Interview: Louisiana's Bobby Jindal

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Matthew Hinton / AFP / Getty

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal

TIME's Gilbert Cruz spoke with Louisiana's Bobby Jindal as he prepared to become the youngest governor in the country. The Republican will also be the first person of South Asian descent to lead a U.S. state. Excerpts from the interview:

TIME: This question may seem flip, but it's not. Have you seen the new Details magazine? It may be the first time that you're in a magazine with the word douchebag on the cover.
Are you allowed to say that on

They've touted you as one of the nation's most influential men under 45. They say that you are the GOP's most effective calling card. Can you see yourself being the future face of the GOP? You are young, ambitious, conservative, and not as pale-skinned as the rest of the party is.
Look, I think that my election was about Louisiana. Now it's true, my opponents certainly spent a lot of money making sure everyone knew what political party I was in and trying to tie me to the actions of other people, like the President...

Whom you supported greatly while you were in Congress.
When I agreed with him. I also disagreed with him on issues like the water bill, like CAFTA [the Central America Free Trade Agreement] and I voted against the Administration when I didn't think their priorities were right for my state. But I'm proud. I worked for this Administration for two years. I'm proud to have done that. I make no apologies for being a conservative, for being a Republican.

On Jan. 14 you get sworn into office as the nation's youngest governor. What are you most nervous about?
There's an anxious optimism in Louisiana. An optimism where people know that our state can be better, but an anxiety that if we don't get it right now, we may not get this chance again in our lifetimes.
I've described this as the fourth boom cycle in my lifetime in Louisiana. We had an oil boom, a gambling boom, and a health care boom. Whether this is being caused by the hurricane recovery or the oil and gas economy, it's another boom. There's over a billion-dollar surplus. The last three times there was a boom cycle, Louisiana in general invested those dollars in instant gratification. We didn't make investments in cutting taxes and investing in education. We didn't make the kinds of reforms we needed to make. Now we've got a chance to do that.

Do you have an overarching philosophy of government? What do you think its proper role should be? What should it do and what should it not do?
My parents came to Baton Rouge [from India] when my mom was pregnant with me. My dad was just freshly out of school. He was one of nine kids, the only one that went to high school. His family didn't have running water. He was the middle child, the only one that went to school, and he had a strong belief that if you worked hard and got an education, then you could have a better quality of life. And obviously he's had a better quality of life than his parent's could ever have dreamt of.
I think what our state owes to our people is that same opportunity that my parents enjoyed which is, if you work hard, if you play by the rules and get an education, you should be able to provide for your family. You should be able to have decent, affordable, high quality health care. You should be able to afford decent housing. Your kids should be able to go to good schools. You shouldn't be terrified of crime in your neighborhood.
That's not happening in Louisiana today. We're the only state in the South where people are moving out faster than they're moving in. Every year we're losing about 30,000 of our people. And we're a rich state. Thirty percent of the nation's oil and gas comes off our coast. Thirty percent of the fisheries come off our coast. Five of the nation's largest ports. We've got all kinds of advantages.

And in terms of what government shouldn't do?
Government is not always the most efficient organization to deliver services. I think people should have affordable, high-quality health care, but I don't want to see a single-payer system. I believe in universal coverage, but that doesn't mean I want the government deciding how that health care gets delivered or what services are offered. I want the doctors to be able to do that. I want choice and competition.
I'm certainly a conservative — I think government tends to be bureaucratic, it doesn't tend to be efficient. I think the private sector, by its nature, is going to be more flexible, more efficient, more creative. But there's an important role for government to play. A good example of this is on the federal level was back in the '90s, when welfare reform was done as a bipartisan initiative. From the conservative perspective, there was an expectation that you should work, you should go get an education, you have responsibilities. But from a more liberal perspective, I think it was also fair to say that if you do those things then society will help you. If you need help with transportation, or day care or training, we're not just going to expect you to go work without giving you the tools to do that.

Where do you see New Orleans in five or ten years?
First off, New Orleans should be a city where everyone who wants to come back be allowed to come back. And the way you do that is by making it an attractive place for people to come back to. You're not going to make everyone come back simply by wishing it were true. Families are not going to come back to New Orleans unless their neighborhoods are safe, their kids will be able to go to good schools, there's affordable health care and good paying jobs. If they temporarily located to another community that has those things, you can't reasonably ask them to give up those things and come back.
In a way — and this is an odd silver lining out of a destructive storm that nobody asked for — it allows us to leapfrog and make bigger changes than can be done elsewhere. We're now getting to rebuild — in some cases from scratch — our schools, our health care infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure. We now have the opportunity to incorporate the best technology, the latest thinking, in a way that other communities can't always do. It's not a good thing the storms happened. Over 1,000 people lost their lives and there was billions of dollars of damage. But now that it's happened, we can rebuild better than what was there before.