BAYHAM: Reappraising The Roemer Legacy

Tuesday begins a two-day celebration of the life of former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer with a visitation and funeral service in Baton Rouge, his adopted home town and center of his post-gubernatorial lucrative business endeavors, and on Thursday in Shreveport, his political bailiwick that sent him to Congress and powered his stunning run for governor in 1987.

With his passing from complications from the diabetes that plagued his health most of his life, Roemer’s role in Louisiana politics has not so much been revised but reevaluated and put in better perspective, particularly by his former adversaries.

One retired legislator from a rural area who asked not to be directly quoted had become so infuriated with the governor during a legislative session that he had named a recently acquired donkey after Roemer though upon working out his differences with the governor later he had disposed of the braying pack animal.

Looking back that since retired legislator had nothing but the most effusive praise for his former adversary.

Former state representative Quentin Dastugue, who would later run for the state’s top office in 1995- the same year Roemer attempted his comeback, described him as the best governor Louisiana had in his 16 years of legislative service.

“The first 90 days of his administration were the most invigorating in my time in politics,” said Dastugue, who served as a floor leader for Roemer.

That view was shared by former Monroe State Representative Jimmy Dimos, who was recruited by Roemer to run for speaker of the House of Representatives in 1988.

Dimos, who had known Roemer in the Jaycees, had not planned on seeking the job of leader of the legislative chamber, credited the governor for sealing the deal over the incumbent speaker John Alario.

Dimos attributed Roemer’s defeat in 1991 in no small part to the tough decisions he had to make on tax increases and unpopular budget cuts to cope with the staggering ten-figure shortfall the reformer inherited from the departing Edwards Administration.

“When you walk into a billion dollar deficit on day one, you have to make unpopular choices,” said Dimos.

Despite the challenges he faced the former speaker believed Roemer restored people’s confidence in state government.

To a degree Roemer was undercut by his idiosyncrasies.

An outside-the-box thinker, Roemer got lambasted for having a staff retreat where the seminar speaker encouraged attendees to wear rubber bands on their wrist and snap them upon having negative thoughts.

Louisianans can tolerate brazen scoundrels better than New Age weird.

Roemer, ever the square peg in the round hole, was a baseball governor in a football state.

And a much as any controversial policy position he pursued the leaked word that Roemer read a book while attending a Saints game made him disconnected from the average Louisianan.

However that’s what Roemer did everywhere, including the floor of the 2008 Republican National Convention, which dare I say was a more raucous venue to attempt to read than even the governor’s suite in the Superdome.

When I saw Roemer leaving the convention floor with a large book tucked under his arm, I jokingly exclaimed he hadn’t learned his lesson from 1991 to which he replied with a big grin.

The electorate might succeed in changing governo rs, but they weren’t ever going to change him.

I got to know Roemer through his regular speaker appearances at LSU College Republican meetings. For a man known for being impatient and difficult with political figures, Roemer couldn’t have been more gracious with the students.

The same spellbinding speeches Roemer gave in the LSU Union Vieux Carre Room could have been delivered from the dais at a national party convention. Roemer only had one speed when it came to politics.

Roemer was also known to haunt the Baton Rouge Waffle House, Books-a-Million, and Barnes & Noble, chit chatting with folks in between burning through reading material.

For a man who achieved so much in life Roemer was remarkably accessible and genuinely engaging with people.

I always suspected that his involuntary discharge from politics was a relief to him and may have bought him extra years on earth in light of his health issues.

My final visit with Roemer was in his Baton Rouge office in 2019.

Roemer had cautioned me prior to arriving that he had endured a medical setback that slurred his speech but the nuclear plant between his ears was just fine.

I brought with me one of his old campaign posters that he insisted on showing off to his staff.

While Roemer had made piles of money in the private sector, perhaps a far too subtle reminder of what the state lost when they chose to exit the Roemer Revolution Turnpike for the Highway to Hell, his heart was still longing for the love that had spurned him: Louisiana government.

It wasn’t the power or the prominence Roemer missed but being in a position to solve problems. Politics was less a career than a vocation and Buddy was more a crusader than a candidate.

As he struggled to get the words out, a sad and ironic condition to befall the most gifted Louisiana political orator since Huey Long, Roemer peppered me with questions about the governor’s race before mulling the information passed along and then predicting the John Bel Edwards would win a second term.

Ever a man of contradictions John McCain’s most able surrogate from 2008 Roemer couldn’t stop gushing about Donald Trump and the economic prosperity that had been the cornerstone of his reelection until COVID-19 manifested.

A commerce junkie, Roemer was about the ticker-tapes. Not the mean tweets.

Rather than simply bidding farewell from behind his desk, Roemer insisted on hobbling with the use of a cane to show me out.

It was both a sign of courtesy and a demonstration that while debilitated Roemer was not defeated by his frailty.

I don’t know if Louisiana ever had a governor who pushed all of his chips in on every hand of political poker.

Re-election without reform was pointless and nothing more than an exercise in ego.   His administration, even though brief, would have a purpose.

And Roemer’s defeat in 1991 shouldn’t be fully laid at his doorstep.

That humiliation was truly a collaborative effort.

The voters, ranging from the cantankerous influencers in his new party to the unforgiving special interests dominating his old party steamed over the spending cuts that became necessary to keep the state afloat, were shortsighted in their ballot-box vengeance considering the primary alternatives.

Roemer’s pride might have been stung by the rebuke on election day but our reputation as a state suffered incalculably more, to say nothing of the end of substantive reform in Louisiana.

Succeeding politicians learned the wrong lessons from 1991, settling for changes along the margins, and Louisiana, a state abundant in resources, continues to bring up the rear in comparable state quality of life rankings.

The electorate voted irrationally and got the inevitable result and the accompanying hangover.

Barack Obama’s most succinct observation on politics played out in Louisiana years before he uttered the words “elections have consequences”.

Over thirty years removed from his administration, many of the folks who served in the legislature during his tenure aren’t around and unless I’m mistaken only two legislators remain in office from Roemer’s time on the fourth floor of the State Capitol.

The same applies to the scribes who covered him.

The governor himself penned an autobiography though that was centered on his childhood and not his political life.

Hopefully with his passing Roemer’s legacy will be reappraised from a policy and governance point of view and not merely from the political.

There was far more to Roemer’s administration than the “cancel” rubber bands and the Race from Hell.

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