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Jindal puts winning big fights ahead of convention

Now entering the home stretch of his first term as governor, Bobby Jindal has begun to get majorities of appointees onto a large number of state boards and commissions. Most exercise miniscule power but not those dealing with higher education, which distribute over a billion dollars a year and supervise nearly 50,000 employees through its appointees on five separate boards. Perhaps because these stakes are so high, desperate opposition has arisen focusing on Jindal’s appointments in general to them.

When Jindal announced he would like to see a merging of the University of New Orleans and Southern University New Orleans, simultaneously signaling support that the state boards be merged into one, shortly thereafter former U.S. Rep. and state Sen. Cleo Fields brought a suit that temporarily halted the process by which a recommendation would be made on the school consolidation matter, the first step of the process to make any changes to any part of the state’s extant higher education structure. At first succeeding in drawing an injunction, when overturned Fields announced he would drop the matter in favor of direct lobbying of the Board of Regents.

A lawyer backed by unconventional sources of funds, Fields based his complaint on the fact that Jindal’s nine recent appointees to the Board of Regents failed to “diversify” sufficiently the board. Its 15 appointed members now have 11 males where the state’s population of them is 49 percent, and none are racial minorities in a state where 37 percent of the population is such. This, Fields argued, ultimately unconvincingly, contravened Art. VIII Sec. 5(B)(1) of the Constitution that states “The board should be representative of the state's population by race and gender to ensure diversity,” and, therefore, such a Board could not act in this or any other matter as it was unconstitutional.

While a creative attempt, no higher court would agree that the Louisiana Constitution mandates a soft quota system. For his part, members of Jindal’s administration point out that he takes a colorblind approach to these matters, which would serve well one who is of south Asian Indian background that makes up a tiny portion of the state’s population. However, others argue that a strategy like this that may end up appointing relatively few blacks (the proportions of citizen Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans/Pacific Islanders residing in Louisiana is but a small fraction of the population) to these kinds of positions and may damage perceptions of Jindal to the degree that it could affect negatively his political future. Thus, they proclaim that, if for nothing else but his own political good, Jindal should find a few black appointees from a pool that they assert exists who think in concert with Jindal on higher education issues.

But such a thought misunderstands reality. A cardinal rule of governing is the bigger the change sought, the larger the majority needed. In Louisiana, asking for a merger of universities (and don’t doubt other such requests will come) tries to hoe a hard road and Jindal needs every sure vote he can get on that since the Regents must give their formal approval. And while it does not have a legal role to play in the Jindal initiative consolidating the boards, Regents support would help get that through the Legislature as well. With the stakes this high, Jindal has to put a premium on appointees he can trust to be loyal. – and it’s no accident he aggressively began pursuit of these reforms shortly after appointing several new Regents and system supervisors.

Whether his potential choices included a pool of individuals with a slightly darker skin hue than Jindal himself is debatable. In the process of researching for the academic piece that would be published that demonstrated error in the idea that there was enough white racial backlash to have denied Jindal the election win in 2003, I discovered that the real “racism” such as it were was evinced in black voters’ attitudes about Jindal. It wasn’t so much racism as it was chauvinism, or the idea that Jindal was seen as so alien to a respondent’s political culture. Apparently, because Jindal was a first-generation American, dark-skinned, well-educated, had spent most of his adulthood out of state, and was a conservative Republican, he was viewed especially suspiciously by blacks, particularly in the historically less-integrated northern part of the state, given the reported votes of blacks of him were low, lower than what other recent Republican candidates for governor seemed to draw.

Without survey data from the 2007 election, it’s tough to know whether that harsh view softened, yet this indicates that Jindal probably draws less black support than the low levels of typical Republicans statewide, for whatever reason. Therefore, if Jindal were to go looking deliberately for very reliable black supporters (who not only he knows well enough to make a confident assessment of their loyalty, but who also proved it by helping his previous campaigns to win office) to place in important positions where he must be certain they vote his way, he’s got a very small pool of eligible appointees. In light of this data, it should surprise no one that he could not come up with that kind of individual available to take on this kind of job.

Jindal never has been one to play to surface conventions when it comes to personnel matters. He looks to loyal individuals who do not hesitate to carry out his agenda regardless of elite and media reaction, confident that the public, if it doesn’t already support him, will come around to him. No doubt Jindal might want to get a crack at having non-whites on the Regents, but that consideration pales to his desire to win this battle, and he’d rather take a small public relations hit as long as his troops can get him this and victories like it.

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