Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer hasn’t won a political office since 1987. However, he is sticking to the message he used that year in his successful gubernatorial campaign against the almost-unbeatable Edwin W. Edwards.
“History was written not only by me winning, but how we won,” Roemer said 25 years ago after Edwards pulled out of the runoff. “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.”
Roemer accepted no individual contributions over $5,000 and no cash and refused funds from political action committees. He reported every penny he received and made campaign reform one of his key planks.
Since leaving the governor’s office in 1992, Roemer has become a successful businessman. But the political bug bit him last year and he entered the presidential race.
Political contributions were again the cornerstone of his campaign effort. He wouldn’t accept contributions larger than $100, and that proved his assertion that you couldn’t succeed in politics without the big money. He failed to qualify for any of the Republican presidential primary debates, and was unsuccessful in seeking office as an independent.
Most politicians would have called it quits, but Roemer has established The Reform Project. It is a movement he hopes will help change what has now become big money politics, thanks to unlimited corporate political contributions. The U.S. Supreme Court with a 2010 ruling (Citizens United) opened the money floodgates and super PACs have no limits on raising and spending during campaigns.
A U.S. Senate subcommittee finally gave Roemer national exposure this week by conducting a two-hour hearing titled, “Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs.” The Times-Picayune in a headline said, “At long last, Buddy Roemer draws a crowd for reform message.”
“Our institutional corruption places our elections in the hands of mega contributors,” Roemer told the subcommittee. “The system is not broke … It’s bought,” he said.
The Advocate of Baton Rouge covered the hearing and one of its readers took Roemer to task, saying, “He should begin his reform efforts in his own home state of Louisiana, where elections are indeed ‘bought’.”
Roemer did begin his campaign reform effort in Louisiana with passage of a law that set up the current restrictions on political contributions. There was no limit in 1987 on what an individual or a political action committee could give, and candidates only had to report large contributions.
Change didn’t come easily. It took a compromise bill to get the law changed on the last day of the 1988 legislative session. Former state Rep. Joe Accardo, D-LaPlace, sponsored the governor’s bill.
“We want to send a message that Louisiana is reforming itself, that it doesn’t want to do business like it used to do,” Accardo said at the time.
Individual contributions to candidates for statewide office couldn’t exceed $5,000. The limit was $2,500 for district office contests and $1,000 for local races. Candidates for statewide office could only receive a total of $50,000 from special interest PACs. The limits were $35,000 for district offices and $10,000 for local races.
Candidates had to report every penny collected and spent and couldn’t accept more than $100 in cash from an individual. Persons seeking office were also prohibited from spending campaign funds for personal purposes. That part of the law has never been clarified and even today there are calls for stricter control on where that money is spent.
Roemer has to know that he and others who agree federal campaign finance reform is essential face tremendous odds in changing congressional laws. The Times-Picayune reported that no Republican members of the Senate attended this week’s hearing. Democrats were more sympathetic, but they, too, benefit from the unlimited contributions.
It would take a constitutional amendment to overrule the Supreme Court decision, and that is an awfully high obstacle to overcome. The next best thing would be to change existing laws that would require speedy disclosure of contributions, institute a ban on lobbyist contributions and limit PAC contributions.
Nothing is going to come easily. The Senate tried to pass legislation requiring super PACs to name their top donors, but it couldn’t get the 60 votes needed to stop a Republican filibuster.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., presided over the subcommittee hearing and said 400 people attended. However, The Times-Picayune described it — with a couple of exceptions — as “an entirely Democratic affair.”
Roemer is one of the most convincing speakers I have heard over the last 50 years, and he brought new hope to Louisiana at a time when it was sorely needed. He had a fairly successful four-year term, but his reform efforts proved to be more than the state’s voters were willing to absorb at one time. Roemer also alienated some of the major power brokers in the state who favored the status quo.
Some believe it’s too late to reform the federal election process, but give Roemer credit for attempting the almost-impossible. Others in similar situations would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].