One October evening at the Chimes restaurant in Baton Rouge, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco leaned across the table to Robert Mann.
“You do have tenure, don’t you?”
Mann, a communications professor at Louisiana State University, gets that ominous question just about every day. Mann does indeed have tenure, meaning LSU officials cannot terminate him without just cause.
To Blanco and others who ask, Mann said, “assume that if I didn’t, Jindal would find a way to get rid of me.”
Over the past year, Gov. Bobby Jindal has gained a reputation in Baton Rouge for punishing state employees and state legislators who get in his way or might sully his image, as he spends more and more time trying to burnish his national reputation.
Several legislators and top state officials told The Lens that they could not be quoted criticizing the governor for fear of reprisal.
In March, C.B. Forgotston, a longtime political insider who also writes a blog critical of the governor, dubbed him “Huey P. Jindal” after the heavy-handed Kingfish. The name has stuck among legislators.
Among state employees, Professor Robert Mann has become the most vocal critic of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Photo by Tyler Bridges.
Mann has not been punished for his outspokenness. Through regular posts to his widely read blog, he has become one of Jindal’s biggest critics. Mann is certainly the most prominent on the state payroll. (Dayne Sherman, an associate professor of library science at Southeastern Louisiana University, also rails against the governor on his blog, but he is less well known.)
Most recently, Mann has written that Jindal is dismantling LSU’s public hospital system and has reduced state funding for the university in order to win favor from anti-government conservatives outside of Louisiana, not for the betterment of the state.
Following last month’s election, Mann wrote, “Jindal, as always, will be focused on the business of his political future, an enterprise that has consumed him for 15 years or more. … Sure, he’ll keep giving us that line about how he has the job he wants. But we all know the job he wants isn’t in Baton Rouge. We’re just a weigh station on his road to greatness.”
Jindal’s communications director, Kyle Plotkin, didn’t respond to a request for an interview with the governor, after accusing The Lens of asking biased questions.
House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said in an interview, “The governor has never strong-armed me or told me what to do.”
Many others say that’s not how Jindal operates.
“The governor doesn’t tolerate dissent,” said Dr. Roxane Townsend, who headed LSU’s South Louisiana hospitals until her ouster in September. “They knew I wouldn’t spew the party line.”
In 2012, Jindal:
- Removed Martha Manuel, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs, less than 24 hours after she publicly questioned a move of the governor’s.
- Sacked Cynthia Bridges, the longtime secretary at the Department of Revenue, after news reports that her interpretation of a legislative tax break would cost the state much more than projected.
- Engineered the removal of several top officials at LSU, including System President John Lombardi, System General Counsel Raymond Lamonica and two doctors who oversaw the university’s public hospitals. LSU officials said they were all seen as obstacles to privatizing the university’s hospital system.
- Played a decisive role in getting Kleckley to remove four state legislators from choice committee assignments who had opposed Jindal on major initiatives, according to the legislators.
One sign that Jindal has gained a reputation for vindictiveness came in September when Fred Cerise, one of the doctors who oversaw LSU’s hospitals, spoke at a League of Women Voters luncheon in Baton Rouge. Jean Armstrong, who heads the league’s Baton Rouge chapter, asked photographers covering the event not to pan over the crowd because, as she explained in an interview later, state employees in attendance had told her beforehand that they feared retaliation.
“The governor’s reputation precedes him,” Armstrong said. “If you disagree, you disappear.”
Armstrong called back to add: “There’s a new saying: ‘believing’ or ‘be leaving.’”
Jindal’s growing reputation for ruthlessness among insiders belies the cozy image he has projected in Louisiana since he became governor in 2007, and across the country as he undertakes what appears to be a nascent presidential campaign.
Even critics recognize that Jindal has the right to remove or demote officials who do not share his agenda. Cerise, for example, views his removal as a difference in philosophy, not as retribution.
“As Jindal appointed more board members [to the LSU Board of Supervisors], LSU’s position changed,” Cerise said in an interview. “The board had a new agenda, and I couldn’t sell what they wanted to sell. I get that. They want to achieve something I didn’t want to achieve.
“Fundamentally, I think there’s a value in LSU running a safety net system” for the poor, Cerise said. “This administration doesn’t think the state should be in the business of doing that. So we were frustrating some of their efforts. They couldn’t achieve their goal with me and my team in those positions.”
But what concerns Cerise is that Jindal’s direct intervention in LSU means “there’s not a real free-flow of opinion. People with knowledge of programs and operations don’t feel free to express their opinions publicly.”
Like Cerise, Townsend doesn’t view her removal as punishment. She, too, found that Jindal and his top aides tried to stifle her and others who might air contrary views.
“I was asked not to say things, not to say the whole story,” said Townsend, who is moving to the University of Arkansas to help run their public hospital.
Professor Kevin Cope, who has tangled with Jindal as president of LSU’s Faculty Senate, said the governor’s moves have caused university leaders to shy from making decisions that might run afoul of him.
“The fear is greatest at the middle to upper management level – the deans, associate deans, department chairs and vice chancellors who run the university,” Cope said.
Asked whether it is fair to say that the governor or his staff directs him to silence dissenters, William Jenkins, the interim president of the LSU System and interim chancellor of LSU, said in an email: “No, it would not be fair nor accurate to say that.”
Martha Manuel said she understood that Jindal expected her to toe the line. Jindal aides had berated her for expressing contrary views in private meetings, she said.
One morning in March, Manuel told her husband that she might be fired because she planned to tell legislators, if asked at a committee hearing that day, that Jindal’s plan to transfer the Office of Elderly Affairs into the Department of Health and Hospitals would harm the care of the elderly.
Manuel was surprised by how swiftly the governor’s office reacted. The first call came just as she was leaving the Capitol. Manuel didn’t answer that or repeated calls that afternoon. Jindal aide Tammy Woods reached her at home the following morning with the news of her immediate dismissal.
“They sent people to load up my stuff at work and take my stuff off the walls before I arrived,” Manuel said. “It was incredible.”
Jindal, of course, is not the first governor of Louisiana to crack the whip in the Legislature. Governor Blanco and her speaker, Joe Salter, removed state Rep. Troy Hebert as chairman of the Insurance Committee for leading the fight against a tax the governor was pushing, after being warned not to do so.
While Blanco used humor afterward to defuse tension between her and Hebert, Jindal has angered the four men his speaker removed this year from plum committee assignments: Reps. Cameron Henry, Joe Harrison, Harold Ritchie and Jim Morris.
“It’s unfortunate to remove someone simply for asking too many questions,” said Henry, R-Metairie. If he had misled Jindal, his aides and Kleckley, “or if I had lied to them in some capacity, I would have greater understanding.”
Henry played a leading role among a group of conservative legislators who opposed Jindal’s use of one-time money for annual spending programs in the state budget. Kleckley removed him from the coveted Appropriations Committee.
“There’s no open discussion or constructive criticism,” said Harrison, R-Houma, referring to Jindal’s aides. “I told them once, ‘When I was your age, I thought I knew everything. I just didn’t have the authority to screw things up.’”
Harrison opposed Jindal’s moves to privatize the LSU hospitals and the state benefits program. Kleckley removed him from Appropriations as well.
Morris, R-Oil City, opposed Jindal’s plan to revamp the state’s K-12 education system. He lost his position as vice chairman of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, opposed the voucher plan that would allow state dollars to be used for children to attend private schools. He lost his vice chairmanship of the Insurance Committee.
Kleckley said Jindal and his aides played no role in his decision to remove the four legislators.
Kleckley cited one instance in which the governor, after listening to him and other lawmakers, backed away from plans this year to raise the retirement age for state employees. “He’s open to my ideas,” Kleckley said.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, also said he has found Jindal willing to hear contrary views.
“I have never had the experience of him not listening,” Alario said. “He has not told me to remove senators. Of course, that wouldn’t sit well in the Senate.”
Gov. Buddy Roemer didn’t remove any legislators during his term from 1988-92 but said he was tempted to do so. “I see a need for discipline and consequences,” Roemer said, explaining his general philosophy. “But I also see a need for team-building.”
About Jindal, a fellow Republican, Roemer said, “At times, there seems to be some retribution and some penalty for disagreeing with the governor.”
Blanco, a Democrat who defeated Jindal in the 2003 governor’s race, said a governor who discourages hearing contrary views can end up with a worse plan.
“There are always nuances that any one individual might not be aware of,” Blanco said. “You can hear things that might not debilitate the concept. They might make the policy or law stronger.”
About Bob Mann, who served for half her term as her communications director, Blanco remembered telling him in October: “You’re testing the tenure laws. How much confidence do you have?”
Mann, 54, came to LSU in 2006 after working for Blanco. Before that, he served as an aide to Sens. Russell Long, J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux. He started out as a political reporter for The Shreveport Journal and The News-Star in Monroe.
Along the way, Mann has written nine books, including “Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics” and “When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954-1968.”
Mann calls his blog “Something Like the Truth.” Sitting in his corner office at the Manship School of Mass Communication, he said he didn’t start out planning to rip Jindal regularly.
“But the governor provides a lot of fodder,” he said with a laugh.
Most recently, Mann has written that Jindal’s intervention in LSU, through his appointed board, is jeopardizing the university’s accreditation, upon which depends millions of dollars in student federal aid, grants and loans.
“People have compared him to Huey Long,” Mann said in an interview. “At least Long was doing it to build roads and bridges and this university. Jindal is tearing this university apart.”
Mann has studied some of the country’s best politicians. Can he stand back and admire Jindal’s use of hardball tactics?
“Sometimes the ends justify the means,” Mann said. “But the good of Louisiana does not appear to be his first objective. They are mostly about his national ambitions. If you get in the way of that, that gets you fired.”
Could Mann lose his job?
“I don’t think I’m putting it at risk,” said Mann, who has a $117,000 annual salary to hold the Manship Chair at the school and serve as director of the school’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.
He noted that Charlie Cook, a Louisiana native who publishes the respected Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C., pulled him aside on a visit to the Manship School and said: “Your friends are very worried about you. Be careful.”
Cook’s comment got Mann’s attention. “Holy smoke!” Mann said. “He’s one of the smartest and shrewdest political observers out there.”
But Mann believes that the tenure law protects him, and he doesn’t plan on holding his fire.
“In for a dime, in for a dollar,” he said, surrounded by photos of him with big-shot Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore. “I’ve already given them enough reason to fire me, if they’re going to come after me. Stopping being critical of Bobby Jindal is not going to cause them to give me an award. If there’s to be retribution, my fate has been sealed.”