Buddy Roemer is back. Few who know him are surprised the diminutive fellow, who captured the imagination of Louisiana voters in 1987, is going after the presidency this time, the nation’s top political prize.
Roemer brought his “Free to Lead” campaign to Lake Charles Tuesday, and it was obvious he hasn’t lost his touch that propelled him into the Louisiana governor’s office over 23 years ago.
A seasoned campaigner put his finger on the Roemer magic in 1987 when he said, “He is the best political phrase-maker I’ve seen.”
In those days, it was the “Roemer Revolution.” And those who bought into the movement came to be known as “Roemeristas.” Three of those — former state Reps. Dennis Stine, Vic Stelly and Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach — were there Tuesday among the other well-wishers.
Roemer, 67, says he is old enough to know what to do and young enough to get it done.
Out of nowhere
Most of us had never heard of Roemer in 1987, even though he had been in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven years. The Shreveport-based 4th Congressional District was simply too far-removed from Southwest Louisiana.
All of that changed almost overnight because once you heard him speak, you got caught up in his captivating style. Roemer was in fourth place in the polls in early October, but had surged to the top on election day Oct. 24.
Roemer pulled off what many called the biggest upset in Louisiana political history when he led the field. Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards tasted his first political defeat and pulled out of the runoff to make Roemer governor-elect.
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans described Roemer’s triumphant return to Congress after the election.
“Everywhere he went, House members stopped Roemer to congratulate him,” the newspaper said. “They hugged him in the halls, pumped his hand, slapped him on the back. His colleagues gave him four standing ovations on the floor.”
Roemer had earned a reputation as a maverick while in Congress, and that was a big part of his charm. He promised to shake up the status quo and take on the special interests.
A key ingredient of his gubernatorial campaign was his refusal to accept large political contributions or borrow money for his campaign.
“History was written not only by me winning, but how we won,” he said in 1987. “We had to separate the money from the politics. I didn’t know if it would work, but I did not want to be governor any other way.”
“Free to Lead,” the current campaign slogan, is based on that same premise. Roemer won’t take any political action committee funds and no special interest money. He won’t accept any contribution greater than $100, a unique feature for a presidential campaign.
Roemer said if he can get enough small contributions, he can pick up the name recognition he would need for such an ambitious undertaking. And he added it would give him the stroke to take on those special interests that control Washington, D.C., politics.
“Do you want a president free to lead?” he asks his audiences.
Give him that recognition, and Roemer said he would do the rest. He won some converts here this week.
“I am the only person considering running for president who has been a congressman, a governor, a member of both political parties and a small business owner,” he said.
The founder of Business First Bank, Roemer has served as its chief operating officer and president. The bank has grown and has about $650 million in assets, he said.
Roemer begins talking about his presidential plans by mentioning how Washington, D.C., has become one of the most prosperous cities in the nation because it is thriving on special interest money, he said.
The country has no energy policy, he said. And the price of gasoline has doubled since Obama took office, primarily because he put a moratorium on oil drilling for a year, he said.
The country can be energy independent by the end of this decade if drilling is expanded wherever possible, he said. And he added it can be done while preserving the environment and by ending the addiction to Middle Eastern oil.
Roemer wants to reform the tax code that he said is encouraging American companies to make investments overseas. He said GE, one of the country’s largest companies, doesn’t pay any taxes.
Small businesses are hurting, he said, because they can’t compete with cheap labor in countries like China and Japan.
The nation needs health care, he said, but Obama’s program isn’t the answer. He said it can be fixed with reform of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and by reforming the legal system that encourages too many lawsuits.
Too much reform
Roemer’s Revolution ended in 1991 when he came in third in the governor’s race. He got caught between the resurgence of Edwards and the ultra-conservative campaign of David Duke. Both of them made the runoff and Edwards was elected to a fourth term.
I said at the time it wasn’t a bad finish for a governor who managed to offend most of the special interest groups in Louisiana. Voters in this state get the reform itch now and then, but they quickly tire of change.
You can sense a current desire for change at the national level, and Roemer may be able to tap into that unrest. He realizes the presidency is a longshot, but that is exactly where he was in 1987 when his gubernatorial campaign caught fire.
Looking at the rest of the Republican field of presidential candidates, Roemer has to feel pretty good about his chances.
Jim Beam , the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].