Folding tables laden with crawfish stretched from one end of the second-floor balcony to the other. Senate President John Alario was hosting an evening gathering for senators, spouses and staffers three weeks ago outside his apartment at the Pentagon Barracks, next to the Capitol.
Sen. Francis Thompson was just finishing a plate of crustaceans when he looked up and saw Gov. Bobby Jindal talking with a group two tables away. Jindal ambled over to greet Thompson (D-Delhi), Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe), and their wives, Marilyn and Felicia. For the next 20 minutes, the four exchanged pleasantries with the governor about children and grandchildren.
Afterward, Thompson and Marilyn commented appreciatively to each other that Jindal seemed relaxed and unhurried, even though he faces political battles on nearly all fronts. “He was just visiting,” Thompson said later.
Thompson and the Senate crowd had witnessed one of Jindal’s rare encounters with other elected officials in Louisiana. Interviews with more than a dozen legislative leaders, as well as five of the six statewide elected officials, reveal that the governor has had little time for them during his five-plus years in office.
This characteristic of the governor’s is well-known among Capitol insiders, but it will probably come as a surprise to most Louisiana residents, who are accustomed to seeing Jindal on television announcing plans for a new business or describing how the state is handling the latest natural disaster.
When elected officials do see him, Jindal usually skips making nice to get right down to business. No one in the Capitol can identify any friendships Jindal has developed among lawmakers, unusual for a governor. In the meantime, Jindal’s substantive time with elected officials has practically disappeared since he won re-election in November 2011 and stepped up travel outside of Louisiana to further his national ambitions.
Jindal met with Republican senators on Wednesday but is relying increasingly on his staff to deal directly with elected officials. His staffers have dropped the ball several times in recent months in ways that have angered several powerful lawmakers.
Jindal’s arms-length approach appeared to work well during his first term, when he enjoyed public approval ratings above 50 percent and succeeded in passing most of his relatively unambitious legislative agenda. He remained popular and retained his re-election glow into 2012 when the Legislature passed his far-reaching education package.
But power is clearly shifting away from Jindal, with commentators beginning to label him a lame duck. He had to withdraw his main legislative priority, a complicated, unpopular plan to eliminate the state’s income tax, after even most Republicans shunned it. The retreat came less than a week after a poll showed his approval rating had tumbled to 38 percent as voters rebelled against his cuts to universities and hospitals and his frequent out-of-state trips.
Last Tuesday, Democrats and Fiscal Hawks joined forces in the House to reject overwhelmingly a budget plan crafted by the Jindal administration, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, and Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. On Thursday, Kleckley, leading from the rear, reversed himself and endorsed their move. A year ago, Jindal was able to fend off challenges to his budget.
“When you’re in your last term, particularly when finances are what they are, you have to rely on relationships you’ve built,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, a veteran lawmaker. “And he doesn’t have them to call on.”
Access to governor drops in second term
Like his recent predecessors, Jindal began his first term by holding weekly meetings with key lawmakers during the legislative session. The Legislature quickly approved his proposed changes to the state’s ethics rules.
In his third year, Jindal met weekly with House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, Rep. Fannin and House Speaker pro tem Joel Robideaux, then a political independent from Lafayette. “We would talk about what was going on,” Robideaux, now a Republican, recalled in an interview. “This allowed the fourth floor [the governor’s office] and legislative leaders to pick each other’s brain, to see if any lobbying efforts were needed.”
Robideaux said the weekly meetings ceased in 2011 when Jindal was facing re-election, and have not resumed in his second term.
During the second term, Robideaux has different responsibilities in the House as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which gets first crack at approving or rejecting tax legislation. So it fell to Robideaux early this year to sponsor Jindal’s proposal to rewrite the state’s tax system. Robideaux said he attended three or four meetings with the governor during the early stages of planning.
“They were pretty open conversations about what might be possible, what way was the best approach, general strategy,” Robideaux said. “He has an uncanny ability to really grasp unfamiliar topics quickly. He understood the good, the bad, the difficulties. He was engaged.”
In February, Jindal began to meet individually with some key legislators to discuss the tax plan, but hosted most of them in groups at the long dining room table in the Governor’s Mansion. Lawmakers had several minutes apiece to express their views to Jindal.
By mid-March, with the governor’s plan facing a wave of criticism, Robideaux was not getting invited to any more meetings with Jindal. He would meet instead with Tim Barfield, the executive counsel of the Department of Revenue, and Paul Rainwater, the governor’s chief of staff.
On April 8, Jindal addressed the House and Senate together to kick off the two-month legislative session. Ten minutes before Jindal’s speech, Robideaux learned from another legislator that the governor was dropping his tax plan, the one that Robideaux was sponsoring, the governor’s chief priority.
Asked later if he was surprised, Robideaux said he was not. “He has a lot going on this session,” he said.
Kleckley told reporters he didn’t get a heads-up either.
“I haven’t seen him [Jindal] much this session,” Kleckley said later, specifying it as “maybe half a dozen times. If I need anything, I call Paul Rainwater.”
Macro-manager or absent leader?
The governor’s Republican allies in the House say they don’t mind rarely seeing him. “It’s on a need-to-contact basis,” said state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, who chairs the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. “I’m fine dealing with the staff. I get to the right people in the executive branch.”
State Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, concurred. “There are 144 officials in this body,” he said, referring to the total membership of the House and Senate. “I don’t get my feelings hurt. I have access to him through his staff. I have to believe that when I communicate with them, they pass along what I say.”
But Republican lawmakers who are more likely to buck the governor express puzzlement at his approach.
“If I was governor, I’d be down here as much as it took,” said state Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, who heads the House Republican Caucus and has challenged Jindal’s budget plan this year. “I’m more of a hands-on guy. Everything is about relationships. Life doesn’t give you what you want. It gives you what you deserve.”
Harris said he met privately with Jindal to discuss the tax plan, and they visited after the governor spoke to a House Republican delegation meeting three weeks ago.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite, Harris’ Democrat counterpart, expressed surprise at how little time Jindal’s legislative lieutenants get with him. “If you were really interested in governing Louisiana, wouldn’t you spend more time with those people? I would spend time in the chamber visiting with members. If they had concerns, they could visit with me.”
Edwards is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a former army officer. “At West Point, they teach you to lead from the front,” he said. “What that means is that people see you. Who sees Bobby Jindal right now?”
No one asked that question of Gov. Edwin Edwards during his four terms in office, from 1972-80, 1984-88 and 1992-96. Edwards usually got the Legislature to do his bidding. Veteran legislators say he would have state legislators and other statewide officials to the Governor’s Mansion for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He would go dove hunting with them. He would invite them to the fourth floor. He would return their phone calls promptly.
Adley served in the House from 1980-96 and has been in the Senate since 2004. He reflected on Gov. Buddy Roemer (1988-92), Gov. Mike Foster (1996-2004) and Gov. Kathleen Blanco (2004-08).
“Blanco was very accessible to discuss issues,” Adley said. “Foster was a little more distant. He gave more authority to his staff. Roemer’s downfall came from legislators. He met with them early on. But he, too, withdrew and had problems.
“The one who was the most personable of all was Edwards, the one I most fought with. He recently introduced me at an event as ‘a part-time nemesis and a full-time friend.’ That’s what made him so successful. I used to tell him, ‘You’re the best leader I ever met. You just want to lead me the wrong way.’ You might not be with him on one issue, but he knew there would be other issues he’d need you for.”
Little interaction with top state leaders
Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said Jindal “has an inordinate amount of influence on what I do, policy-wise” but said he meets with the governor only once or so a year. “When I’ve gone to the staff with a need, they’ve accommodated it. I have Kristy Nichols’ cell number in my cell phone. Each instance I said I needed him, he made very little but the necessary time available.”
Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said he sees Jindal frequently during disaster briefings as a member of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. But they rarely meet otherwise. “Everybody has their own style,” Strain said, before adding, “I could call the governor and get a meeting. He’s never said no.”
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell estimated that he’s spent a total of 35 minutes with Jindal during their five-plus years in office together.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler did not respond to an interview request Monday but released a statement.*
“The Governor called me personally right after I was elected to congratulate me on my victory, but beyond that we have had little one-on-one contact,” Schedler said. “I do speak with many of his top staff routinely and feel like those relationships satisfy my needs. His style works for him and so honestly, it works for me.”
Lieutenant Gov. Jay Dardenne said he and Jindal have had two substantive conversations in the three years he has held the job, and no phone conversations. “I’ve always been able to reach his chief of staff,” Dardenne said. “I don’t have his [Jindal’s] cell phone. The governor said they would get me his cell number. I never got it. I never asked again.”
Jindal didn’t notify Dardenne when he traveled out of the state until The Advocate wrote a story about this last July. Under the state Constitution, Dardenne technically becomes the governor when Jindal is gone.
“I would say he has virtually no professional relationship with me and the other statewide elected officials,” Dardenne said. “It’s just become a given that no one has a lot of communication with him.”
Dardenne reflected a moment on Jindal’s approach. “He’s certainly had his way with the Legislature,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to have impeded him with the Legislature. But now he’s facing his first pushback.”
Treasurer John Kennedy said he and Jindal haven’t spoken in 18 months, even to exchange a greeting. In all, Kennedy remembers only three meetings during their five-plus years in office together. “It’s just his management style,” Kennedy said. “He’s a macro-manager. You’re supposed to deal with his staff.”
Kennedy acknowledged that he and Jindal have butted heads in the press over Kennedy’s stream of criticism that Jindal’s budgets have been unbalanced. But, Kennedy said, “If Bobby called me tomorrow and said, ‘I need your help,’ I’d cancel whatever I’m doing and be there.”
Critics blame national ambitions
That call has yet to come. Nor has Jindal reached out to state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles. Geymann leads the Fiscal Hawks, a year-old group of about 30 mostly conservative Republicans that has pushed Jindal to take one-time spending out of the budget and make the budget-writing process more transparent.
Geymann said he couldn’t recall his last meaningful conversation with Jindal. He added they have never discussed the Fiscal Hawks’ concerns, which seem to dovetail with the criticisms that Jindal regularly launches at President Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington. “If I knew there was a rather large and formal group that was working on a solution to the budget problem, I’d want to sit with them and see if it was something we could work out,” Geymann said.
State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Franklinton, expressed surprise that Jindal has not reached out to Kennedy, Geymann and other critics. “I’ve always been taught in politics that after being elected, you want to go and make friends with your enemies,” Ritchie said. “You don’t throw those people away. You rebuild your relationships.”
Why has Jindal been so invisible of late? “He doesn’t have his eye on Louisiana,” Ritchie said. “He has his eye turned in another direction, other than Louisiana. That’s the main reason he’s inaccessible, I’m guessing.”
Two requests for an interview with Jindal over a 10-day period to his communications director, Kyle Plotkin, and his press secretary, Sean Lansing, went unanswered.
In 2012, Jindal spent at least 86 days politicking outside of Louisiana, The Advocate reported last month. Jindal went to Las Vegas two weeks ago for a Republican Governors Association event – he chairs the group this year – and ended April in Palm Springs, Calif., at a conference of GOP heavy-hitters organized by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.*
Friday, while House Democrats and Fiscal Hawks were crafting a budget in defiance of the governor, he spoke in Houston at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting. Jindal, widely assumed to be planning a run for the White House in 2016, is scheduled to speak to a Republican fundraiser in New Hampshire this month.
“That we have a bright, articulate governor who gets national attention is an asset,” Donelon said. “It comes with a price: access” for those back home.
His supporters say Jindal makes maximum use out of his time in Louisiana.
“What are the results?” asked state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. “He got his ethics package. We passed the largest, most successful education package in the United States, although it’s being picked apart. We’ve had no tax increases, although we have had whack budget problems. You go to other states and look at the fiscal issues they’ve had. So I take the 30,000-foot view – he’s been very successful with his management style.”
Term limits partly account for Jindal’s legislative victories, particularly in the House, which is filled with newcomers. Until recently, they tended to be more deferential to Jindal and didn’t know how previous governors operated, a former elected official who is now a lobbyist, said on condition of anonymity to avoid offending anyone involved. “Most of the institutional knowledge is gone,” the lobbyist said. “Even half of the Senate is new.”
Never an unguarded moment, even for close allies
If Jindal has spent time with any Louisiana lawmaker, it is Alario, the Westwego Republican who, as Senate president, is easily the second-most powerful official in the Capitol. A former House speaker, Alario has served with six governors and pulls the levers of power with the best of them.
“I probably see him a couple of times a week,” Alario said in an interview. “I find him as accessible as other governors. He is very easy to talk with. He stays on top of the issues.”
Jindal’s staff isn’t always as communicative. Alario was not pleased three weeks ago when he got only two hours’ notice that Jindal would be holding a press conference in his district to announce a new fertilizer plant — not enough time for Alario to be there. “It was a staff error,” the senator said.
Jindal’s staff also failed to give a heads up to Calcasieu Parish legislators when he decided in September to close the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center. Kleckley was among those not notified.
Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, got no advance notice in August that Jindal would close Southeast Louisiana Hospital in his district. Asked how he felt, Donahue replied, “Out of the process.”
Donahue chairs the Finance Committee, which writes the Senate’s version of the budget. Asked how much time he spends with the governor, he said they meet “about three or four times during the session. It’s a small amount of time. I would do better if I had a more direct relationship with the governor.”
Ask other public officials if they have ever seen Jindal in an unguarded moment – as they saw Roemer barefoot and in blue jeans at the Governor’s Mansion or Edwards in his camouflage hunting gear – and they say no.
Appel sat in the Senate chamber two weeks ago and reflected on Jindal’s relationship with lawmakers. “I’m one of his guys,” Appel said. “But I’ve never done anything socially with him.”
Appel stood up to look over the Senate floor. “I don’t notice anyone who I think would say, ‘Hey, Bobby, let’s go have a beer.’”
Appel and others said the closest person to Jindal in the Legislature is probably Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.
“We both got here at the same time in 1996,” Walsworth said, Jindal as Gov. Foster’s secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals and Walsworth as a rookie state House member. “When he was beaten [for governor] in 2003, I was one or two legislators with him at the podium.”
Walsworth and Jindal spent more time together in the following years as Jindal spent many Sundays in north Louisiana visiting churches, after getting fewer votes than expected from that part of the state in his 2003 loss to Blanco.
Walsworth related a couple of anecdotes about how, on his church visits, Jindal surprised locals who had never seen a governor before in their town.
“I’ve probably spent as much as time with him as anyone,” said Walsworth. “But I can’t say we’ve been to a ballgame or anything, or to an LSU football game.”
James Carville helped elect Bill Clinton as president in 1992 and remains a high-profile Democratic strategist. He now lives in New Orleans and has met Jindal several times socially with his wife Mary Matalin, an adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney and other powerful Republicans.
During a discussion about Jindal, Carville broke off onto a tangent. “Aren’t Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal similar creatures?” Carville asked. “I mean, they’re both Ivy League-educated. They both have spent most of their lives working for the public. Neither one is enamored with the give and take and back-slapping in politics. Both are really good family guys. At night, you think they’d rather be doing homework with their children.”
The media in Washington has been full of stories lately about Obama’s charm offensive with senators of both parties. Jindal has yet to begin his own.
*Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s input was added to the story after its initial publication.
*Correction: This story originally referred to a National Governors Association event in Las Vegas, but it was held by the Republican Governors Association. The error has been corrected. (June 21, 2013)