Gizzi on Politics: April 2-6

Blanco Out, Jindal Up, Breaux Back?

By now, the nickname “latest victim of Hurricaine Katrina” has surely been overused by pundits and pols to describe Louisiana Democratic Gov. Katherine Blanco. Blanco, who was clearly overwhelmed in 2005 by all the devastation inflicted by Katrina, announced two weeks ago that she would not seek re-election in ’07. After her announcement, all political eyes in the Cajun State immediately turned toward the Republican Blanco narrowly edged out for the governorship in ’03: Rep. Bobby Jindal.

The son of immigrants from India, Piyush Jindal insisted on being called “Bobby” after the youngest son on “The Brady Bunch” TV series. He converted to Roman Catholicism, graduated from Brown University and was a Rhodes Scholar. At 24, Jindal was named to head Louisiana’s state Health and Hospitals Department by Republican Gov. Mike Foster and promptly erased a $400-million deficit. At 27, he was the operating head of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. At 28, Jindal was president of the Lousiana State University System, and two years later, President George W. Bush tapped him to be assistant secretary of Health and Human Services.

Jindal’s speeding career hit its first bump in 2003, when, at the age of 32, he missed becoming the country’s first-ever Indian-American governor by losing a tight 52%-to-48% race to then-Lt. Gov. Blanco. But even after a defeat in his first race for office, Bobby Jindal, like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was considered a Republican “rock star.” A year later, he took the 1st District House seat vacated by Republican Sen.-to-be David Vitter with 78% of the vote in Louisiana’s “jungle primary” (in which all candidates appear on the ballot regardless of party and, if no one wins a majority, a run-off is held).

Surprising no one, Jindal (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96%) was elected president of his freshman class in the House, won seats on the Education and Homeland Security Committees, and became a vigorous advocate for personal savings accounts in Social Security. Polls on the ’08 races showed Jindal handily defeating Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2008, but, like Giuliani and Jeb Bush, it was the office that narrowly escaped him he wanted.

So Jindal is again running for governor. A cinch to get heavy Republican backing in the “jungle primary” this November, he’s already in strong political shape. A just-completed Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR) poll shows Jindal with a commanding 55.8%-to-25.6% statewide lead over the best-known Democratic hopeful, former Sen. (1986-2004) John Breaux. The same poll showed two other Democratic contenders, State Senators Foster Campbell and Walter Boasso, trailing with 4.8% and 2.1% respectively.

There is even a question about whether the 63-year-old Breaux, who owns a house in Northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., and is registered to vote there, can legally run in Louisiana. Supporters of the senator-turned-lobbyist argue that Breaux owns property in Louisiana, pays taxes on it, and is thus a “citzen” of the state and eligible to run. State Atty. Gen. Charles Foti, a Democrat, is expected to rule on Breaux’s residency soon.

Remembering One of Conservatism’s Nice Guys

No one could ever dislike John Schrote. Whether he was making a conservative decision at the Interior Department or, while deputy personnel chief in the Reagan White House, explaining to a fellow conservative why that person could not get the position he wanted, or simply having a political discussion over lunch at the Longworth House Building cafeteria or a few cold ones after work, Schrote was always a classic good-natured Midwesterner. Even when what he did or said disappointed people, they inevitably came away still liking “the messenger.” And that’s why there was a genuine outpouring of sadness and warm memories among Capitol Hill members and staffers and Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (41) alumni when the news came that Schrote had died March 14 from complications of pulmonary fibrosis.

A native of Findlay, Ohio, with degrees from Ohio State University and Xavier University in Cincinnati, Schrote got involved in Republican politics through the 1966 campaign of conservative Rep. Donald “Buz” Lukens (R.-Ohio). Lukens took the young Schrote to Washington as his top aide. From there, Schrote went on to work at the old Office of Economic Opportunity, (OEO), rising to become principal assistant to the director in the Nixon years and working unsuccessfully to close down the Great Society boondoggle agency.

Schrote served as special assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz from 1977-80 and then was a regional fieldman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. It was there that he met fellow conservative GOPer Jim Sensenbrenner during Sensenbrenner’s first race for Congress in 1978 and later went on to serve as the Wisconsin lawmaker’s chief of staff.

As deputy personnel director under Ronald Reagan, Schrote worked hard on the cases of conservative office-seekers who felt that more moderate administration figures were keeping them from the opportunity to serve in their hero’s administration. In 1983, I discussed with Schrote the complaints of former Rep. (1976-82) Bob Dornan (R.-Calif.) that he was being shut out of a desired job at the United Nations or the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. “I really haven’t heard where anyone wanted to keep Bob out,” Schrote told me, “but I know one person who wants him to have something—the President.” (But Dornan gave up on an administration slot and went back and won another House seat in California the following year.)

After another stint with Sensennbrenner, Schrote served as assistant secretary of the Interior for policy, management, and budget from 1989-93. In the twilight days of the Bush Administration, Schrote made headlines when he took action that allowed the oil and gas industry to avoid excessive royalty and interest payments to the government and lowered the fees for some ranchers who grazed cattle on federal lands. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “There was a group of people who basically felt that Republicans should stop governing after the election and I happen to dispute that notion.”

When he left government in 1993, Schrote moved to the seaside town of Corolla, N.C., for what wife Rachel thought would be a leisurely retirement. But true to form, the conservative “mover and shaker” quickly plunged into local Republican politics and ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1974. Last week, to no one’s surprise, the crowd that came to honor John Schrote at a memorial service filled a large committee room at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington.

“Anybody who met John never forgot him,” said onetime boss Sensennbrenner. Schrote was 70.

Tsongas Returns—Niki Tsongas, That Is

Although no date has been set for the special election to succeed Rep. Marty Meehan (D.-Mass), who is relinquishing his 5th District seat to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, the odds are overwhelming that his successor will carry a familiar name in the district. Niki Tsongas, widow of the late Sen. (1978-84) Paul Tsongas (D.-Mass.), best-known for beating Bill Clinton—whom he derided as “Pander Bear” and taunted with a stuffed panda bear to make his point—in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire.

Since signaling that she would run in the district her late husband represented in the House from 1974-78, Niki Tsongas has been endorsed by a who’s who of state and local Democratic leaders. In attempting to become only the fourth woman to represent the Bay State in Congress, Niki Tsongas is running in the district that elected the state’s first woman in Congress: Republican Edith Nourse Rogers, who succeeded her husband as congressman in 1925 and served until her death in 1960.