Primary profile: Buddy Roemer

Louisiana Gov. Charles E. “Buddy” Roemer 3rd had a fight on his hands.

MICHAEL MOORE / Sentinel Staff

After four terms as a Democratic U.S. congressman, two-term Gov. Roemer found himself in an uphill battle for re-election in 1991.

Staunchly opposed to accepting large campaign contributions, his wasn’t a well-funded campaign.

Behind the scenes, Roemer was picking up the pieces of his personal life after his second wife left him, and while he had balanced the state’s budget and made other notable policy strides, his aloof political style had done little to garner allies in the state’s Legislature, according to a book by Raymond D. Strother, a now-retired strategist who worked on the campaign.

Amidst all this, Roemer was taking heat from national Republicans to cross the aisle and join them, Strother later wrote in “Falling Up: How A Redneck Helped Invent Political Consulting.”

On March 11, 1991, Roemer flipped the switch and changed his party affiliation to Republican.

“I think for once the man was being pragmatic,” Strother said during an interview last month. “He’s about two steps in front of everyone in politics and I think he saw that the South was shifting and I think he wanted to ride the wave.
“He didn’t care about political parties, and he still doesn’t.”

It was a wave Roemer wouldn’t catch.

The party switch pitted Roemer in a three-way battle for the Republican nomination. His opponents were a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, and a past Louisiana governor with ties to corruption who Roemer had beaten for the seat four years earlier.

Strother felt Roemer had a chance in the race if he publicly criticized his two opponents, but Roemer flat-out refused.

The battle captured national media attention and ended when the former Klansman, David Duke, received the party nod. Roemer came in third, behind Edwin Edwards, the former governor who Roemer’s father had worked for at one point.

After the loss, Roemer slid quietly out of the political spotlight for nearly two decades, shifting into private business as the founder and CEO of Louisiana-based Union First Business Bank.

Now, in a move that has surprised many in his home state, the 68-year-old politician-turned-banker is back in politics — and making a bid for the nation’s highest office.

Again, his war chest is smaller than his opponents’, due to a pledge he calls “Free to Lead” to take campaign contributions of $100 or less. And he’s been blocked from nationally televised debates because paltry poll numbers mark him to debate organizers as a fringe candidate.

But, according to those familiar with Roemer’s political style, running on the edges is perhaps where he is most comfortable.

The oldest of five siblings, Roemer grew up outside Shreveport, La., the son of Adeline and Charles E. Roemer 2nd.

Graduating as valedictorian of his high school class at age 16, Roemer’s first plane trip was when he went to Boston the next fall to attend Harvard University.

The year before, the Roemer family packed into “an American-made Oldsmobile” and drove north to visit the university, Roemer said, chuckling at the memory during an interview in September at Keene State College, where he was campaigning.

At Harvard, Roemer found himself the youngest in his class and a Southerner among Yankees.

“When I left for college it was a tearful goodbye on my family’s part,” Roemer said. “But when I came back at Christmas, I was the one who was tearful, because I was glad to be home.
“I missed it.”

Roemer earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1964 and a master’s degree in business administration in 1967 from Harvard.

He was 19 when he married his high school sweetheart, Frances Demler, who Roemer calls “Cookie” and says remains a close friend. The couple had two children, Caroline and Charles, before divorcing in 1972.

Roemer has a third child, Dakota, with his second wife, Patti Crocker, who he was married to for 16 years before they divorced. Years later, Roemer married his current wife, Scarlett.

After college, Roemer spent years building a company, now run by his one of his sisters, that focused on political polling.

“I like to build stuff,” Roemer said of the business. “And I loved doing polling, I’ve always found it so interesting.”

Roemer dipped his toe into the political waters as a delegate to the Louisiana Constitutional Convention in 1972 and a delegate to the Louisiana State Democratic Convention in 1979.

In 1980, he dove in head-first — winning a seat as a Democratic U.S. congressman — and would serve three terms.

That same year, his father, Charles “Budgie” Roemer — who had been commissioner of administration under former Gov. Edwards — was indicted and convicted on federal charges accusing him of taking bribes and having connections to members of the Mafia. The convictions were overturned five years later on appeal.

He charged from behind in 1987 to defeat incumbent Edwards to serve two terms as governor. During his tenure, Roemer oversaw a number of major changes in the state, including a drop in unemployment, a state budget that went from deficit to balanced throughout his tenure and sweeping campaign finance reform legislation.

He also made national headlines when he vetoed a bill that would have created the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country.

Roemer was also known to be aloof and inflexible when dealing with legislators and near the end of his term made news more for his personal eccentricities — such as stories about his hosting new-age retreats for his staff — than his policies, said G. Pearson Cross, assistant professor and head of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Department of Political Science.

“He didn’t seem to be very happy with the give and take of being governor,” Cross said. “He is an idealistic outsider and he thought people should fall in line.
“He didn’t realize he needed to walk the halls of the Legislature and shake hands to get support for his ideas.”

And nearly two decades after he left office, Roemer’s presidential bid announcement flummoxed many in the Louisiana political sphere, Cross said.

“It was kind of like, ‘Really?’ ” Cross said. “Once he lost the race for the governor seat he’s kind of bandied about as a possible candidate for some major state races, but never really caught fire.
“The idea that he’d run for president seemed quixotic and extreme.”

On the national stage, Roemer — who has taken up residence in a rented house in New Hampshire to campaign for president — has called himself a “candidate in the fields of the unknown.”

He’s raised more than $233,000 for his campaign, putting up $25,000 of his own money — compared to Mitt Romney’s $32.6 million, Ron Paul’s $12.7 million, Michele Bachmann’s $9.8 million and Newt Gingrich’s $2.9 million — according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings in September.

A fiery orator, Roemer has been called by some the best public speaker in the Republican field, but without national debate appearances it’s unlikely many voters will ever see him in action.

Strother, who hasn’t talked to Roemer since he lost the 1991 governor’s race, said he worked for Roemer decades ago because he believed in Roemer’s intelligence, stances on issues and his passion, something that hasn’t changed no matter what side of the aisle he’s on.

“I’m convinced if he were put on stage with those clowns they would pale in comparison to him,” Strother said. “He’s much smarter than all of them.
“But he’s a misfit. He wasn’t comfortable as a Democrat and he certainly isn’t comfortable as a Republican.”

In the meantime, Roemer works to get his name out by stumping on college campuses, appearing on cable television networks and doing radio interviews.

On a visit to Keene State College this fall, he took a break from a more than 18-hour day that included media interviews and guest lecturing in economics classes to munch on a personal-sized pepperoni pizza on a paper plate.

“Campaign food,” he called it, laughing.

An insulin-dependent diabetic, Roemer said one reason he stayed out of politics after losing his bid for governor was to get his diabetes under control. He was diagnosed in his mid-20s with Type I diabetes.

Long hours, schedules packed with meetings, and late-night events kept him from the consistent routine required to keep his health in check, but an insulin pump has helped.

“I couldn’t be back on the campaign trail without it,” he said.

And the campaign trail, he said, is exactly where he wants to be.

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