce enough revenue to pay for services, particularly for higher education and health care.

But Jindal said he has no regrets.

Noting that some of his efforts failed to materialize — including his push to eliminate the state income tax and a proposal to merge the University of New Orleans with Southern University New Orleans — Jindal said he stands by his policies and plans.

“I don’t regret those proposals at all,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets over anything we tried to do.”

He said the Legislature didn’t always follow his lead, which stifled some of his efforts, including budget policy. Edwards has said the state budget needs to be overhauled to address structural issues, including possibly removing some protections on funds to make the budget more fluid.

Jindal has floated a similar idea to no avail.

“I think that would be a good idea,” Jindal said. “The challenge has been with the Legislature. Everyone’s for it in concept, except when it comes to their fund.”

Overall, Jindal said he’s optimistic about the state’s future and believes it will be even brighter four years from now — despite handing off the reins to a Democrat.

“There were still people around the country openly questioning whether we should even rebuild Louisiana,” Jindal said of taking office in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “I think we’ve made tremendous progress, but the work’s never done.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .

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