The Road Well Traveled, a Brighter Light Shines

This column was first published in the Ouachita Citizen in Monroe, Louisiana on December 23, 2010.

Governor Bobby Jindal is a traveling man.  So is Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.  And Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.  And Texas Governor Rick Perry.  The list goes on and on, and it’s not Republican specific.  New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson does it.  North Carolina Governor Bev Purdue does too.  In fact, most every governor who has natural appeal to their party’s base travels the country raising money for fellow governors while simultaneously raising their respective states’ profiles.  Interestingly, though with some exceptions, a cursory review of media coverage in those states around this travel doesn’t indicate nearly as much vitriol as Louisiana’s “chattering class” extols on Governor Jindal.  I wonder why that is.

Perhaps it’s because those other states are more sophisticated than Louisiana.  Or perhaps it’s because their citizenry doesn’t care about the travel habits of their elected leaders.  Or perhaps it’s simply because they realize that having an ambassador for their state, even in small doses, is actually a good thing.  Now, we can quibble over the ultimate purpose of those out of state trips – fundraising for a future office as opposed to recruiting a new Fortune 500 company – but the net impact is overwhelmingly positive at least to the outside world.  And who’s to say those trips can’t serve a dual purpose?  As a consultant, I travel a fair amount and rarely do those trips involve a single purpose.  Surely a bright young Governor (regardless of their politics) can raise political money with one meeting and raise the state’s profile with another.

Before I go any further, let me be clear about my support for Governor Jindal.  I have known him since the early 90s; I have hosted fundraisers for his campaigns; and my wife and I have written checks in support of his candidacies.  One would hardly call me objective on the topic of our Governor.  However, one would hardly call me objective on the topic of our state either.  I am unabashedly in love with Louisiana – its culture and heritage is unmatched in my view.  However, its arrogance and apathy is equally unmatched.  I suspect I’ll get some phone calls from my friends back home over that statement, so let me elaborate.

I spent the first 24 years of my life in Baton Rouge.  My parents and sisters and their families are all still in Louisiana, and my lobbying firm has an office there.  I travel there a couple of times a month and I stay in regular contact with my friends and family.  I read The Advocate every day and The Times Picayune most every week.  I subscribe to many of the Louisiana-based blogs and email alerts including those published by the Business Report, so despite living in the Washington, DC area for most of the past 19 years, I am connected to my Pelican home. 

When Katrina hit, I was devastated like everyone else.  Immediately after the storm, we organized a small relief effort, renting three 24-foot U-Haul trucks and filling them with food, clothes and supplies.  What started as an email to a few dozen of my contacts asking for donations turned into a week-long logistics operation at our office, just to get organized for the 1142-mile drive home.  Six volunteers joined me for the trek, only one of whom I had ever met before we started.  We spent ten days in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette, and to a person, they were profoundly impacted by the experience and the wonder of Louisiana and its people, even in those wrenching conditions.  We delivered supplies to churches and shelters, helped to remove debris, and generally did whatever we could to provide some small relief to the situation.  I like to think we did our part, maybe more than our part.

While I was there, several of my friends asked me why the national news was portraying Louisiana so poorly and why the rest of the country hated us so much.  I had an answer, or at least part of an answer, but I knew they didn’t want to hear it – arrogance and apathy.  In my 19 years in Washington, one thing I have definitely discovered is how other states handle themselves vis-à-vis the rest of the nation.  While Louisiana looks inward, preferring for visitors to meet us in our bars and restaurants, most other states look outward, seeking partnerships and relationships that they believe will strengthen them.  This is not to say that other states don’t promote themselves – “Don’t Mess with Texas” comes to mind.  However, the most economically and socially developed states don’t sit around and wait for customers.  They engage.  They agitate.  They participate.  I hope to write more about this in a future column, but for now, suffice it to say that unless and until many more Louisianans from all walks of life look to build bridges toward the future instead of floating on pirogues of the past, then your friends and mine will continue to ask the question, “Why does the national media portray us so poorly?”

Which brings us back to Bobby Jindal.  I’m not writing this column to lavish praise on the Governor.  In fact, despite my affinity for him personally and professionally, I don’t believe he has gone nearly far enough.  My experience working with him in the past illuminated me to a brash, young reformer eager to shake up the establishment and make generational changes in public policy.  The oft-told story of his internship with my old boss, Congressman Jim McCrery, illustrates the point.  Not content to simply answer the phones and open mail, intern Bobby asked Mr. McCrery for an especially daunting project, something that might be vexing the Congressman.  “I’m on the Ways and Means Committee, and we need to find a way to reform and strengthen Medicare,” Jim told him.  “Can you help with that?”  (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)  Young Bobby went away and returned a couple of weeks later with rather thick looking document and placed it on the Congressman’s desk.  “I think this is how to fix Medicare,” Bobby said.  Amazed, Jim went on to recommend Bobby for the job of executive director of the National Bipartisan Medicare Commission, a body created by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and which was chaired by Democratic Senator John Breaux and Republican Congressman Bill Thomas.  The findings and recommendations of that commission are credited to some degree with keeping the program solvent since that time. 

Where is that aggressiveness and brashness today?  The public and the Louisiana media seem to believe it’s being used for political purposes.  They seem to believe that there is no way in the world that a bright, forward-thinking politician could possibly travel out of the state every so often and still keep up with the challenges (like the state’s budget deficit) and opportunities (like the Nucor deal) back home.  Huh?  That notion on its face is ridiculous.  Do Shaw Corporation shareholders scream when Jim Bernhard leaves the state on a business trip?  Do Raising Cane’s managers freak out when Todd Graves goes to Texas to meet with executives?  Of course they don’t.  And we shouldn’t get irrational when Governor Jindal leaves the state for an economic development trip or a political event.  Make no mistake about it – every time the Governor enters another state, it shines the light on Louisiana just a little brighter, something we desperately need.  (If he were elected to national office, the light would shine brighter still.)

Clearly, we have a budget challenge, but it’s not the first in our state’s history and it won’t be our last.  If folks want to shout about something at the state capital, they should shout about how the state’s constitution so terribly ties our budget hands that education and healthcare always, always, always take the brunt of the cuts.  They should shout for a constitutional convention. They should shout for innovation.  They should shout for efficiency.  They should shout for a new way.  But they should stop shouting about travel plans.  If they want to be critical of the Governor for traveling around the country raising campaign dollars for his reelection and for other campaigns, then they should be honest about why they’re being critical – it’s because they don’t like the guy or his politics, not because it hurts the state.