Three regular guys

Jim Gabour
8 January 2009

Until the autumn of 2008 a political gambler would have been given major odds by any bookie in America against a major change in national and world government emerging from the corrupt backwaters of Louisiana.
Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here

After all, this is the state that re-elected Representative William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, even after he was caught by the FBI with $90,000 in marked currency in his freezer. This is the state in which a city magnified the destruction of a cataclysmic hurricane by re-electing a mayor proved both incompetent and self-serving, a man still to this day able to stonewall wrongdoing by literally cursing anyone who questions his word or authority. This is the state served by Representative David Vitter, still holding a death-grip on his seat in Congress after years of paying for the illegal sexual services of call-girls and strippers.

This is Louisiana

And yet the unimaginable has happened. It happened because of the unlikely collusion of three "regular" guys, all named secondarily, by or for someone else.

There is Piyush, and Anh, and... Gustav.

Who are respectively Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, Representative-elect Anh "Joseph" Cao and... hurricane Gustav.

Piyush entered the game first, a brilliant and sincere young man of Indian origins who was selected to revitalise a decaying department of health by a distinctively retro-conservative Republican governor. Chief executive Mike Foster was a man who ran a plantation with an iron hand and rode his chromed Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work. He encouraged his protégé to run to succeed him, but Jindal was unsuccessful, beaten by Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who promptly had her political career destroyed by her handling of hurricane Katrina.

Through hard work and grassroots political acumen, Jindal eventually parlayed that first position into two terms in Congress, and finally into the same governorship he had coveted under Foster. He was successful, handsome, a moderate of sorts, he was America's first governor of Indian descent, and he was a first-generation American. That noted, he was immediately thrown into contention as a possible running mate for presidential hopeful John McCain.

Jindal reportedly turned down the offer, and McCain then disastrously decided that Jindal's complete opposite was really what America needed. Instead of the intellectual and intuitive man who had converted to Catholicism in his teens and considered the priesthood, who had attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, America needed an over-dressed and under-briefed rustic Alaskan soccer mom.

"You betcha", said Sarah Palin.

"Nope", said America.

McCain's choice gave Barack Obama what he needed to win the presidency in November.

Immediately after the election, Republicans saw Jindal for what he is, the anti-Palin, and in less than a week every news magazine and editorial writer in America began writing of him as the true "future of the Republican party".

A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)

"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008)

"Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)

"Loot" (8 October 2008)

"Nine-inch nails in the White House" (31 October 2008)

"Living the American movie" (5 November 2008)

Newsweek, among others, said: "There are plenty of rising stars in the GOP. But in the wake of Barack Obama's victory on Nov. 4, none has attracted as much speculation, curiosity and unapologetic hype as Jindal."

Enter Gustav

Something else was originally scheduled to be on the ballot that November Tuesday, but was nowhere to be seen: the general election for the second congressional district House of Representatives seat from Louisiana.

Another unschooled entity, this one named Gustav by a committee of scientists, had already intervened in early September, crashing ashore in Louisiana to scatter residents and disrupt the scheduled Democratic Party primary for the House seat. The September election was set back to the November date. So instead of the general election that would encompass all parties, the presidential election Tuesday was, for the House election, merely the Democratic primary, and was again won handily by indicted Representative William Jefferson.

That dismal outcome was inevitable. Louisiana's second district was engineered as a blatant gerrymander to create the first majority African- American district in the state. That majority was inevitably parceled by power brokers into political action groups like SOUL, BOLD and COUP, all working organisations that guaranteed voter turnout of their members in return for tax-deductible contributions.

But they didn't have to work hard in November. With Obama's charismatic candidacy, there was no problem in turning out an unprecedented number of African-American voters in the second district. Jefferson's black opponents were overwhelmed as the skewed logic of empowerment prevailed, i.e., "He may be a crook, but he's our crook." His sole remaining opponent was a young attractive Hispanic woman with no real experience - she had been a TV news reporter prior to her run against Jefferson. The race was his.

But Jefferson still had the general election, now rescheduled to December, an election which the second district political organisations completely disregarded - they thought they had won in November, when Obama won, and that was that.

The future is Cao

Come December signs started sprouting along streets, signs touting a person named Anh "Joseph" Cao, the Republican candidate, and lone remaining major party candidate to face Jefferson. They were formidable signs, colourful and sturdy. They cost lots of money, which was suddenly being supplied not only by the national party, but by locals as well. People began asking who the fellow was, and most I knew simply said he was "Jefferson's only competition", so he was worth supporting, just to end the shame.

I researched a bit: Anh immigrated as a child to the United States from Vietnam, earned advanced degrees in physics and philosophy, like Jindal embraced a brief consideration of the priesthood, then took a law degree from Loyola University, where I teach. His specialty was immigration law. He stands just over five feet tall and is extremely shy, though articulate.

I have never before in my life voted for a Republican. But faced with the alternative of the further disgrace and inaction of another term from "Dollar Bill", I voted for Cao. The district's political action groups, thinking the race was in the bag, did not deign to come to the polls.

The rest of us did.

Cao won, the first person of Vietnamese extraction to be elected to Congress. Even his own people couldn't believe it. When they first started arriving in Louisiana after the war, there was resistance. Local residents did not want a wave of unknown foreigners. But slowly in New Orleans the idea of a people who loved the subtropics, fished for a living and drank beer, had rice as a staple of their diet and knew how to bake French bread - well, they seemed to fit right in. Most were French-style Catholics and formed a community in New Orleans East around their churches, though the Buddhist contingent congregated on the Westbank of the city.

It hasn't been that long since even being a Catholic or speaking French was a considered a serious detriment to getting elected to statewide office in Louisiana. Just a few decades ago it seemed a miracle that a Cajun French Catholic named Edwin Edwards became governor. Of course this is the man now sitting in a federal penitentiary, awaiting a pardon from the outgoing president, imprisoned for transgressions committed during his tenure as the state's highest elected official.

But suddenly there was Cao. And, like Jindal, the reaction was immediate:

"Less than 24 hours after his upset defeat of a longtime Democratic congressman from New Orleans, Anh ‘Joseph' Cao found the weight of the entire Republican Party resting on his diminutive shoulders.

"The chairman of the Republican National Committee said Cao's election Saturday night showed that, even battered and bruised from political drubbings in the past two years, Republicans ‘still know how to win elections.' House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was more blunt, issuing a memo Sunday declaring: ‘The future is Cao.'"

Even Senator David Vitter, the politician of hooker-for-hire fame, was trying to cleanse himself by attaching to the new representative in an interview headlined as "Disgraced Senator talks about election of Joseph Cao as an improvement to Louisiana's image."

A clean slate

So what does this dual anachronism matter? Is it even minutely significant in the long term? Jindal is a strong campaigner and has political savvy, which Cao despite his integrity and intellect does not possess. Jindal was helped in gaining his office by campaigning among Baptist and Pentecostal churches, "testifying" at many, in the process embracing traditional black religious culture.

Though Cao has even taken the step of applying for membership in Congress's Black Caucus, he has not been well-received, and African-American political organisations in Cao's district will not be caught sleeping again. Despite his possible good work, a new clean slate and a progressive outlook, the district that re-elected Jefferson ten times may be unwilling to let someone who is not of their number continue a second term in Washington. You can't count on a hurricane like Gustav every election.

Still it seems amazing that in a state known for white rural conservatism, in a party that has doggedly kept its franchise white and traditional and Protestant, voters find that they have elected two men of colour, and of foreign origin, who have both intellectual depth and an overriding passion in their beliefs.

And more amazingly these two men, who both speak in complete sentences, now have the nation's and world's attention as the "future" of the Republican party.

A party that would previously never have counted on anyone named Piyush or Anh... or Gustav.

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