Dodging the Debates

Every Child Matters in Louisiana is a partnership between the National Head Start Association and the Every Child Matters Education Fund. The nonpartisan organization was founded in 2002, and its mission statement reads: "By employing systematic and adequately funded public education campaigns, the Every Child Matters Education Fund provides opportunities for focusing public attention on important children's issues including the prevention of child abuse and neglect, improving the health of low-income children, and finding solutions in child care, early childhood education, after-school programs, and responsible decisions on federal budget and tax issues."

Earlier this week at the Lafayette Hilton, Every Child Matters in Louisiana held a gubernatorial forum on children's health care issues. The two-hour forum boasted a number of major sponsors, and KLFY's Darla Montgomery moderated the event. Republican gubernatorial hopeful John Georges, Democratic candidates Walter Boasso and Foster Campbell, Independent Tony Gentile and Libertarian Lee T. Horne were all present to offer their vision for health care in Louisiana.

The forum was an opportunity for Republican frontrunner and U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal to highlight his extensive health care knowledge. In 1996, Jindal was appointed secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Two years later, he was named executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. After serving in that capacity for two years, Jindal was appointed Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and became a senior health policy adviser to President George W. Bush.

Jindal, however, was conspicuously absent from the Every Child Matters forum, and his campaign waited until last week to inform organizers that Jindal would not be participating. His decision is particularly disappointing, considering the back story.

Every Child Matters in Louisiana first notified all the candidates of its intentions and the forum via a letter in mid-June, and followed up with phone calls to each campaign on July 2. Jindal's campaign is the only one that didn't respond, so forum organizers also hand-delivered and faxed letters to Jindal's Metairie congressional office, in addition to e-mailing Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere on July 19, who responded that he would forward the info to Jindal's campaign.

Instead of participating in the health care forum, Jindal spent Monday campaigning from Slidell to Hammond on his "Fresh Start" bus tour.

Conventional political wisdom holds that frontrunners have the most to lose by debating, as they risk opening themselves up to opponents' barbs and unexpected questions. But if there were ever an election that warranted throwing away the script, it's this one. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana faces massive, unprecedented challenges. An insurance crisis. A crippled health care system. Long-overdue education reform. The need for comprehensive coastal protection and restoration. Housing shortages in the areas affected by Katrina and Rita. The list goes on and on.

Currently, Jindal has only committed to one major gubernatorial debate: a one-hour televised debate on Louisiana Public Broadcasting from 7-8 p.m. on Sept. 27. If that time is split equally between the four current major candidates ' Georges, Jindal, Boasso and Campbell ' then Louisiana voters will have a grand total of 15 unfiltered minutes to see and hear the four men who say they're the best choice to lead Louisiana for the next four years. (The Council for a Better Louisiana's Barry Erwin is hopeful that all the candidates will also commit to a second televised forum focusing primarily on health care issues, slated for Oct. 13.)

Louisiana voters deserve more. The race for governor so far has consisted largely of platform soundbites and predictable partisan sniping between the candidates and state party leaders. As the Oct. 20 election approaches, the inevitable onslaught of carefully scripted 30-second attack ads will only serve to further muddy the waters.

As the frontrunner, Jindal's in a prime position to set the tone for this election season. Voters are hungry for new leadership, new ideas and specific plans on how to move the state forward. Our next governor needs to be bold, unafraid of controversy and hard decisions and willing to take on all challenges put in his path. Imagine how refreshing it would be ' and what a message it would send ' if Jindal stepped up and said he was willing to debate his opponents as many times as necessary before Oct. 20. Instead, he looks like he's perfectly content to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible.