Ben Brooks, a lawyer and Republican state senator from coastal Alabama, says he's no fan of big government but he expects an aggressive federal response as a gunky oil spill threatens the Gulf of Mexico.
"There's nothing inherently contradictory in saying we believe in smaller government and demanding that the government protect public safety," Brooks said.
He's not alone.
All along the Gulf Coast, where the tea party thrives and "socialism" is a common description for any government program, conservatives who usually denounce federal activism suddenly are clamoring for it.
Take Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican elected in 2007 when Democrat Kathleen Blanco opted not to seek re-election after she was widely panned for a bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina two years earlier.
Since April 20, when a gulf rig exploded and blew out an underwater oil well about 50 miles south of Louisiana, Jindal has been a ubiquitous presence in the fishing communities and barrier islands along his state's fragile coastline. He's been out on boats and up in Blackhawk helicopters, doors open, to survey the spreading, rust-colored swath of crude.
Jindal, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, has demanded a stronger response from the Obama administration, accusing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of dragging its feet in approving Louisiana's plans for protective berms — a plan that took three weeks to approve.
"This oil threatens not only our coast and our wetlands, this oil fundamentally threatens our way of life in southeastern Louisiana," Jindal said last week.
Jindal is a fiscal conservative who made headlines last year by rejecting some federal stimulus money, then distributing other stimulus funds by handing out oversized cardboard checks to local officials.
Louisiana State University political science professor Kirby Goidel said Jindal's call for larger federal involvement in the oil spill management contradicts the governor's usual persona.
"He's governor largely because of Katrina," Goidel said. "He knows that it's important to get out on top of it and be clear if the federal government is not doing what it's supposed to do. It's important for people to know that."
Goidel said he's not surprised small-government conservatives would seek help from Washington in a disaster that threatens the Gulf's water quality and everything that depends on it, from the shrimping industry to tourism.
"I think it's a pretty predictable response: 'We've got a problem that's beyond our control. Get the federal government in here to take control,'" Goidel said.
In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour — another potential presidential candidate in 2012 — advocates limited government and brags that his fellow citizens "hitched up our britches" to recover from Katrina, even as he lobbied for billions of federal dollars for everything from debris removal to expansion of a state port. Barbour has not called for a larger federal response to the oil spill. He said Tuesday that the first oil had appeared on one of Mississippi's barrier islands, near Alabama — a caramel-colored streak about three feet wide and two miles long. He said additional vessels would be used to gather and absorb oil.
"This no reason for anybody to panic," Barbour said Tuesday.
Barbour, who headed the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997 and is current chairman of the Republican Governors Association, declined to take any potshots at Democratic President Barack Obama, even hours after Obama criticized himself and said he was wrong to believe oil companies were prepared to deal with a massive spill.
"I'm not going to criticize the president for political reasons," Barbour said Thursday. "I don't think it serves any purpose. I don't think it would be fair."
A bipartisan group of attorneys general from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida sent Obama a letter May 6 asking for federal help in documenting information about oil company BP PLC's response to the blown well.
"We recognize that BP has stated publicly that it will live up to its obligation to pay all claims arising from this environmental and economic disaster. We hope that BP will," the five attorneys general wrote. "But we would be remiss in our responsibilities if we did not consider the possibility that enforcement or litigation efforts may be required in the future."
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is in a Republican primary for governor, posted the letter on his state website, with other information about the oil spill.
"This has been a tragic event, and our environment and several local economies still hang in the balance," McCollum says on the site. "I remain committed to ensuring British Petroleum and any other responsible parties do everything necessary to make Florida whole."
In coastal Mississippi, Republican state Rep. Steven Palazzo has been critical of the federal government, including what he sees as an intrusive role in a health care overhaul that he — like many conservatives — calls "Obamacare."
As he runs for Congress in a district that relies on shipbuilding, tourism and the seafood industry, Palazzo says Washington should do all it can to protect the Gulf of Mexico. He said his stance does not contradict his advocacy of limited government.
"This is not only an economic nightmare but it's an ecological one as well," Palazzo said. "We cannot spare any resource."
Brooks, the Alabama senator, said the oyster fishermen, shrimpers and deck hands in Mobile County, Ala., depend on the Gulf and he believes the government should handle the oil spill as it would any public safety issue — quickly and with all the resources needed.
"These are hardworking, good people," Brooks said. "They have to work to take care of their families and pay the rent and buy the groceries."
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