From bragging about workforce development in Houma to touting new sex offender laws in Monroe, Gov. Bobby Jindal spent the first week of this month touring the state like a candidate. The press-wary Republican even squeezed in a few one-on-ones with local television stations. The second week of July brought Jindal to New Orleans, where he highlighted advances in mental health care, and to an actual Q&A with the Baton Rouge Press Club. He capped it all off with another press conference on education in Lafayette.
Following his tour of the national political circuit, which contrasted sharply with his bunker mentality in the days leading up to his veto of the controversial legislative pay raise, Jindal's re-emergence in Louisiana's voter-rich cities is a sure sign that the Rhodes Scholar is back to following his campaign playbook. He seems empowered by a constant campaign, a strategy popularized by another southern wunderkind governor, Bill Clinton: never let up, never say die, always stay on message, and hit the road as much as possible.
For a politician like Jindal, it's a simple application, especially after he perfected the formula during the real campaign of 2007. Just like last year, voters likely will give Jindal the benefit of the doubt because they're hearing from him in person. "Seeing voters in person is critical. If you talk to people who vote, chances are they made a certain vote because they saw that candidate with their own eyes," says Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State University. "A handshake in the realm of politics is like gold."
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are still struggling to make heads or tails of the new governor. Jindal usually fails to reach out effectively to lawmakers during his trips around the state, amounting to opportunities squandered. But this time around, lawmakers are at least receiving warning calls that the governor is heading their way, although personal meetings are still hard to come by. Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat, says Jindal's team reached out to him prior to the governor's visit on July 3, which was a smart move. Jindal still needs to focus on damage control from the recent regular session, Baldone adds. The hit he took by going back on his promise not to veto the pay raise bill, and by generally ignoring lawmakers during the session, is being grossly understated in most cases. "You lose respect when you say one thing and do another," said Baldone. "And trust is difficult to build back."
Jindal is expected to push some lawmakers further away when he makes his line-item vetoes in the state's massive operating budget public. Thus far, Jindal has proven to lawmakers that no veto is too small. With the best interest of voters in mind, Jindal says he has vetoed bills that would have watered down his ethics reforms and slashed earmarks for pet projects that would have wasted taxpayers' money. When doing so, Jindal has always made sure to take a jab at the Legislature, despite his attempts at civility on the road. Although seemingly ill-advised, it may all be part of Jindal's recovery strategy. He's drawing a line in the proverbial sand, with the Legislature on one side and the voters with him on the other.
Jindal thus has defined his enemy a constant campaign has to have an opponent, after all. Regarding legislative payback, he deftly tailors this fight to fit his game plan: "Direct anger at me," he says to imaginary legislators in his speeches, "not at the citizens of Louisiana."
By the time Jindal hit Lafayette last week, he was aided by voters' short attention spans and other political news. Still, a few headlines dealing with other Jindal inconsistencies came 'round to haunt him, such as his decision to allow Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret to accept a $75,000 pay increase, despite denying lawmakers their own bump.
The governor also endorsed some loopholes in the state's ethics laws. Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President Chris John, a former congressman, will be allowed to lobby the Legislature even though his father-in-law is Sen. John Smith, a Leesville Democrat. Rep. Noble Ellington, a Winnsboro Democrat, can keep his wife as his legislative assistant at $54,000 per year. And Rep. Rick Nowlin, a Republican from Natchitoches, can continue doing business with the state through his engineering firm until Jan. 7, 2012.
For now, it's the smoke and mirrors of Jindal's constant campaign. And it couldn't have come a moment too soon. A pre-veto poll by Southern Media and Opinion Research had Jindal's "unfavorables" at 35.8 percent, up from 6.8 percent in April. But, as the governor and his people know, it's nothing that a little face time with voters can't fix, and it doesn't hurt that Jindal's actual re-election isn't for another three-and-a-half years, either.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.