2 GOP governors, 1 disaster: Barbour, Jindal show diverging responses to Gulf oil spill

By Melinda Deslatte, AP
Friday, May 14, 2010

Miss., La. govs contrast in responses to oil spill

JACKSON, Miss. — The ambitious Republican governors of Mississippi and Louisiana are a study in contrasts as an oil spill threatens coastal economies still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.

Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, a well-connected former Washington lobbyist, has calmly said the oil slick looming offshore is just a sheen in most places and there’s no reason for people to panic.

Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, has questioned oil giant BP PLC’s response capability and the federal government’s plans to clean up crude spewing from a well blown out by an offshore oil rig explosion April 20. He activated the Louisiana National Guard and called on coastal parish leaders to draw up their own response plans after saying he couldn’t get answers from BP or the Coast Guard.

Both governors are considered possible 2012 presidential candidates, and their responses to the spill may say more about where they’ve been than where they hope to end up.

Jindal’s predecessor was Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who chose not to run for re-election after she was heavily criticized for appearing indecisive when Katrina struck in August 2005. Jindal was in Congress at the time.

“This oil literally threatens our way of life,” Jindal said. “Here in Louisiana, we’re going to do everything we can do. We’re going to do what it takes to protect our way of life.”

Barbour, 62, is a second-term governor who was in office during Katrina and was widely praised for his response to the storm. He’s now chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Barbour has said the oil spill is “not Armageddon,” but he believes news coverage has hurt tourism in his state.

“Come on down here and play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish and pay a little sales tax while you’re here,” Barbour said Wednesday during a televised news conference in Biloxi, Miss.

While Barbour downplays the possibility of a 2012 presidential run, he hasn’t dismissed it. Jindal, 38, says he’s only running for a second term as governor in 2011, not president, but the son of Indian immigrants is considered a sharp politician with a national future as his party seeks to diversify its public image.

In Mississippi, Barbour has been juggling oil-spill briefings with his response to two consecutive weekends of severe weather, starting with a deadly April 24 tornado that cut a 149-mile swath through his state.

He told The Associated Press the oil spill could be disastrous for Mississippi’s coastal economy. Then he added: “But it’s just as possible that what happens here will be manageable and of moderate and even minimal impact.”

Oil has not started washing up on shore in any large quantities, and Barbour likened much of the spill to the gasoline sheen commonly found around ski boats.

“We don’t wash our face in it, but it doesn’t stop us from jumping off the boat to ski,” Barbour said.

While Jindal was initially slow to criticize and publicly react to the Gulf oil well blowout, he quickly stepped up his rhetoric and toughened his response as the spill worsened and fears grew about the potential damage to fragile wetlands and coastal fishing industries.

He has handled it much like he would a hurricane, holding regular news conferences with rapid-fire lists of state response efforts and weather forecasts. Such responses are a clear bid to bolster his image as the take-charge, disaster-fighting governor and escape the criticism that plagued his predecessor, who was seen as unfocused and overwhelmed after Katrina.

Both approaches have received praise. Mississippi’s Democratic speaker of the House, Billy McCoy, frequently clashes with Barbour but said he respects the governor’s handling of disasters.

“He knows what he’s doing,” McCoy said. “He moves in a hurry and makes a difference.”

Bob Mann, who led Blanco’s communications strategy during Katrina, said Jindal appears to be aggressively responding to the spill.

“I looked really hard to try to find something to criticize and honestly I can’t,” said Mann, now a Louisiana State University professor. “Based on what he knew and what we all knew at the time, what more could he have done?”

That was echoed by Jerome Moore, a roofer sitting outside a Baton Rouge seafood restaurant.

“He can’t go down there and close it himself,” Moore said.

But both responses to the spill also have their critics.

Louisiana state Rep. Juan LaFonta, a New Orleans Democrat running for Congress and a frequent Jindal critic, complains Jindal was too slow to declare a state of emergency. The declaration came nine days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. Early estimates of how much oil was leaking were much lower than the current 200,000-plus gallons a day.

“Because of Gov. Jindal’s slow response, we are now behind the curve,” LaFonta said. He added: “You’re talking to a veteran of Katrina. I saw what a lackluster response did last time.”

Louie Miller, executive director of the Mississippi Sierra Club, said Barbour’s response shows he is an apologist for petroleum interests.

“I don’t think we need to underestimate his sympathy toward that industry and his allegiance to that industry,” Miller said. “He’s apologizing for this and trying to downplay it, and I think that’s unfortunate.”

Barbour said BP, which was operating the rig and is responsible for the cleanup, was not a client of the Washington lobbying firm he helped found — previously called Barbour Griffith and Rogers but now shortened to BGR.

Since Barbour became head of the Republican Governors Association last June, records show oil companies have contributed $51,350 to RGA. Shell Oil provided the largest portion of that, $50,000. BP America gave $450.

Records show BP America gave RGA $10,000 in 2003, the first year Barbour ran for Mississippi governor. It’s not possible to trace that donation directly to Barbour, but his campaign received about $2 million from RGA in 2003.

A review of Jindal’s state campaign finance records from 2005 to 2009 showed no donations from BP. Jindal was elected to Congress in 2004 and 2006, and federal records show his campaign received $1,000 from BP’s political action committee in 2006.

As governors, Barbour and Jindal have little influence over oil drilling in federal waters off their shores, but both have long supported it.

Deslatte reported from Baton Rouge, La. AP writer Sonia Smith contributed from Baton Rouge.

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