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Blacks hold key to Jindal's fortune

By Aziz Haniffa in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Last updated on: November 14, 2003 16:44 IST
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As I walked into my room at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Baton Rouge -- where I have parked myself to cover the Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal campaign -- after driving back from New Orleans, African American Melissa Dickson, the maid assigned to my room, was just finishing cleaning up.

I struck up a conversation about whom she would vote for on November 15 -- Jindal or Democrat Kathleen Blanco -- if she voted at all.

Dickson, a lifelong Democrat, said she had not made up her mind, even though she acknowledged she was pretty impressed with Jindal. "He's pretty young," said Dickson, who looked to be in her mid-30s too, "but he sure seems to have a good head on his shoulders. He obviously is very bright and intelligent."

When pressed if she would vote for him, Dickson said, "I haven't decided. They both keep saying the same thing and making the same promises that they will make things better, but then all politicians keep saying the same thing and forget when elected. They forget about all of us. We don't seem to matter to them anymore once they're in office."

Dickson, however, said Blanco couldn't take her vote for granted.

"They [the Democrats] have taken us for granted for too long," she said, referring to the traditional voting pattern of blacks in Louisiana. "But not this time, not me."

Dickson is one among thousands of 'undecideds', particularly among African Americans, whom Jindal and Blanco have to win over if the race -- which many analysts predict will be tight -- has to go their way.

According to Chris Fink, a columnist with The Advocate, both Blanco and Jindal know the key to winning the race is turnout. While he acknowledges that if the turnout in the African American community is big, Blanco can win, "Jindal does offer black voters something Blanco never could".

"He's a minority, whose parents are from India. With Jindal in the Governor's Mansion, on television holding press conferences, lobbying the legislators, the subject of innumerable newspaper stories and the focus on countless pictures, black children in Louisiana will have someone to look up to.

"For four years they'll see that someone with dark skin can rise to the top in this white-dominated society."

Fink argues that the primary race showed, in some ways, "that the old-fashioned days of black people voting in blocs are ending.

"The two Democratic candidates on the left -- Ieyoub and Leach -- used the old methods of lining up endorsements from black leaders, then following up with massive spending on election day get-out-the-vote efforts. The old ways didn't pay off. Turnout remained low, and Ieyoub and Leach finished third and fourth."

According to Fink, "The two men with solid records of getting the state's black voters to the polls are both in federal prison -- former governor Edwin Edwards and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. One enjoyed great black support; the other ensured that black people would turn out to vote against him."

He acknowledges that Jindal doesn't have to carry a single predominantly black precinct, and notes that "this election is so close that, if Jindal can earn 10 per cent of the African American vote, he may find himself in the Governor's Mansion".

I didn't show Fink's column to Dickson, because I felt as a journalist it was not my duty to influence anyone, even though the reason for my coming to Louisiana in the first place was to cover the Jindal phenomenon. If Jindal wins, I'll probably have to keep coming back -- not a great prospect, even though I have nothing against Louisiana.

Interestingly, Byron Levinierre, whom I ran into at the Starbucks, two blocks from my hotel, also was in sync with Fink's thinking even if for different reasons.

Levinierre, a white of French descent, told me that even though he was a Democrat, he would vote for Jindal. "He [is] so intelligent, so credible and I believe him when he says he's a problem-solver."

But he added, "I like the fact that he [is] from a minority and it will be good for Louisiana's diversity, and tell me about it, we need more diversity. It's about time we showed the rest of the country we can be as progressive or more and elect a minority to be our governor."

Levinierre, who works for the state's utility company, said, "I'm so sick of the bad rap Louisiana and the South has been getting for so long that we are bunch of uneducated racists. I hope we elect Bobby and show all of them."

There was certainly more than a touch of irony here, because right wing white conservatives, who form the base of Jindal's support, were the one who subscribed to his almost evangelical stand on social issues.

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Aziz Haniffa in Baton Rouge, Louisiana