Pelican State Republican Diversity | NBC New York

Pelican State Republican Diversity

The GOP's Bayou Face



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    Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, in office less than two years, is already a prominent leader in the GOP.

    It's something of a source of embarrassment for the Republican Party that -- on this Martin Luther King Day, in a year when a black man is about to be sworn in as president tomorrow -- the so-called "Party of Lincoln" has not one elected black official. Not in the House, Senate or governor's state house. Indeed, there hasn't been an African American Republican in the House since Rep. J.C. Watts retired in 2002.

    However, it's unfair to say that the GOP is completely devoid of minority representation. There are Latinos in Congress -- primarily Cuban-Americans from Florida. However, one of those -- Sen. Mel Martinez -- has already announced that he will not run for re-election in 2010. On the presidential side, Obama reversed gains Bush had made reaching the Latino vote in 2004. However, based on the elections in 2007 and '08, it may be that the future of the Republican Party might not be in bringing in "old" minority groups such as blacks and Latinos, but newer ones -- immigrants from the Southeast Asian region. Because, against all odds, individuals from those groups have managed to win election in what, weirdly, is becoming one of the most diverse states -- Louisiana.

     Piyush "Bobby" Jindal was elected governor in 2007 at the age of 36. He succeeded Kathleen Blanco -- who had defeated him four years previously. Jindal's parents are Indian born and emigrated to the United States in 1970, with the future governor being born a year later. Jindal is the first non-white elected governor of the state, and the first American of Indian descent elected to statewide office in U.S. history. Jindal, as he attempts to reform Louisiana's history of political corruption and bring some fiscal stability, Jindal -- mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain -- is already on the short-list as a presidential candidate in 2012.

    While Jindal's victory made history, it wasn't a surprise: Blanco didn't run for re-election following widespread criticism of her efforts during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

    The real shocker came last year when Republican immigration attorney Anh "Joseph" Cao defeated scandal-plagued incumbent Democratic congressman William Jefferson in an election postponed for a month because of Hurricane Gustav. In so doing, Cao became the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. Unlike Jindal, Cao was an immigrant himself, fleeing Vietnam with his parents following the fall of Saigon. Now, he certainly benefited from running against an indicted member of Congress, but there are broader demographic changes going on in Louisiana that suggest Cao might not be a one-hit wonder who will lose re-election in 2010.

    "It’s a David and Goliath story," said Joel Waltzer, a lawyer who’s worked for 20 years representing Vietnamese homeowners and fishermen in eastern New Orleans. Before starting his own law practice, Cao worked for Waltzer.

    Katrina made Cao’s win possible, Waltzer said.

    "Before Katrina, they were an ignored constituency and now they are strong enough to elect their own congressman," Waltzer said. "They’ve become ambitious. They want a voice in their own rebuilding, a place at the table when these very important decisions are made."

    The community — made up of war refugees from Southeast Asia who came here in the 1970s — has gained in strength since Katrina and it is widely viewed as a rebuilding model.

    It's too early to say whether Jindal and Cao victories are just a coincidence (a third such election will enable one to call this a trend). But for now, Republicans will happily console itself by looking to Louisiana as the state that may hold the key to the GOP saving itself from becoming an all-white party.

    New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.