Fresh off a stinging political defeat in a northeast Louisiana congressional race, Gov. Bobby Jindal is facing calls to re-engage with Louisiana residents and elected officials rather than travel about the nation in pursuit of his evident presidential ambitions.
Jindal’s itinerary has also included towns and cities throughout Louisiana — part of what his public-relations team calls “a 64-parish tour.” But critics deride the events as little more than a series of photo ops, and key state lawmakers say they haven’t talked policy with the governor since the legislative session ended in June.
Jindal was not on the ballot in Saturday’s 5th congressional district election. But he made no secret of his support for the losing candidate, state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, a close legislative ally.
Riser got a head-start on the competition when U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman announced he would not seek re-election and a day later announced he would resign and take a cabinet post in the Jindal administration.* While prospective rivals were absorbing the news, Riser launched a campaign website and quickly hired Jindal’s closest political adviser, Timmy Teepell.
The developments “created an appearance of a deal to elect someone close to the governor,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. “It was not well received.”
Vance McAllister, a political newcomer, caught fire as an anti-establishment candidate, made the runoff against Riser and then thumped him on Saturday.
As with his allegation of a political deal between Jindal and Riser, McAllister hit a political nerve when he railed against Riser for supporting Jindal policies that have cut state aid for colleges and universities and are privatizing the state’s health-care system, said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana’s Monroe campus.
“You put all that together and Riser’s connection to Jindal was a negative,” Stockley said.
With that kind of baggage, Jindal never campaigned for Riser. But at an appearance in the 5th district town of Bastrop, Jindal signaled his support — “a non-endorsement endorsement,” in Stockley’s view — by declaring Riser, who was not there, a “good conservative leader.” The governor added: “We have a good working relationship.”
That Jindal became a hindrance for Riser was especially noteworthy because the governor has repeatedly visited northeast Louisiana over the years, dropping by Pentecostal churches on Sundays.
“The governor’s popularity is not what it was a couple of years ago,” said state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, though he doesn’t buy the accusations of a deal between Jindal and Riser.
The last independent statewide poll in Louisiana, in March, showed that Jindal had dropped to a 38 percent approval rating, down from 61 percent a year earlier.
Jindal was too busy to speak to The Lens for this story, spokeswoman Shannon Bates said.
In the wake of Riser’s defeat, several political elders contacted by The Lens had the same message for Jindal. “The state would be better served if he focused on the challenges in Louisiana and less on his personal agenda, ” said Randy Ewing, who was state Senate president from 1996 to 2000, during Gov. Mike Foster’s first term, and ran for governor in 2003. Ewing, a Democrat, lives in the 5th congressional district.
“I’m hearing from my constituents that they want a governor who’s in Louisiana, not traveling the country,” said Hunt Downer, who was the House speaker during Foster’s first term. Downer, a Houma resident, is now a Republican after serving most of his career as a Democrat.
The Associated Press reported a week ago that Jindal has been out of the state more than two months in 2013. He has taken many – but not all – of these trips in his soon-to-expire role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
He is traveling again. On Tuesday, Jindal flew to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the annual meeting of the association. He returns to Louisiana on Thursday, according to a Jindal press release.
Jindal also traveled to Scottsdale on Nov. 6 to address the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. A press release announcing that visit said: “The Governor will highlight the negative impact of the EPA’s new carbon standards for coal-fueled power plants, which threaten thousands of jobs and could drastically increase the price of electricity rates.”
On Oct. 29, Jindal traveled to Virginia to campaign for Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor. Cuccinelli lost a week later. The Daily Caller, a conservative website, quoted an unnamed Cuccinelli adviser blaming Jindal and the Republican Governors Association for the defeat. The adviser said Jindal should have given the association’s funding directly to the Cuccinelli campaign rather than spend it on a separate set of campaign ads.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, an independent publication based in Washington, D.C., called that criticism of Jindal sour grapes.
“The RGA put $8 million into the race,” Duffy said. “That was a hell of a lot of money to put into one race.”
On Oct. 17, Jindal took what was widely seen as another step toward fulfillment of his presidential ambitions when he announced the creation of a conservative policy group called “America Next.”
Jindal has weighed in frequently on national politics with op-ed pieces, including one published Monday by Politico. In it, he told Republicans to stop worrying about who might run for president – Jindal is now saying “I don’t know” when asked about his own plans – and instead to focus on the 2014 midterm elections.
Jindal’s public-relations team is also trying to keep the focus on his 64-parish tour. The governor has showed up for events in 46 parishes since the tour began in mid-June, said Bates, his spokeswoman.
On Nov. 12, Jindal visited Tensas Parish to announce $6 million in state spending to improve water systems.
On Nov. 11, he marked Veterans Day by visiting a Disabled American Veterans hall in Sabine Parish.
On Nov. 5, Jindal visited Jackson Parish to highlight $1.5 million in state spending to resurface a rural highway.
The trips show that he is in touch with Louisiana voters and “highlight key investments that are improving infrastructure, health care access and further growing Louisiana’s economy,” Bates said in a written statement.
However, Jim Brown, a former state senator and secretary of state who writes a weekly column, said the 64-parish tour is nothing more than a “hit-and-run PR effort. He’s just trying to get his picture in the local paper.”
Other political themes in Jindal’s recent repertoire include repeated attacks on Obamacare and a Justice Department lawsuit against the state’s school voucher program. He has also exerted political muscle denouncing a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East that seeks to force oil and gas interests to pay for reclamation of damaged coastal lands.
Meanwhile, Jindal has “largely stayed silent“ on planned increases in flood insurance rates that have drawn alarm throughout South Louisiana, the Associated Press reported Sunday.
In recent months, Jindal has also neglected to discuss an agenda for next year’s legislative session with state lawmakers. It begins on March 10.
“I have not been meeting with him,” said state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, the Senate president. He said he expects Jindal to begin meeting with legislators after Jan. 1, which would be later than the norm.
State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who chairs the Education Committee, said he saw Jindal at a recent New Orleans Pelicans game – Jindal was in the governor’s suite with his children – “but I haven’t talked policy with him.”
Jindal also has not reached out to the Fiscal Hawks, a group of mostly Republican House members who say that the governor balances his budget on one-time money and gimmicks that violate conservative principles. State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, leads the Fiscal Hawks, who emerged as a political power during the 2013 legislative session by defying Jindal.
When asked what the governor has been doing lately, Geymann responded, “I have no idea.”
*Correction: This story originally reported that U.S. Rep Rodney Alexander resigned and announced the next day that he would take a position in the Jindal administration. The correct series of events is that he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, and the next day he said he would resign to take a position in the Jindal administration. (Nov. 22, 2013)