An Interview with Governor Buddy Roemer
"Fast, focused, flexible, and friendly. Those are the four Fs."
As part of The Louisiana Governors Project, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities interviewed past governors about their time in office and their reflections on the roles and responsibilities of that office. LEH’s Brian Boyles sat down with former Governor Buddy Roemer at his office in Baton Rouge.
You came from a politically active family. Can you recall your introduction to Louisiana politics?
Buddy Roemer: My dad ran a farm in north Louisiana called Scopena. I grew up there. When I was six we moved to the farm, and when I was 16 I went to Harvard. For ten years, my roots were not political. They were agricultural. Cotton, cattle, corn, soybeans, sunflowers. It was an amazing life. Then I came back from college and I went to graduate school, and my dad had become involved with a man named Edwin Edwards as his campaign manager [in 1971]. Edwin came to the house one day. We ate as a family and interviewed him. He was running for governor. When it was over, the family voted to go with Edwin. [Family members] told Dad, I remember, “Get involved.” So Dad did. He became his campaign manager. He had never done that before, but Dad was an excellent manager. He was hard and organized, and that’s how we got involved.
An issue was civil rights, how black people were treated on the farm – our farm – and in life. How, in the South, blacks had a poor deal. Eat in separate restaurants, drink in different water fountains, that sort of thing. That became the issue of our family. Edwards was good – better than all the opponents – on these issues. Dad, as campaign manager, and then as commissioner of the administration for years, worked on these problems.
My family comes from a civil rights tradition. I’m kind of an offshoot of that. I’m more conservative than they are probably, but in love with that concept. I still think that blacks have a tough time in America. There’s some things we can do, there’s some things they can do. But together, we can come out of it.
In that first Edwards campaign, you were one of early proponents of polling, using data and technology to steer a campaign. How were you drawn to that aspect of politics?
BR: It was called “modern” politics. And anything modern is new to our state. We had tremendous traditions but we are not modern. [The campaign was] in terms of polling and data. We polled every day for ninety days. We gave the candidate the input and the results of those polls every day. It could modify what [Edwards] scheduled and it could modify what he said. Nothing more serious than that. It was just modern politics.
We developed something else: a telegram that could be sent to the voter. A different telegram, given the voter’s interest. We did that by the hundreds of thousands on election day. I’m not saying it won for Edwards, but he won by 4,000 votes out of two million.
In 1987, after sharing this history with Governor Edwards, you decide to oppose him and run as a reform candidate. What inspired this decision?
BR: I served in Congress from 1981 to 1987. I had gotten further and further away from Edwards. Because I got a hint that it wasn’t what I thought it was in the 70’s. It wasn’t about the common good, or the common man, or black America, or civil rights. It was about self-aggrandizement. It was about getting rich at the taxpayers’ expense–so I suspected. As a result, I went off on my own. That was in ‘87 that you saw that I ran for governor and I was lucky enough to win.
We interviewed [former Roemer campaign advisor] Ray Strother a few weeks back. He talked about the genesis of your slogan, “I love Louisiana but I hate Louisiana politics.” What were you tapping into with that line?
BR: I remember cutting the ad. I remember walking off the stage after saying the lines, and I said, “Wow, Ray. We have something.” What it was, what we had, we tapped into the common feeling. Anybody in Louisiana could have said this line. “I love Louisiana, but I hate Louisiana politics.” It’s still true today. Any time a politician can put himself with the people, just what they’re thinking, then it’s all over. That race was all over the day we cut that spot.
You had been working in politics with your family. You then served in Congress. When you take office, having had your father serve as commissioner of administration, what surprised you most about the roles and responsibilities of Louisiana’s governor? What were the immediate challenges?
Just getting out of business as usual. Now I failed at doing that, but sometimes you don’t fail unless you try something big. My idea was: We do it differently. Not Edwin Edwards, not business as usual, not good old boys–new. We did that with the budget. We, in effect, had a two-year budget in our mind, in our planning. Not a one-year budget. The state needs to go in that direction. I didn’t make it law, because I didn’t have time, but a two-year budget evens out over the two years. It’s better management.
Another thing that we did was talk about campaign disclosure. This is a state that had no campaign disclosure requirements. We put them on the books. We need to do more, but it was a beginning. If you don’t separate the money and the politics, the politics will become corrupt. There are many examples of that.
The third thing, besides [being] new, besides money, was the environment. The land we live on and the air we breathe and the water we drink should be the best on earth. It’s not. Louisiana had a Department of Environmental Quality that spent not one penny–not one penny of state general fund money on the environment. It was unbelievable. John McKeithen had started it, but Edwards had run it into the ground. We resurrected it. We made it meaningful. We stopped shell dredging in Lake Pontchartrain. This was very unpopular, but it was the right thing to do. I’m glad we did it.
When you first came into office, how did you choose the people who were going to help you direct your legislative agenda?
BR: A combination of things. One: personal knowledge. I’d worked with a lot of people over the eighteen years I was in politics. Some of my staff could move up, I thought.
Number two: volunteers. A lot of people heard that I was running and they volunteered to help me, and I watched them, and I knew some of these people could go into government, so I did that.
Third was that we advertised around the country for people and I brought them in from around the country. Now, my opponents criticized me. They said, “These aren’t Louisianians.” That’s funny. I thought they were Americans. We’ve got to get over that. Louisiana does not have all of the answers. We’ve got to be brave enough to reach out and get somebody from New York or Chicago or Tennessee. Why not, if they’re the best?
The relationship with the legislature is obviously a big part of the governor’s job. Talk about some lessons learned.
BR: Oh, man. I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’ve got my you-know-what whooped many times. They were good – I will say this – they were better than I gave them credit for. I learned a lot from the legislature. They knew Louisiana and all the best parts even better than I did, and I had grown up here and loved it. But they taught me. The one thing they’ve taught me about was Louisiana politics. I thought I knew it. They taught me a lesson. They were good at what they did, but they were way too political in my opinion.
What about your relationship with the media, another big part of the job?
BR? It was good. I was lucky. I got along well with the media. I was endorsed by every paper in Louisiana, except in Lafayette. Shreveport, Alexandria, Monroe, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, they all endorsed me. I started off better than I would have normally because they said, “We’re gonna give this little guy an edge for a while.” And they did. But I hired Bill Lynch, who was a political reporter, to be my interrogator, investigator. My office – they cleaned up politics. I hired Len Sanders, who was a reporter for The Advocate, to be my right hand, so I was very close to the media. Now, Edwards made fun of that. He highlighted that in his political campaign, that Buddy Roemer got all these favors. He was right. I got a fair break.
Louisiana receives substantial federal funding. Can you describe the relationship between your administration and the federal government?
BR: Good. My president was George Bush, the old man. It was excellent. I called him when I needed something and he tried to get it for me. But these conservatives that acted like the federal government didn’t have a say-so in our state are crazy. They need to rethink that and make the federal government – where possible – a team member, a collaboration, maybe we ought to try that. Beyond the partisan politics, we have a nation. We have a state. We have a people. They ought to come first. The nation, the state, and the people. Then, if you want to play Louisiana politics, go play.
In the 1991 reelection campaign, why did you decide to switch from Democrat to Republican?
BR: Well, it was new. I was really disappointed in the organization of the Republicans. The Democrats weren’t well organized. I was used to that. I did [the campaigning in 1987] myself. I put my own team together running for governor. There wasn’t a single person of the party on it. But the Republicans threw all kinds of people at me and it was a superficial organization. When I realized that I was in trouble, I tried to act, but it was too little too late. I was stupid. You learn from doing. I learned.
Was the David Duke phenomenon something you could have foreseen?
BR: No, no. It caught me completely by surprise. It was a combination of independence from the federal government and racism. It was a combination of the boys outside the ruling power being able to talk about things – housing, for example – that I wasn’t able to talk about. You put a demigod on the field with a good speech and hard work – and Duke worked hard – he can cause a lot of damage. The time before he had run against Bennett Johnson, a very popular senator, [Duke] got 44% of the vote. I just underestimated what he could get in the first primary. If he made the run-off, I knew I could beat him, but he would be 42% of 40% or 44%. He couldn’t ever get a majority.
If you were elected today, what initiatives would you launch in your first few months in office?
BR: Two-year budget would be critical, first thing. I would have a single board for higher education. Maybe a single board for all of education. North Carolina does. How have they done compared to us? They’re growing four times faster than us.
I would do something else. This is gonna be counter-intuitive. I would make the legislature more independent. I think Louisiana needs a strong, balanced legislature and the governor – me – I had too much control. I needed to let it go and learn from it. Get ideas from it, form a team with it.
If you do those three things: a single board for higher education, a two year budget, and independence in the legislature, this state could shine.
If you were given an hour with the next governor during his or her first week in office, what advice would you give?
BR: Fast, focused, flexible, and friendly. Those are the four F’s. Grab them. Hold them. I would also tell her or him to be open for new ideas. To be open for something you read or something you see and if you see that something, call them and get them to come to Louisiana to talk to you. Use the power of governor to learn, to lead from that learning. That’s what I would say. And don’t forget the four F’s. Fast, focused, flexible, friendly. Who’s the most profitable restaurant in the world? McDonald’s. Who’s the cook? You don’t know. They serve fast food, not well-cooked food. Fast is important, maybe the most important thing in life. Be fast. We’ll get it right later.