First Indian-American governor takes office

January 14, 2008 11:51:37 AM PST
Republican Bobby Jindal, the nation's first Indian-American governor, was sworn in Monday in Louisiana and moved quickly to make good on a campaign promise to clean up the corrupt image of this hurricane-battered state.

"We have the opportunity - born of tragedy but embraced still the same - to make right decades of failure in government," Jindal said in his inaugural speech, referring to hurricanes Katrina and Rita of 2005.

Jindal, a former congressman, became Louisiana's first nonwhite governor since Reconstruction. He took the oath from the state Supreme Court's chief justice, Pascal Calogero. Jindal's wife Supriya held the Bible.

He said he will call a special legislative session Feb. 10 to address the state's image as a haven for cronyism and self-serving politicians. In his speech, he made numerous references to a "new Louisiana" and a "new beginning" for the state.

"We can build a Louisiana where our leaders and our people set the highest standards and hold every member of our government accountable, a Louisiana where incompetence is not a synonym for government, a Louisiana where corruption does not hold us back," he said without providing specifics.

Jindal, 36, a conservative Republican, won more than 50 percent of the vote in October's primary election. He takes over from Democrat Kathleen Blanco, who had defeated him four years earlier. Blanco chose not to run after heavy criticism of her performance after Katrina.

While Jindal has focused on fixing the state's shady reputation and overhauling ethics laws, he inherits an array of problems that have dogged his predecessors. Louisiana is among the nation's most unhealthy and poorest states, its students still perform below average on national educational tests and its population is dwindling.

Worsening the state's long-term history of problems, back-to-back blows from hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated much of south Louisiana and left New Orleans struggling to recover. The pace of hurricane rebuilding has been sluggish, with thousands of homes left abandoned, thousands of residents displaced and basic government services destroyed.

The boyish-looking Jindal will be the youngest U.S. governor in office, but he's used to being among the youngest people in the room in his previous posts.

By the time he first ran for governor at age 32, Jindal already had served as Louisiana's health care secretary, president of one of its university systems and an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Bush. Republican former Gov. Mike Foster tapped Jindal to be the state's health secretary in 1996, when Jindal was only 24.

Earlier Monday, newly elected legislators unanimously backed two of Jindal's choices for leadership posts. Republican state Rep. Jim Tucker was elected Speaker of the House, while Democratic state Sen. Joel Chaisson was elected president of the Senate. Both were elected without opposition.

On Sunday, Jindal attended a prayer service where churchmen from around the state read scripture and offered support. Jindal, a Roman Catholic who converted from Hinduism as a teenager, sat in a front pew next to wife and other family members at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Baton Rouge.

Associated Press writer Doug Simpson contributed to this report.