Look, I know you’re probably not going to vote for Buddy Roemer for president, even if he somehow wrangles his way onto the primary ballot in your state. And I’m not even trying to talk you into it here.
He’s a fair trader when the conservative political weathervane clearly reads free trade. He’s broken bread with the Occupy people not at the height of their popularity but after they’d begun to slide. He hasn’t registered on the impact scale enough to evaluate his fiscal policies.
But know this: In Washington, we’re always looking for the political person with actual courage, for someone whose principles more or less match ours and commitment to those principles is such that they would rather lose an election that sell out. Buddy Roemer is that person.
Whatever else you can say about him, he is that rare politician so committed to doing the right thing that he will do it even if he knows it will cost him an election.
I first met Roemer in 1980. There is no chance he remembers me. I was editor of the school newspaper at LSU-Shreveport, and he was running for Congress from Louisiana’s Fourth District, which includes Shreveport. He had run in 1978 and lost in a jungle primary to Claude ‘Buddy’ Leach of Leesville.
Roemer had been seen as the clear leader to replace the retiring Joe D. Waggoner. But one day, at a debate, the gaggle of candidates were asked whether they support the project to build a barge port on the Red River just below Shreveport.
Shreveport is named for Henry Miller Shreve, a riverboat captain who led an effort in the 1820s to clear a 60-mile-long dam of debris from the river. The Red River, which forms much of the border between Oklahoma and Texas, doesn’t always deliver enough water to wash away debris. Sand bars were common in the stretch that flows through Shreveport, which meant more than 100 miles of the river would have to be dredged for the port project then under consideration.
All the other candidates mouthed the usual platitudes about bringing home the bacon, creating jobs, returning the river to its former glory. But Roemer said he’d looked at the numbers, determined the project never would generate enough dollars and jobs to make it worth the massive federal expense, and came out against it. Frugality, he said, wasn’t just for the next guy. It had to begin at home.
This is even more impressive when one considers Roemer grew up on a plantation across the river from Shreveport in Bossier Parish that abutted the river. His family stood to make millions more than they’d ever made selling cotton by selling access to the river.
It’s not certain this singular act of courage cost Roemer the election. It’s not even certain he would’ve lost if things had been fair and square. Leach would spend most of his one term in Congress fighting off allegations he bought the election by handing out five-dollar bills to voters in his base – the southern part of the district.
By the time 1980 rolled around, voters were seeing the wisdom of the choices Roemer had made. They voted out Jimmy Carter and voted in Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on the same themes.
In 1987, Roemer joined a long list of Democrats who wanted to challenge sitting Gov. Edwin Edwards for the governorship. Roemer, whose father had served as Edwards’ right-hand man before taking a fall for the governor and going to prison, again set himself apart with remarks at a debate. All the candidates were asked if they would support Edwards – then under federal indictment himself – were Edwards to win the primary. The others hedged. Roemer said no; we had to slay the dragon. The next day, the others were left to explain their remarks; Roemer was off having Slay the Dragon buttons printed.
Would Roemer make a good president? We’ll never know. Sadly, it’s impossible to win now if you don’t accept donations of more than $100. On top of that, his record as governor of Louisiana is uneven – a burst of early reforms, including elimination of a $1.3 billion deficit he inherited from Edwards, followed by discord with the legislature and eventual dysfunction in both his personal and professional life.
On top of that, he has been out of the scene for 20 years and widely viewed as an eccentric candidate.
But at a time when even supposedly conservative leaders in Congress fail to adhere to simple standards, when they give way on the first federal budget resolution, then on the the debt-ceiling increase and again, it now appears, on a continuing resolution to keep the government operating into the new year, Roemer’s candor and adherence to principles seems refreshing.
And by the way, they eventually did build the port of Shreveport. And it has been largely a bust.