A Republican Reformer: Buddy Roemer
Charles “Buddy” Roemer III served as the 52nd Governor of Louisiana, from 1988 to 1992. Originally elected as a Democrat, Roemer switched to the Republican Party in 1991. He was a member of the US House of Representatives from 1981 to 1988 and is currently President and CEO of Business First Bank in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On July 21, 2011, Roemer announced his candidacy for President at Dartmouth College. Widely considered to be a long shot for the Republican nomination, Roemer has been excluded from all Presidential debates and is struggling in national polls. Nonetheless, Roemer is actively campaigning. He is notable for his full-throated embrace of the Occupy Wall Street movement and commitment to campaign finance reform.
The Politic: Governor Roemer, thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me. I first wanted to ask why you switched parties partway through your term as Governor of Louisiana.
BR: I did that twenty years ago. I had become pretty well distressed with the Democratic Party over a number of years. I’m a conservative on economic issues particularly, and the Democratic Party became such the government party that I became more and more uncomfortable and I began to vote more and more often for Republican nominees for President, not Democratic. And I thought honesty required an honest assessment of where I was in my Party. On a second issue, Louisiana was a one-party state. You know, if you were born in the South in the 1940s and 50s, you were born a Democrat. All the things that I fought — corruption, [the] good-ole-boy network, crony capitalism, accepting second best — all these were a direct result of single-party dominance. There was no spirited debate. I was the second Republican Governor in the two hundred year history of Louisiana, and there have been two more elected since me. Today, there’s a lot of debate, the state is much cleaner, and I feel good about that. And I’m not saying I take credit for that, but I am saying that I helped establish a second party in Louisiana.
The Politic: Why are you running for President?
BR: I caught an odor from Wall Street and Washington, D.C. that I didn’t like. And it was the odor of special favor[s]. It was the odor of injustice. It was the odor of opportunity lost. It was the odor of corruption. And I said in my announcement that I think the best way to move America forward — is to have a President free to lead, to insist on fair trade with China, not unfair trade; to completely throw out the tax code and put in a flat tax with no exemptions; to balance the budget over five years; to deregulate small business; and to have America be energy-independent using natural gas. This election [will determine whether] we get a good person or we just settle for the average crook. I say I won’t settle for that. I’m Steve Jobs in this campaign. His first rule was demand excellence. I demand excellence. I want someone who owes his allegiance to the American people, not his party, not his class … but to his nation. And that’s why I am running. I don’t know if I can win. Most of my life I’ve won my elections, but I haven’t won them all. I can be whipped. Money can overwhelm me. Ignorance can defeat me. A better candidate can beat me. Those things happen. But in this campaign, at this time, in this country, I don’t see anybody standing for reform.
The Politic: Do you believe you can change the country’s campaign finance laws if you are elected?
BR: Absolutely. Victory is a powerful thing. Oh, in Louisiana, they laughed. But the first act [we passed] was campaign disclosure and it’s still on the books — strongest in America. [There is] full disclosure, broad limits, no big checks, no using money to buy votes, no hauling voters to the polls. My God, that was a Southern tradition. We changed it. [When] I stand before Congress on the first day [of my Presidency], it will be so quiet you can hear a pin drop and we will have a fair, straightforward proposition — Constitutional — that will require 48 hours for reporting contributions. Not 100 days; 48 hours in the twenty-first century. It will not allow a lobbyist to be registered as a lobbyist and give money to politicians. You can choose; it’s a free country. Be a lobbyist, or be a fundraiser — you can’t be both. We will have criminal penalties for violations. We will reduce PAC contributions to that of individuals. We will be specific, and we will have Congress, as their first order of business, prepare Washington for victory in the jobs creation business. And the way we do that is to get the special interest money out of the capital.
The Politic: You have been excluded from all of the Republican Presidential debates so far. What is your opinion of the decisions to exclude you?
BR: Well, I’m unhappy about it. I don’t understand it. I don’t know how we pick a President anymore. Is it from the famous? Is it from the wealthy? [The] famous and wealthy shouldn’t be excluded, but that shouldn’t be the single criterion that we use to say who’s in the national debate. You shouldn’t have to have your own TV show. You shouldn’t have to be endorsed by Fox News. But my numbers are slowly improving. I started out at zero — I hadn’t been in public office in twenty years. Then I went to one percent, and then last week I went to two percent. I was ahead in the Florida poll of Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, and Gary [Johnson]. And they have made two or more debates. I have made zero. I’m beginning to think they’re excluding me for another reason. Could it be that I point my finger at the whole system and say it’s corrupt? Could it be that I’m the only candidate that went to Occupy Wall Street and listened for a day? Could it be that I’m the only guy that’s been a Congressman and a Governor and I know the system cold? I don’t know.
The Politic: Do you believe that you will be the Republican nominee for President?
BR: I do. I believe it’s possible, that’s what I believe. This race is wide open. Republicans are having the same problem that this country is having. We are a nation in trouble. We need a President free to lead and it’s damn hard to find one!
The Politic: Do you believe the other Republican candidates will be able to defeat President Obama in 2012?
BR: Oh I do. I think that the election is wide open; no question about it. I mean, I think [Barack Obama’s] Presidency is a failed one. Let’s take his major policy: a stimulus to get this country started again. He already spent more money on that than on everything else put together. Well it won’t work. When [people] spend [the stimulus] money, what do they spend it on? Products made in China. There’s nothing made in America. We have lowered the unemployment rate in China, not in America. At the height of the recession, Chinese unemployment was 47 million [people]. Today, it’s 15 million [people]. America has not gotten any better and China has improved its position 70 percent. I’m an economist; I look at the numbers. Obama knows nothing about job creation. He’s doing it the wrong way. Do I like the man? Yes. I thought he ran a terrific campaign, but there’s been no change. He gets more money from small givers than the other guys do, but he gets far more money from Wall Street. … I wish he’d been in business. I wish he hadn’t been another Harvard lawyer. He might understand how the world works.
The Politic: What would you do if you were elected President instead?
BR: Look, I expect to change American politics. I expect to do it like I did it in Louisiana. It won’t be popular. It won’t always be easy, but — by God — it’s what I do. I throw the money-changers out. I let plain people with brains come in. Tim Geithner and Goldman Sachs will no longer be [the] Secretary of Treasury. We will have a knowledgeable banker from Main Street, not Wall Street. We will have a foreign policy that won’t have addiction to oil in the room. We will quit sending Marines on oil duty. We will turn this country around, and we will have the biggest economic boom that your parents have seen since World War II. We will have a level playing field on trade. We will unleash the power of small business. We will drill cleanly for energy independence. We will put America to work again. I have two degrees from Harvard — not as good as Yale, but it’s a decent school. I have a degree in economics and a master’s degree from the Harvard Business School. I know banking. I know start-ups. I know innovation. I know how to grow jobs. I’m the only man running who’s been elected to Congress and elected to Governor and has prepared himself all of his life to lead. And [I’m] free to do so.
The Politic: Where do you predict the United States will be ten years from now?
BR: Well, it depends who we have as our leader. Chances are we will still be sliding. Nothing’s made in America anymore. 41 percent of our military equipment is made in Taiwan or Japan or China or Malaysia. For God’s sake! We haven’t created any new jobs in thirteen years. We have a million and a half fewer workers than we had thirteen years ago. There are 43 million more Americans and we have a million and a half fewer jobs. Where will we be ten years from now? That’s the best question anybody’s asked me in this campaign. We know we’re in trouble today. Ten years from now, we could be in greater trouble. There’s an old rock-and-roll song called, “Slip Sliding Away.” That’s where we are.
The Politic: Do you believe the slide can be stopped?
BR: I believe in our country. I believe there’s not a single problem that can’t be addressed. The undisciplined budgets, a tax code written by the lobbyists, an immigration policy that doesn’t exist, foreign aid cash rather than the real gift of teaching — I could go on and on. There’s not a problem we can’t solve, and ten years from now, we could be a clear number 1, and pulling ahead. [If you had talked to] Steve Jobs before he died, he’d tell you he had no PACs in his company, the most valued company in America. No lobbyists, no PACs; [he just] took care of his business. He demanded excellence. We can do it, but we will not do it with these Republican and Democratic Presidential wannabes. They are not free. They are not focused. They are not gifted. They are not committed to the American people. You know what they are committed to? They all just want to get reelected. I challenge them.
The Politic: During your Presidential campaign, you openly embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement — even briefly joining the protestors — unlike the other Republican Presidential candidates. Do you believe the movement embodies conservative principles?
BR: It does: the most conservative principle. The most conservative principle is to clean up corruption. Ask Rudy Giuliani. Ask any character in history who came to the Capitol and cleaned out the rogues. I went to Occupy Wall Street because I’m 68. I’m the Granddad in this race. And I have a memory. I grew up in the Deep South on a small farm where a cross was burned in my Daddy’s yard, because my Daddy stood up in a Methodist Church and said black people are Americans too. [He said] they’re individuals and [the] Church should stand with their civil liberties. He had a cross burned on his yard, but he told me the lesson. He said, “Buddy, listen to young people. They’re not shackled with convention. They’re free and they’re telling us the country’s not fair. Listen.” I remember being at Harvard in the ‘60s when students marched against the Vietnam War. And the old guard laughed at them, shot guns at them — I mean pellets, bullets, tear gas. And [they] said, “What do these kids know? They’re freshmen at Yale. What do they know? They’re freshmen at Harvard. They’re freshmen at LSU. They don’t know anything.” Well they stopped the war. I went to Occupy Wall Street because for the first time in years, young people began to come together and say, “We smell something. There’s the smell of corruption.” Now maybe they should be in Washington — I’m not gonna argue that. … But I challenge Herman Cain, who called them un-American and unpatriotic. I challenge him to get his memory right about what changed America. It was young people. And Occupy Wall Street — I guarantee — is changing America. It will be a [fairer], more just place. And the bailout bankers on Wall Street will have a reckoning. I can’t wait.
Eric Stern is a freshman in Pierson College.