Jindal: The man who could be GOP king
CHARLOTTE — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal stands out among the Republican Party's up-and-comers.
As president of the Republican Governors Association and a frequent speaker for the GOP, he's one of a new generation of reform-minded, young Republican leaders — among them, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.
Many observers consider Jindal, 41, potential presidential material. He is a blunt talker who pushes big change for government and his party.
“He thinks like a chief executive,” said Brad Todd, a Washington-based Republican who worked on Jindal's campaigns.
In conversations and interviews, Jindal speaks fast. His mind moves fast.
A whiz kid born to immigrant parents in Baton Rouge, he changed his name from “Piyush” to “Bobby,” impressed by the youngest son on the TV sitcom “The Brady Bunch.” He started a computer newsletter and two businesses in high school. Harvard and Yale universities accepted his applications, but he chose to study biology and public policy at Brown University and became a Rhodes Scholar at University of Oxford's New College.
His executive experience began at 24 when he was appointed to run Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals, an unwieldy bureaucracy.
“Governors have to manage a huge team of people; presidents, also — the entire federal government,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. “So governors tend to be more credible as candidates for president than, say, members of Congress.”
Schmidt thinks Jindal's rapid-fire delivery shows his smarts and his Indian-American ethnicity appears to have enhanced his success in Louisiana.
“He ... has broken the ‘ethnic ceiling' in a southern state, which is a huge accomplishment,” as is gaining the trust of GOP leaders, Schmidt said. “Jindal is young, fresh, dynamic. He appeals to the more diverse needs of the GOP and is a ... competent public servant.”
Yet Jindal avoids addressing the speculation that he might run for president in 2016.
He told reporters after his speech during the Republican National Committee's Winter Meeting last week that “any Republican that's thinking about talking about running for president in 2016 needs to get his head examined.” Before that can happen, he said, “We've got a lot of work to do.”
In an interview with the Tribune-Review, Jindal said his first run for governor in 2003, which he lost to Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, showed him how he might do things better. He never considered it “something to hold me back,” he said.
Instead, he campaigned and won a congressional seat, then the governor's office in 2007 — in a state whose people soured on machine politics after Hurricane Katrina.
Few people might recall his uninspiring rebuttal to President Obama's budget in 2009. But Jindal returned to the national stage a year later with fiery criticism of the federal response when thick oil coated his state's coastline as a result of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion.
This year, he and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who heads the Democratic Governors Association, will joust on cable news channels for bragging rights on campaign strategy for gubernatorial elections this fall in New Jersey and Virginia. They'll raise money for their parties in anticipation of 36 races in 2014.
Jindal likes what he sees from the country's 30 other Republican governors.
“At the state level is where you see real conservative reforms happening,” he told the Trib. “I think governors are in the advantageous position, where we can point (out), with concrete results, the impact our policies have had on state economies.”
Though some critics give Jindal thumbs-down for his fiscal performance, Standard and Poor's in 2009 raised Louisiana's bond rating and credit outlook from stable to positive, crediting strong state management.
He might not be running for higher office yet, but Jindal in 2012 quickly became a no-holds-barred critic of the Republican Party's failure to win the White House. He urged the party to connect with Hispanics, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and to tone down rhetoric on abortion and women's issues that turned off other voters.
Schmidt predicts Jindal will tactically try to upstage Ryan and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., by painting them as “inside the Beltway.” His RNC speech urged the party to address conservatism where it thrives — in the real world outside the Washington Beltway.
“That is a brilliant strategy and makes him stand out,” Schmidt said.
Jindal said Louisiana, like Pennsylvania, benefits from energy from shale and manufacturing.
“We have announced tens of billions of dollars in projects and capital investments in steel plants, fertilizer plants and all kinds of downstream projects — and most importantly, jobs,” he said.
He prefers talking about his family. He helped his wife Supriya, a chemical engineer, deliver their third child at home.
“I was making jokes with her to try to take her mind off of it,” he said, recounting it with her while in Charlotte.
Supriya recalled: “At some point, I said to him, ‘Really, you picked this moment to try to be funny?' ”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com.