Friday Interview: Buddy Roemer Doesn't Like Calling Decent Men Corrupt

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The retired former governor has upended his life to spread his message that our political system is corrupt, but he's still not naming names 

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Unlike his better known rivals in the GOP presidential primary, Buddy Roemer has never run a third-tier pizza chain or distinguished himself by zinging liberals in frequent Fox News Channel appearances. He did spend four years as governor of Louisiana, the same amount of time Mitt Romney spent in the Massachusetts statehouse. And he served as a congressman for almost 8 years. But it hasn't translated into substantial media coverage or support from voters in polls.

(What follows has been condensed, reorganized and edited.)

What motivated you to run for president? And to put money in politics at the center of your campaign?

The answer is Louisiana.

I grew up in a state where winks and nods were the way you did business in politics -- where people were delivered to the polls in buses and paid money to vote. Where leading politicians bragged about how much money they made in office. Where what you knew was not nearly as important as who you knew. My definition of corruption growing up was Louisiana politics, where the privileged few did not have access to power. I ran for Congress thinking that I I loved the state, but I wanted to get as far away from it as possible. So I went to Washington. I ran for Congress.

But I wasn't in the corruption cycle that Louisiana had become. It got so bad, Conor, that the unemployment rate went to 12.8 percent. In the late 1980s we had the highest unemployment rate in America. So I ran for governor with little chance to win. I think I was in sixth place of six candidates. A couple of Congressmen ran. Bob Livingston. Billy Tauzin. Those are famous names in Washington. Edwin Edwards ran. Jim Brown ran. Speedy Long ran, the former Congressman. And me.

I was in last place, but my issue was cleaning up the politics.

And you won.

The governor and the anti-Roemer forces spent about 20 million. I spent one million, but I was able to beat them. So I grew up in a corrupt state and I saw the results. Teacher's pay, worst in America. Roads you couldn't drive on. Our bond rating was the worst in America. The unemployment rate was the worst in America. Our politicians were flamboyant. I'm very dull compared to them. But they were corrupt. And I saw what it did to people. We've gone from eight Congressmen to six. We've lost 25 percent of our Congressmen. People were leaving the state. And so I served four terms in Congress, once as governor. And then in private enterprise I was happy.

What's your profession?

I build banks.

Community banks. Main Street banks, they're called. No bailouts. But how could you help but notice, over the last few years, the power of money in politics. And I recognize the Louisiana symptoms. Our bond rating was decreased. Our unemployment began to soar. Our infrastructure decayed. Politicians in high office bragged about how much money they were raising.

I said wow. I've been here, man. And I know what the effects are. I know it's discounted by politicians, because most of them are clean. Most can honestly say, "Yeah, but it doesn't affect me." "Yeah, but I'm not one those." And I'm not talking about direct, individual corruption. I'm talking about institutional corruption, as Larry Lessig explains in his book. And to me it was so obvious. After 16 years being out of this world, I see corruption again. I can smell it. I can feel it.

That a tax code that can't be read, and that giant corporations that don't pay their fair share -- and it's legal -- is corrupt. I said, I see all the signs. Unemployment that might be permanent. A loss of vitality. A bond degrade. Ratings falling. Infrastructure decaying. Was there something that caused me to step into the arena after 16 years of being a spectator? And it was two things. My Louisiana experience and then the deja vu of seeing it in Washington, D.C. I think Washington, D.C. is the capital of corruption.

Why? What specifically has persuaded you?

Talking over the years with Congressmen, and with John McCain, a candidate for president. I volunteered with John, and I traveled the country with him four years ago. Off and on, for four or five months. And just their stories about how they spend their time. Their stories about the burdens of having to raise large sums of money just to protect yourself. And then, finally, in this process of re-engagement, I'm a banker. I went to college and studied economics. Then I went to a business school. And majored in banking and finance. And I'm pretty good at what I do.

In five years I've built a bank that is two-thirds or three-quarters of a billion dollars in size. Very profitable. Clean. Didn't foreclose on a single mortgage. Didn't put a single small business under, I'm really proud of that, of the way we honored a long tradition of banking. But I watched banking reform. And I guess that was the straw that broke my reluctant back. I watched banking reform where too big to fail did not disappear. Where Glass-Steagall was not reintroduced. I had gone to Washington in 1998 and 1999 to testify against the elimination of the Franklin Roosevelt Glass-Steagall bill that separated investment banks from banks. I thought they would become too big. Too greedy. Too risk-taking. And I said in 1999 that it will lead to an economic collapse.

I was laughed at.

Then I saw bank reform after the collapse didn't contain Glass-Steagall. It didn't eliminate too big to fail. It didn't increase capital ratios for banks. And then within a month of signing the bill President Obama went to Wall Street, had a fundraiser at $35,800 a ticket sponsored by Goldman Sachs. Well you know, I'm not a Rhodes Scholar. I'm not a rocket scientist. I'm a proud and practical man.

But I call it corruption.

Can you elaborate?

When you sign an inadequate bank reform bill, and you go celebrate with the people who brought the system down -- none of them went to jail. None of them had been called on the carpet. And you act like it's business as usual. It is a disgrace, Conor. I mean, I could add health reform. I believe President Obama on health reform. We need it in this country. I'm a diabetic. I've been a diabetic for more than 40 years. I know that the quality of our health care, the expense of it.

And yet in the health care reform bill, insurance companies were not put under Sherman antitrust, costs go unabated, pharmaceutical companies were protected from price discounting and from fair competition and imports from Canada. There was no tort reform. There were no incentives for health care providers to lower their costs and maintain their quality. It's a disgrace.

These are the largest givers to politicians: insurance companies, tort lawyers, pharmaceutical companies. I mean, the chief of the pharmaceutical association bragged to me about how Obama had called him and begged him not to spend money against the bill. And to sign off on the bill. It was the power of money. It wasn't about what's right, or what works. Or what can help people too poor to get health care. It was never mentioned. It was about the little inside baseball that they hope the average voter never understands, Conor. They know I'm dangerous.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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