Buddy Roemer, who rode a message of reform in the 1987 governor’s race to vault over three challengers and “slay the dragon” — scandal-torn three-time Gov. Edwin Edwards — but who lost reelection four years later to the same rival, died Monday in Baton Rouge.

Roemer was 77. Ill for months, he died of complications from diabetes.

Roemer was a Democrat-turned-Republican, but he seemed too independent and headstrong to fit well in either party. He never followed the precept that to get ahead in politics, you had to get along with other politicians. With his sharp mind, he understood all the angles of a political play but disliked the deal-making that came with being governor. And that limited what he could achieve.

"He was all about reform, but it didn’t always work in his favor because of the realities of politics at the state Capitol," said Bernie Pinsonat, a veteran political consultant.

Perhaps no other governor in Louisiana history could match Roemer’s intellectual firepower. Raised in Bossier Parish by parents unusually passionate about educating their children, he graduated from Harvard at age 20 and went on to obtain a master’s from the university’s Business School.

Roemer returned home, where he founded a pioneering data-processing company and two banks before winning election to the U.S. House in 1980.

‘Roemer Revolution’

A conservative Democrat, Roemer started in the 1987 governor’s race as the longest of long shots, at 1% in the polls. The other candidates wooed elected officials and local power brokers, but Roemer upended tradition by appealing directly to voters with straight-talking TV ads that promised the “Roemer Revolution.”

Roemer swept into office at age 44 and, within a year, won legislative approval to raise teacher pay, enact a teacher evaluation program and establish strict limits on how much big donors could give to political candidates. He also helped pull Louisiana out of its worst financial crisis in years. And he allowed Paul Templet, his secretary at the Department of Environmental Quality, to crack down on oil and gas polluters — a first in state history — and clean up Lake Pontchartrain by ending shell dredging.

But over time, a quirky, mercurial side of Roemer emerged, one that mystified friends. Edwards and his political allies had a ready explanation. They spread the word to voters that he was arrogant, snide and sanctimonious.

Roemer had troubles on the home front, too. His wife, Patti, left him, taking their 10-year-old son, Dakota. The governor went into a shell for weeks. The Roemer Revolution had been derailed.

Roemer tried to get it back on track in 1991, when he became the first governor in U.S. history to switch parties while in office. But voters had tired of his version of reform. The newly-minted Republican finished a humiliating third in the 1991 gubernatorial primary behind Edwards and David Duke, a one-term state Republican House member from Metairie who had been a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard in the 1970s.

“Duke has no chance to help this state,” Roemer said in announcing his support during the runoff for Edwards, his nemesis four years earlier. “Edwards has one chance. I pray to God that he takes it.”

Edwards trounced Duke.

Roemer ran for governor again in 1995 as Edwards, wrapping up a fourth term, chose not to seek reelection. Roemer led during much of the race but faded in the stretch.

State Sen. Mike Foster brushed past Roemer and several other better-known candidates, much as Roemer had done eight years earlier. Foster won in part thanks to a secret deal he cut with Duke to win Duke’s conservative supporters. Roemer, who had been a strong supporter of civil rights throughout his career, refused to even meet with Duke. He finished fourth in the primary, only 1.2 percentage points out of the runoff.

Roemer ran for office only once more in a quixotic campaign in 2011 and early 2012 to win the Republican nomination for president. He dropped out after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary.

He did, however, flourish in the business world after leaving the Governor’s office. He founded two thriving banks in Baton Rouge.

Roemer is the third former Louisiana governor to die in two years. Kathleen Blanco, who governed from 2004 to 2008, died in August 2019 while Mike Foster, who governed from 1996 to 2004, died last October. Edwin Edwards, who is 93, and Bobby Jindal, who is 49, are the remaining living former governors.

"All he ever wanted to do was make Louisiana better, and he did. That meant making the right people mad, but he understood that," said U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who got his start in politics as an aide to Roemer when he was governor.

Early days

Charles Elson “Buddy” Roemer III was born Oct. 4, 1943, in Shreveport, the eldest of five children.

Roemer’s original nickname was “Butch,” but his mother, Adeline, didn’t like it. When Roemer skipped fifth grade, she had him adopt the name Buddy.

His father, nicknamed “Budgie,” embraced technological advances shunned by neighbors to build a 10,000-acre farm known as the Scopena Plantation, along the Red River just south of Bossier City.

Adeline managed the farm and tailored extra schoolwork for each child. By the time Buddy turned 10, he had read all six volumes of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” originally published in 1776.

“They would pore over books and learn world history before school in the morning, debate issues of the day at the breakfast and supper tables and sweat in the north Louisiana cotton and soybean fields in the afternoon,” Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid wrote in a profile of Roemer during the 1987 governor’s race. “There was no television in the house. A green blackboard mounted on a wall in the dining room became the battlefield for regular mealtime debates on anything from foreign policy to physics. … The parents raised their children with a mission: They would take their citizenship seriously, and would lend their intelligence to public service. Buddy Roemer, the eldest, understood the mission with singular zeal.”

Roemer’s parents also enlisted him to perform important roles at the farm before he was even old enough to drive a car. In the fall, he ran the cotton gin during harvest season, and in the summer, he oversaw day laborers who picked cotton, he reviewed moisture meters in the fields to determine when the crops needed water and he checked the crops for bug infestations, as he wrote in “Scopena: A Memoir of Home,” published in 2017. (This reporter served as an editor for Roemer for the book’s early drafts.)

Roemer had such an unusual background and was so advanced intellectually — he was a straight-A student at Bossier High, class president and had a perfect score on the SATs — that Harvard offered to admit him after his sophomore year in high school. His parents had him wait two years so he could graduate with his high school class.

Political ascent

Roemer got his start in politics by being elected in 1972 as one of the delegates who would rewrite the state’s antiquated constitution the following year. In 1978, Roemer ran for the U.S. House but lost, with then-state Rep. Buddy Leach winning the seat. Two years later, Roemer knocked off Leach. He easily won reelection in 1982, 1984 and 1986.

During those years, Roemer was a leader in Washington of the “Boll Weevil” caucus, named after beetles that feast on cotton buds but used to describe conservative Southern Democrats who frequently supported the Republican president, Ronald Reagan. Roemer and the others voted in 1981 for a major tax cut championed by Reagan; they also backed the president’s defense buildup.

House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a liberal foe of Reagan, frequently tussled publicly with Roemer, describing him as “often wrong but never in doubt.”

The two men, however, were friendly in private. As Roemer disclosed in his memoir, O’Neill frequently invited him to play gin at night because Roemer was a competitive card player and gave the speaker a feel for the Boll Weevils’ thinking. As their relationship flourished, O’Neill put Roemer on the banking committee over the objections of liberal members.

Roemer also excelled at poker, playing in a regular game in Washington that included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and journalist Bob Woodward.

In the 1980s, his poker playing earned him $25,000 a year, income that he declared on his tax returns, which he made public.

During the 1987 governor’s race, Edwards ran for reelection after a federal trial that, although it ended in his acquittal, laid bare his unsavory deal-making and his high-stakes gambling. The state economy, meanwhile, had tanked with a sharp drop in oil prices.

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Roemer and two other congressmen — Republican Bob Livingston and Democrat Billy Tauzin — vied to knock off Edwards, as did then-Secretary of State Jim Brown, another Democrat.

The race included an element of Shakespearean drama. Budgie Roemer had served as Edwards’ campaign manager when he was first elected governor in 1972, and then headed Edwards’ government as commissioner of administration during his first two terms as governor.

But in 1981, Budgie Roemer was sent to federal prison for conspiring to sell influence in awarding state insurance contracts. Buddy Roemer blamed Edwards for his father’s downfall. (A federal court ultimately overturned Budgie Roemer's conviction.)

“I want a governor who puts our pocketbook ahead of his,” Roemer said repeatedly during the 1987 campaign.

His tough-talking TV ads and mesmerizing speeches prompted The Times-Picayune and other newspapers to endorse him as the antidote to Edwards. Roemer shot past the other three main challengers a few weeks before election day.

Roemer led on the night of the primary, with 33% of the vote compared to Edwards’ 28%, and then was surprised at 1:15 a.m. when Edwards conceded the race without a runoff.

Higher office

As governor, with state finances so crippled Louisiana could barely pay its bills, Roemer sold off government airplanes and, with legislative approval, cut popular spending programs and borrowed $1 billion that the state would soon pay off as finances improved.

Roemer authorized the state Mineral Board to file a massive lawsuit against Texaco, accusing the oil company of underpaying royalty payments to the state for decades, and to ban the dredging of shells in Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas.

The affected companies "brought him a tremendous amount of political opposition, but he backed the Mineral Board because he thought we were going about things the right way," said Jay Seale, a Hammond attorney who chaired the board.

The Texaco lawsuit generated a $250 million settlement for the state, and both lakes are cleaner today as a result of those efforts.

In 1989, Roemer sought to restructure Louisiana’s tax system with a referendum that he said would put the state on solid financial ground for years. Voters rejected the measure, known as “fiscal reform.”

In an attempt to regain his political footing, Roemer organized a staff retreat where a spiritual adviser named Danny Walker encouraged everyone to think more positively by snapping rubber bands wrapped around their wrists and saying, “Cancel, cancel” whenever a negative thought popped into their minds.

Roemer’s seasoned aides rolled their eyes in disbelief, and critics mocked him when it became public.

Another news story invited more derision when it was reported he brought a book to a Saints playoff game and left before halftime. Yet another article reported he insulted the Japanese consul general by waiting two months to receive him — and then wore blue jeans, a casual shirt and cowboy boots propped on his desk, while the diplomat wore a suit.

In March 1991, Roemer announced his party switch, which came after months of private wooing by President George H.W. Bush.

During that year’s legislative session, prodded by his then-23-year-old daughter Caroline, Roemer vetoed a bill that would have banned abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. Until then, Roemer had a strong anti-abortion record. Anti-abortion legislators combined forces with pro-Edwards legislators to override the veto — the first time that had ever happened to a governor in Louisiana.

Louisiana also became a gambling state under Roemer in 1991. He signed legislation legalizing 15 riverboat casinos and allowed a bill to become law, without his signature, that legalized video poker at bars and truck stops throughout the state.

During the 1991 governor’s race, Roemer led in the early polls, but businesses spent heavily to defeat him, and he campaigned indifferently. Later, he admitted that he had lost his stomach for the intense scrutiny that came with the job. He won only 26.5% of the primary vote, 5 percentage points behind Duke.

Roemer attempted a comeback in 1995, promising he had become a better listener and leader, thanks to visits to Walmarts to talk to ordinary voters. In a bid for conservative voters, he opposed affirmative action, criticized a state-sponsored gay rights exhibit and called for inmate chain gangs to pick up highway litter.

Roemer finished fourth this time, with nearly 18% of the vote.

He later said privately that he had made a mistake in the campaign by shifting to the right, which he described as a political strategy.

Back to business

After the 1995 governor’s race, Roemer founded a community bank, the Business Bank, sold it and made a pile of money. With his son Chas, he created a company that built housing by universities for seniors who wanted to retire near their alma maters.

During those years, Roemer would often be spotted hanging out in Baton Rouge, at a Waffle House on College Drive and at a Books-A-Million store on Perkins Road, and he was always gracious with those who greeted him.

In 2006, he started Business First Bank with a batch of investors. Roemer wanted the bank to serve small businesses by being fast, focused, flexible and friendly. The bank grew rapidly under his leadership and, by 2020, had $4 billion in assets. Roemer’s nephew Jude Melville now runs it.

Despite his focus on business, Roemer couldn’t stay away from politics. In 2008, he served as a trusted adviser to Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and a friend from their days together in the House, during McCain’s losing presidential campaign.

In 2014, Roemer, who had lived with Type 1 diabetes since his teenage years, suffered a stroke that left him with a speech impediment and a halting gait.

Roemer’s first two marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include his third wife, Scarlett; his daughter Caroline and sons Chas and Dakota, all of Baton Rouge; and five grandchildren.

Roemer is also survived by a brother, Danny, and three sisters, Margaret Lefler, Melinda Barrett and Melanie Melville.

Funeral plans are pending.

In 2011, Roemer ran for president, thinking he could apply lessons learned from the John McCain campaign. He decried the corrupting role of big money in politics -- refusing to take PAC money and limiting individual contributions to $100 per donor -- and promised to shake up politics as usual. But he couldn’t poll high enough to qualify for any of the candidate debates. He finished seventh with less than 1% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and quit the race.

But before he did, Roemer’s iconoclastic, shoot-from-the-hip style made him a favorite of such talk show hosts as Joe Scarborough on MSNBC.

“Look at (President) Obama,” Roemer declared during one appearance. “All that hope and promise. No changes. … Guess who he’s raising (money) from? The very banks he’s supposed to regulate. He went to Wall Street, had a fundraiser — $35,800 a ticket. And you know who the host was? Goldman Friggin’ Sachs.”

Laughing, Scarborough proposed that Roemer be an honorary member of "Morning Joe’s” roundtable of guests.

Advocate librarian Judy Jumonville contributed research for this article.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.