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Louisiana Elects First Female Governor - 2003-11-19

It is not the first time that Louisiana politicians have attracted worldwide media attention.

"People who know something about Louisiana's political history know that this state has a history of producing unusual, flamboyant, colorful political leaders,” says Thomas Ferrell, professor of political science at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "Louisiana also had a two-term governor Jimmy Davis who was known to the people before becoming governor primarily as a band leader and singer. He wrote that song 'You Are My Sunshine.'"

"And of course," says Professor Ferrell, "recent governor Edwin Edwards was very flamboyant. He attracted a lot of national publicity to the state, most of it negative. He is now serving a term in a federal penitentiary because of his illegal ties to the gambling interests."

Another notorious politician from Louisiana, a white-supremacist and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, is now also behind bars.

Many voters have had enough of this kind of "politics as usual." Klara Cvitanovic, owner of Advanced Travel and Tours in New Orleans, says Louisiana urgently needs a new leader with a clean record: "With Louisiana, known for its crooked politics, our former governor in jail right now, so many politicians in jail, convicted crooks -- I want new blood."

Mrs. Cvitanovic says she believes Republican candidate Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, a second generation American whose parents immigrated from Delhi, India, would make an excellent governor: "He is very energetic. He is smart. He is a terrific speaker. And I honestly believe that he is going to work very, very hard for Louisiana people to get new businesses in, to attract new businesses because Louisiana needs to change image."

32-year old Bobby Jindal, the Republican candidate, has an impressive resume. He has served as Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, as Health Secretary of Louisiana and as President of the University of Louisiana. He is an honors graduate of the prestigious Brown University and a Rhodes scholar.

Mr. Jindal received 48 % of the vote, only 4 % less than his opponent. If elected, he would have been the first US governor of Indian descent.

Democratic candidate Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who won the election with 52 % of the vote, also made history. The 60-year old Cajun-American will be the first female governor of Louisiana and the seventh in the United States.

Professor Thomas Ferrell says Louisiana voters, fed up with corruption were in search of cleaner candidates, whatever their gender or ethnicity. But if the two rivals differed personally from other politicians, their political views were familiar to Louisiana: "They are both very pro-business. They are both pro-life on abortion, although Jindal somewhat more so. They are both opposed to new taxes, although Jindal again more strongly than Blanco. And they are both against gun control. Their differences are more of degree than direction."

Bobby Jindal won the support of the state's business community, young educated professionals and some minority groups.

"Honestly, I do like to see a newcomer to America, an immigrant, become a governor of a state. That will be American dream fulfilled for his parents just as it is my American dream fulfilled having two extremely successful sons," says Klara Cvitanovic who is an immigrant from Croatia and has two American-born sons around Mr. Jindal's age.

While his national origin may have gained Mr. Jindal some immigrant votes, it may have cost him others. In October, the Pakistani-American Business Association of Louisiana raised 50,000 dollars for Kathleen Blanco's campaign. The Pakistani-American Congress, an umbrella organization of close to 60 Pakistani groups in the United States, has been openly critical of the candidate of Indian descent, reflecting the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir half a world away.

Professor Ferrell says Bobby Jindal did better than expected because of his political appeal: "He has a very attractive personality and also he has been able to successfully present himself as a problem solver and to persuade the voters that he would be able to solve the state financial problems, which more traditional politicians have not been able."

Professor Ferrell says Kathleen Blanco, the current lieutenant governor, was backed by groups that traditionally support the Democratic Party: "She has the support of organized labor in the state and labor has traditionally been rather strong in Louisiana. She has the support of trial lawyers. They provided a lot of her campaign money. She has the support of most prominent African-American politicians and most black political organizations."

Like most southern states Louisiana has a large black minority, one third of the total population. The north is mostly rural and Protestant. The southern, coastal area is more cosmopolitan and diverse because throughout history it has attracted immigrants from Europe, Southern America, Africa and other parts of the world.

Steven Voss, professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, says Louisiana is divided down the middle: "The northern half is conservative, more heavily rural, as is typical of most of the southern states in the United States. The southern half of the state has much more of a Latin influence: French, some Spanish a higher degree of Catholicism and in that sense it is unique in the United States."

For many years, Louisiana's political scene has been dominated by white male protestant politicians. Steven Voss says the reason is people thought only they could muster enough support and win elections: "The problem is that minority candidates however you want to define them, by ethnicity, by gender, usually do not get the support of the political establishment. They do not have the campaign money. They do not have the support from powerful groups that white male candidates usually do."

This time they did get some of that support, suggesting that Bobby Jindal and Kathleen Blanco have ushered in a new kind of politics in Louisiana and pluralism of American public life.