Hurricane Katrina left more than vast swaths of southeast Louisiana in shambles and under water. It wrecked Gov. Kathleen Blanco's political career as well. At the same time, Katrina also catapulted young Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal to new heights, perhaps because of a statewide dose of buyer's remorse.
Jindal lost a cliffhanger to Blanco in the November 2003 runoff, after leading her by almost 10 points a week earlier. Many say he blew that election by not returning fire when Blanco unleashed a torrent of television attack ads in the final two weeks. If that's the case, Jindal, 36, learned his lesson. He has been running for governor ever since he lost to Blanco, and this time his campaign lets no criticism go unanswered.
At least a year before Blanco pulled out of the race in February, pro-Jindal bloggers and spin doctors were spewing venom at the wounded Blanco. They could taste a rematch. After a failed special legislative session right before Christmas 2006 and a failed attempt to lure a German steel mill to Louisiana, Blanco saw the handwriting on the wall: She opted not to seek re-election, bowing out as gracefully as she could.
For about a month, former U.S. Senator John Breaux flirted with the notion of returning to Louisiana to run for governor. Again, the GOP cyber-phalanx went to work, excoriating Breaux for moving to the Eastern Shore and registering to vote there. When a state attorney general's opinion regarding Breaux's 'citizenship" came up inconclusive, the former senator declined to make the race.
That left Louisiana Democrats in a dilemma " one from which the party hasn't fully recovered. Back then, the only Democrat making any noises about running against Jindal was Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Elm Grove in northwest Louisiana. A piney woods populist cut from Huey Long's cloth, the 60-year-old Campbell built his campaign on a pledge to tax the smell out of oil and gas and repeal the state income tax. The Kingfish would have been proud. Campbell is still one of the leading Democrats challenging Jindal, but he has been hampered by a relatively small campaign budget. Although popular in north Louisiana, Campbell has struggled to get better known south of Alexandria.
The GOP, in turn, began the race with its own candidate dilemma " as in too many of them. In addition to Jindal, who was clearly the Golden Child of party regulars (including high-rolling contributors), state Sen. Walter Boasso of Arabi and businessman John Georges of New Orleans " both millionaires who largely self-financed their campaigns " also launched their quests for the Governor's Mansion as Republicans.
So many candidates, so little tolerance.
It didn't take long for the party big shots and machinery to line up behind Jindal, who has remained far ahead in all independent polls. The GOP had learned a valuable lesson in past elections: Don't split the vote; get behind your best candidate early and try to put him over the top in the primary. That's what David Vitter did in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, and Jindal hoped to replicate that strategy this year.
By late April, the wave of GOP support for Jindal " and a succession of official party snubs to Boasso " prompted the Arabi businessman to switch back to the Democratic Party. (He had been a Democrat in the early 1990s before joining the GOP.) At first, Boasso's new political clothes seemed ill-fitted to his pro-business voting record in the state Senate, where he served one term. But, after hiring a Democratic media firm, the 47-year-old CEO of Boasso America, a St. Bernard-based company that cleans shipping containers, reintroduced himself to voters as 'the big guy who looks out for the little guy."
Boasso debuted one of the season's most creative TV ads, featuring himself and a cardboard cutout of Jindal. As Boasso told his rags-to-riches story (as a child, his family got by on food stamps), the not-so-subtle subtext was that Jindal is a one-dimensional candidate. It was effective on both counts: it got some voters to rethink their opinion of Jindal, at least momentarily, and it established Boasso as a serious challenger, even if his numbers remained far below Jindal's.
Boasso's main calling cards have been his business background " he's not a natural or career politician " and his credentials as a reformer. He also touts his ability to get things done. In his one and only term in the state Senate, Boasso authored the bills that combined several levee boards in southeast Louisiana. Ironically, part of the push for levee board consolidation was a warning from Congressman Jindal that Louisiana could lose significant federal funding if the levee boards remained fragmented. A Boasso-sponsored constitutional amendment won overwhelming voter approval last fall.
As he warmed to his new home in the Democratic Party, Boasso has stepped up his criticism of Jindal, blasting him (with help from Georges and Campbell) for not attending candidate forums and debates, and hitting him broadside for alleged votes against veterans, seniors, mental health patients and children. The tag line for several Boasso attacks sum up Jindal thus: 'Big brain. No heart."
Jindal has responded in kind, portraying Boasso as part of 'the corrupt crowd" (without specifically accusing Boasso of any acts of corruption) and accusing him of running a 'smear campaign." The Jindal camp also seized upon a statement Boasso allegedly made to Democratic Party faithful " that he would do 'whatever it takes" to win " to paint him as desperate and in league with unnamed 'corrupt" forces. Boasso, clearly offended by the knock on his integrity, has challenged Jindal to specify any acts of corruption that he has committed.
Georges, meanwhile, remained almost invisible until after July 4. He launched a Web site and hired consultants to help him craft a message, but it wasn't until August that he finally started making a move. The owner of a cigarette and video poker distribution company as well as several other businesses, Georges, 47, didn't shy away from his ties to the gaming industry. In fact, 'shy" is not a word that should be associated in any way with the name of John Georges. As Gambit contributor Jeremy Alford noted in a recent profile of Georges, the 'enigmatic" millionaire 'ponders aloud, wrapping his mind around his favorite subject: himself."
Georges has long been a registered Republican, but he also has longstanding political ties to some big-name Democrats. He has contributed to Edwin Edwards and various national Democratic figures, for example. To Republican stalwarts, Georges failed the GOP litmus test on two counts: He associated with Democrats, and now he was running against Bobby Jindal. He, too, would have to go.
Trailing badly in the polls on qualifying day, Georged bolted from the GOP ranks and declared himself an independent. Almost as if to prove the point, he has poured at least $7 million of his own money into his campaign. In the final weeks, he has rained cash on various black political groups, ministers and civic leaders " much in the same manner as fellow zillionaire Buddy Leach did four years go. Leach ran fourth, but the field was more crowded then. Georges predicts he will run second to Jindal and beat him in the runoff.
Jindal's supporters say quietly that if their boy has to go to a runoff, Georges is the opponent they want.
For his part, Jindal has stuck to a carefully crafted script " so much so that he has avoided the vast majority of debates and forums, waging a 'rose garden" campaign that has confounded his opponents and drawn fire from the media. Jindal answers that he is taking his message directly to voters. Indeed, his campaign tour bus has hit every small town in the state, allowing the popular congressman to press the flesh with crowds of supporters while avoiding his adversaries. Meanwhile, he has waged a parallel, cyberspace campaign that has galvanized a whole generation of young voters " all the while maintaining his core base of support among the Religious Right and conservative seniors.
In TV ads, Jindal started out by proclaiming 'corruption" the real enemy and touting his 31-point plan to strengthen Louisiana's ethics laws. Since then, he has unveiled a variety of platforms on the major issues. Going into the final week, he has agreed to participate in only three televised debates.
As Election Day nears, Jindal finds himself more and more on the defensive, particularly for not attending more debates. For the most part, however, he has taken the body blows and remained far ahead in the polls. Sometimes, he has even turned the attacks to his advantage, as when the Democratic Party aired a TV ad in Protestant north Louisiana allegedly exposing some of Jindal's early writings on religion as attacks against Protestants; Jindal and the GOP bloggers decried the ad as 'attacks on Bobby's Christianity."
On the issues, Jindal is easily the most conservative and Campbell the most liberal. Boasso and Georges have carved up the middle, though they don't always agree. For example, Georges proudly proclaims that he was the only candidate to attend the protest march in Jena, La., on Sept. 20. He passed out bottled water to the peaceful marchers along the route, but otherwise did not participate in any of the protests.
Campbell has been the most outspoken in his support of the proposed LSU-VA teaching hospital in New Orleans, fully embracing the plan as proposed by LSU medical school leaders at 484 beds. Georges also supports the hospital as proposed. Boasso has suggested a 'hybrid" plan, while Jindal says he supports the idea of an LSU-VA teaching hospital in New Orleans, but he's not convinced it needs 484 beds.
In their own words, here's how the candidates differentiate themselves from one another, courtesy of the Council for A Better Louisiana online questionnaire (www.cabl.org):
Boasso " 'I'm a big guy who will always stand up for the little guy." Asked to describe Louisiana at the end of his first term as governor, Boasso answered, 'It will be a state that has passed sweeping insurance, education and health-care reforms on behalf of working families. Unless our working families have the opportunity to prosper and are given the tools to compete globally, there is no way for our state to make real progress."
Campbell " 'I'm the only candidate with a plan that can address the critical issues facing Louisiana for many years " aging infrastructure, coastal erosion, public schools, health care " and new ones, such as New Orleans' recovery. I will eliminate the state income tax on both businesses and individuals, putting $3.1 billion back into the pockets of Louisianans each year rather than them paying it into the state treasury. That revenue, plus $600 million from the elimination of the severance tax, can be replaced by instituting a 6 percent fee on oil and gas processed in the state, much of it from foreign nations and companies. The fee will produce an additional $1.7 billion each year to address Louisiana's critical needs."
Georges " 'My unique combination as a leader in business, government, education and anti-crime measures illustrate the most significant difference and the single most important reason I'm running for governor. Having served on the Board of Regents for six years, the board of my children's school, and the Board of Crime Stoppers, I have diverse experience in a variety of areas. I have turned around a diverse group of failed businesses and enterprises. For too long, career politicians and partisanship have run our state and tarnished its image, all the while giving lip service to pressing issues and accomplishing little. My proven record of success is in dramatic contrast with my opponents' proven record of winning elections."
Jindal " 'I have the background and experience needed to undertake a detailed, comprehensive effort that will give Louisiana the fresh start it so desperately needs. The challenges facing our state require more than just catchy sound bites and, quite frankly, Louisiana voters expect and deserve more. My plan will rid corruption and incompetence from state government, help us fulfill our economic potential, improve education for our children, and reform our current two-tiered health-care system. I have represented Louisiana in Congress, run our state health system and portions of our higher education system, worked in the private sector and served in the federal government. No other candidate can match this unique and varied experience."
Going into the final week, the biggest unanswered question is whether Jindal can win it all in the primary. Voters will answer that one on Saturday. If the race goes to a runoff, it will be a brand-new campaign.