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Pushing Our Political Frontiers

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April 2003
Pushing Our Political Frontiers

By ASEEM CHHABRA

At age 31 most people are working through their first job, paying off school loans, and perhaps settling down in marriage with their college sweetheart. But look how much Bobby (Piyush) Jindal has achieved.

He graduated from Brown University with a perfect 4.0 grade point average at age 20. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and a management consultant for McKinsey & Company at 23, secretary of Louisiana?s Department of Health and Hospitals at 23, executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare at 26, and president of the University of Louisiana System, the largest in the nation, at age 27! At age 29, he was the assistant secretary of the Health and Human Services, reporting directly to Secretary Tommy Thompson. That made him the highest ranking Indian-American in the Bush administration.

And now he wants to become the governor of his home state Louisiana. That makes him not only the first Indian American to run for any state governor office, but also, if elected, undoubtedly the youngest Louisiana governor.

?The reason I got into this race is simple,? says Jindal. ?I have a daughter and I want her to grow up and pursue the economic and the educational opportunities that brought my parents here in the first place. And I don?t want my daughter to have to leave the state to pursue the same opportunities. Too many people in Louisiana are finding that to fulfill their dreams they have to leave the state.?

He acknowledges that he has left his home state on several occasions, but adds that he always came back. ?I always knew this would be my home where I would raise my family. What?s disturbing now isn?t the people who are leaving for a couple of years and then coming back, but rather the people who are finding their careers in Atlanta, in Houston and in Dallas, rather than find the same opportunities here.?

Jindal is running as a Republican. And the field is already crowded. By one count there are 11 other Republican and Democratic candidates who have expressed their intentions to run for the state?s governorship. But according to Jindal party labels and national issues do not hold much ground in Louisiana. The state has an open primary and then the top two vote getters contest in a run off election.

Jindal believes that there are three qualities that a candidate must have to succeed in the crowded race ? experience and vision to move the state forward, political support from senior officials and business leaders, and the ability to raise money. And he says he has all the three strengths.

Louisiana?s current incumbent state Governor Murphy J. ?Mike? Foster is backing Jindal?s campaign as are some of the state?s other elected officials. Jindal had experience working within Louisiana?s state systems and his campaign is set to raise at least $500,000 within the next few weeks. To top it all, national Indian American groups (including some that usually back Democratic candidates) have pledged their support to him.

One person backing Jindal is Rev. Billy McCormick, a local preacher, who has worked with the Rev. Pat Robertson in establishing the right-wing Christian Coalition.

?We welcome support from a diverse group,? says Jindal, sounding like a seasoned politician. ?At a recent press conference, one person got up and said ?Look we don?t agree with each other. But we do agree that Bobby is the best person to lead the state forward.? That is very gratifying to hear, because for us to be successful we will have to unite. So I am glad to have the support of such a large and significant group in Louisiana.?

Jindal also brushes aside any discussion relating to the neo-conservatism agenda that the Republican Party is pursuing at the national level. ?It is mistake to apply national labels to the Louisiana situation,? he says. ?This is not a traditional state. This election is about local and state issues. It is not about national issues that often define the parties.?

Jindal says he was always intrigued by public policy and health care. He majored in public policy and biology at Brown. While working for McKinsey in Washington, DC, Jindal read a news item that the health care system in his home state ? Louisiana was in a mess, almost near collapse.

He says that he was invited by the state?s governor to discuss the project and he was offered the job of secretary of Louisiana?s Department of Health and Hospitals. When Jindal took over the health and hospital department it was a maze of large bureaucracy, with 13,000 employees, a $4.5 billion budget. The department was running a $400 million deficit ? a drain on the state?s entire budgeting system.

With lessons he had learnt at McKinsey, within a short time, Jindal was able to restructure the system. Spending was cut by 25%; approximately 1,000 department jobs were eliminated; and the state?s immunization rates shot up from 55% to 80-90%. In the field of health screening of children, Louisiana moved from the 37th to the third ranking state in the country.

Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Jindal attributes a lot of his success to the values that he gained from his parents ? Amar, an engineer and Raj, a senior manager at Louisiana State Department of Labor. His parents migrated to the US six months before Jindal was born. He also has a younger brother Nikesh.

Jindal?s parents named him Piyush. But when he was four, Jindal told his kindergarten teacher that from that day on he would like to be called Bobby, after his favorite character from The Brady Bunch show. The name has stuck with him.

?Who knows what a four year old decides to do?? Jindal remarks, adding that he does not watch the television show anymore. ?It was a lot more interesting when I was younger.?

Although Jindal grew up in a Hindu household, with pujas at family friends? homes and Diwali celebrations, he converted to Catholicism when he was in college.

?That was what I thought God was calling me to do,? he says. ?That is how he wanted me to worship and how he wanted me to be. My parents supported me because they understood that I hadn?t rejected the morals and principles they taught me growing up.?

Now Jindal and his wife Supriya ? a chemical engineer, who also converted to Catholicism, attend church every Sunday and their year old daughter, Selia ? was baptized.

Jindal denies that converting to the Catholic faith was a political move on his part. ?The choice of one?s faith is very personal matter,? he says. ?It is something people do after prayer and contemplation. I am actually very pleased. People have been very respectful and supportive of that decision?

Jindal is certain that his India American heritage will not have a negative impact in a southern state. ?The Louisiana voters aren?t going to focus on the background of a particular candidate,? he says. ?They are really going to look at what prepares him to lead our state forward. Has he had the experience? Does he have knowledge of our state and a plan to move our state forward??


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