In August 2006, Bobby Jindal had to unexpectedly help his wife Supriya deliver the couple's third child at home. It was possibly the only thing that has happened in his life for which he didn't have a multipoint plan. Louisiana's new Republican Governor boasts a level of ever-prepared wonkiness that doesn't typically appeal to the state's voters, who often opt for colorful pols, glad handers and bons vivants. Jindal knows he'll never be that guy. Why try to fake it? "For too long, politics have been entertainment in Louisiana," he tells me two days after winning the state's off-year election on Oct. 20. "I may not be the guy you want to go to the party with. But I do want to be the guy who is remembered for competence and honesty."
Competence and honesty are two words for the GOP that--following a recent spate of ethical scandals--have proved elusive. Yet 36-year-old Jindal, a second-term Congressman, was able to win Louisiana's highest office (a position that has almost always been held by a Democrat) on a platform of ethics reform and eliminating corruption. Following his January inauguration, Jindal will be the nation's youngest Governor, one of the Republican Party's few rising stars and the first Indian American to occupy a Governor's mansion.
Jindal, the son of Punjabi immigrants, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and was tapped to lead Louisiana's gargantuan health department at the absurdly young age of 24. Over the next seven years, Jindal headed up one of the state's university systems and served as an assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in the Bush Administration. It's the kind of résumé for which the term wunderkind exists.
Yet even whiz kids suffer setbacks. In 2003, despite never having run for office, Jindal lost the gubernatorial race by only four points to Democrat Kathleen Blanco. He had led the race for months, and while Jindal will never admit it, his ethnicity likely played at least some part in his defeat. Despite a college-era conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism and his close alignment with the passionately pro-life wing of the GOP, Jindal could not convince rural voters in the state's north, who had voted for white supremacist David Duke less than two decades earlier, to give him their support. Not easily dissuaded, Jindal ran for and won the congressional seat vacated by Senator David Vitter one year later. He was elected freshman-class president, and within a month of taking office, he masterminded a photo op at the 2005 State of the Union Address, convincing some of his fellow Republicans to ink their fingers purple in solidarity with Iraqi voters, who had recently cast ballots in an open election.
It's that kind of shrewd political maneuver, combined with Jindal's technocratic background, that critics use to try to cast him as an overly ambitious and unfeeling bureaucrat. But these days, many Louisianans are willing to welcome a little wonkery. This gubernatorial election, the first since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was widely seen as pivotal for a state struggling to recover from the storm's devastation, stem an exodus of young talent, and halt a rising crime rate that has made it one of the most dangerous states in the nation. (The day of the election, three men were shot in New Orleans, America's deadliest city.) Taking advantage of dissatisfaction with the state's Democratic leadership--current Governor Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were widely criticized for their botched responses to the hurricane--Jindal overwhelmed Louisianans with a battery of detailed plans for ethics reform, economic development and hurricane-recovery efforts.
For once, competence--or at least the promise of it--seems to have trumped race, one of Louisiana politics' most powerful emotional motivators. Jindal, a man who speaks in veritable sheets of words, has few campaign-worthy slogans. Yet at his victory party, where attention was split between his speech and the LSU-Auburn game, Jindal used a memorable one to explain his victory: "Who you know is not more important than what you know." Bobby Jindal knows a lot. Seriously. Just take a look at any of his 12-point plans.