The Louisiana governor was found dead in a bedroom of the official mansion, lipstick smears all up and down his knee and thigh. He seemed to have been poisoned. And there would barely be time to bury him before a big succession battle would take place, with several politicians in line for power actually trying desperately to avoid the job. One was a hopeless drunk. One was mobbed up. And all of them had crooked deals and crooked alliances that couldn’t survive the light of day. Big money was at risk also, especially with regard to a toxic chemical dumping scheme….
Okay, okay, this didn’t really happen. It’s from a novel, a rambunctious (and at times uproarious) fictional ride through Louisiana’s infamous political circus. Last of the Red Hot Poppas, by accomplished New Orleans journalist/author Jason Berry, is well worth the read.
The sad truth, though, is that Louisiana’s reputation for political skullduggery is so well established that most of you readers probably thought I was writing about a real-life scandal sometime in the Bayou State’s past. Berry’s novel works because, even as satire, its premise is at least somewhat believable.
Beginning Sunday, the edifice of that reputation may be dismantled, brick by brick.
Fulfilling the most galvanizing of all of his campaign promises, in his first major act in office, new Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will convene his state Legislature for a special session this Sunday devoted entirely to ethics reforms. If he succeeds in his battle against corruption, he will have launched a term in office that as soon as four years from now could unite a conservative movement, and a Republican Party, that now is more fractured than at any time in the past three-plus decades. Jindal has the potential, without a doubt, to be the Barack Obama of the right — just as inspirational, and far more substantive.
Jindal’s agenda for the special session includes stringent new restrictions on lobbyists’ wining, dining, and gifting of public officials; seriously expanded financial disclosure requirements for all public officials (including judges who long have operated under their own rules); new prohibitions against state contracts for legislators and their family members; significant new requirements for lobbyist transparency (including a publicly searchable database); annual ethics training for all public officials; expanded whistleblower protections; greater disclosure of campaign contributions; and assorted other measures. Public interest in the session seems high, and public support seems strong. Moreover, a vast turnover in both houses of the Legislature has brought in a host of new lawmakers who at least claim to be reformers.
Reformist editorial writer Lanny Keller of the daily Baton Rouge Advocate, a 30-year veteran political observer and sometime participant, told me Wednesday that Jindal’s press conference outlining his session plans was “a masterful performance.” Keller said the Jindal reforms have momentum behind them.
Still, he warned, he is just starting to pick up “a slow undercurrent of the old timers” — longtime interest group honchos and a few veteran legislators — who may be rallying for some pushback efforts. Against them, said Keller, Jindal has “a very green crew. Are they going to be able to fight in the trenches of the Legislature over the details of the bills? They are very bright, but this is their first big test.”
And even if they succeed as well as most observers expect, their tests will only get harder still. Louisiana’s economy is notoriously unsteady, a seemingly random phantasmagoria of booms and busts. The state’s biggest city is of course still plagued by the grim aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And its coastal marshlands are eroding at a frightening rate, so far defying most of the feeble state and federal efforts to reverse the loss.
But Jindal himself is famously brilliant. He’s also the rare technocrat who boasts “people skills” almost as well developed as his policy analyses. And his work ethic is legendary. If anybody can figure out how to overcome all of the challenges ahead, without letting success go to his head or that of his administration of whiz kids, it’s Jindal.
GRANTED, NATIONAL OBSERVERS would be wrong to pronounce Jindal a success before he is several years into his term, at least. Many a would-be reformer has fallen prey to hubris or has been defeated while tilting at one windmill too many. (Reader, you can insert here the proper warning from Southern literature, “the stench of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” and all that rot.) For good reason, though, conservatives believe that this particular reformer is different: more principled, more intelligent, more energetic, more determined.
It is worth noting that author Jason Berry does not let the very real cultural rot chronicled in his novel smother all chances of redemption. Integrity, in Berry’s telling, does have at least a fighting chance. (Berry is no conservative politically, but his ethical compass always points North.)
The good news in Louisiana is that public sentiment in Bobby Jindal’s favor gives him far more than a fighting chance. And if he wins this first fight, and then starts winning in broader public policy fights…well, the nation as a whole could always use another breath of fresh air.