On a sunny Saturday teeming with DC tourists, not even being a presidential candidate can get an appetizer delivered to the table within 45 minutes.
And yet the former governor of Louisiana is relaxed and easy despite our AWOL chicken nachos, eagerly chatting about his campaign and sharing stories of the Reagan Era in Washington as he sips a couple cups of hot decaf.
He even advocates what he says is the choicest grub from his home state. “Louisiana alligator, it’s the best,” Buddy Roemer raved. “Crawfish, alligator; New Orleans has the best food in America. Block for block, there are more great restaurants. New Orleans is coming back, so I’m proud to say that.”
Roemer, the only presidential hopeful to have served four terms in Congress and as chief executive of a state, characterized his statement-making candidacy as thus: “I’m a broom.”
Running on a strict campaign-finance reform platform, Roemer originally tried for the GOP nomination but is now attempting to forge an umbrella coalition of third-party groups. He’s vying for the Americans Elect nomination, which is already on the ballot in all states, through online primary voting. He’ll also be asking the Reform Party for its backing at its convention this fall.
Roemer said his campaign tried to get into the Republican primary debates but would get shuffled around each time, and when a contact would get through to the decision-makers, “each time it was a different yardstick — at first it was one percent, then it was two percent, then it was you had to raise a half-million dollars in the past 90 days. It was nonsense. Just making stuff up. And we were consistently ahead of two or three people in the Republican Party.” Jon Huntsman? “We were ahead of him in every poll!” Roemer exclaimed.
“I’m comparing my pitiful poll numbers at two and three percent with guys who were getting in on every debate at two or three percent,” he reiterated.
Before we walked around Dupont Circle to the restaurant, a documentary camera crew in tow, Roemer spent an hour and a half speaking with a room full of high school juniors at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership.
“I’m running for president and most people have never heard of me,” he told the kids. “Is this a great country or what?”
They weren’t too young to get an explanation of why Roemer, 68, is running on a passionate drive to get money out of politics. Democrats and Republicans, he explained, are “married at the billfold.”
“We’ve become a government of big checks,” he said. “I don’t think Washington’s broken, I think it’s bought.”
Roemer said his first bill as president would be a full-disclosure campaign finance measure that requires 48-hour reporting, bans lobbyists from bringing in checks, does away with super PACs and stipulates that a political action committee cannot give more to a candidate than an individual.
“I won’t sign another bill until this bill becomes the law,” he vowed
And he wanted the youths to know why he’s running for the highest office in the land, as well.
“If not me, pick a better person,” he said. “I have no ego. Man, I’d like to go fishing some days. But I think our country is at risk.”
“It’s embarrassing to say you’re running for president,” the plain-spoken Southern man who seems like little would embarrass him confessed. “I feel like I have some weaknesses for political BS I can’t tolerate.” When later in our conversation I bring up some current committee business in the House, he readily admits when he hasn’t caught up enough on a topic to give a credible answer.
He knows that a third-party candidate faces enough hurdles on the campaign trail, especially a campaign that’s saying “no” to the big PAC money that is fueling the major party efforts. But he has a short-term goal to first get on the debate stage with the Democratic and Republican nominees. To do so, he’d have to get a poll average of at least 15 percent support. That means pulling the undecideds — and those unenthused about the other two options — into his corner.
“We need to make 15, and good things will happen,” he told the students.
“I think the biggest party in America is the independents,” he added. “What the American people are telling me is we’re not sure what to do here.”
Roemer started his career as a Democrat — one of the House’s “Boll Weevil” caucus, predecessor of the conservative Blue Dogs — and switched to a Republican while Louisiana governor. The third-party move, he said, is “necessity — all my other options were gone.”
“The Republicans figured out the best way to beat me was to not include me, and I’m not gonna stand for it,” he vowed.
He credits his legislative experience for giving him a valuable window on Washington, and knowing how it works in order to develop a plan to fix it.
“It can be overdone, but legally and practically I know the system, I’ve been a part of it, I’ve shown my independence while I was. … I am unafraid to do this job,” Roemer told me. “I’ve watched it done by the master, Ronald Reagan. I’ve watched it done by the disaster, George Bush and Obama. I learned from both.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle when one of the teens asked Roemer if he’s used social media in his campaign. The governor’s no-holds-barred Twitter reputation, from interacting with voters to giving his own live debate answers, is why as many Americans know about him as they do now, and why he’s amassed more individual contributors, by his count, than Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
“The 21st century lets me run,” he told the teens. As his 30-year-old campaign manager indicates, Roemer says, his campaign staffs young — including the two staffers who help him tweet — and thinks young.
“It’s been awesome,” he told me. “I mean, I meet people on the street and they tell me, ‘I’m so-and-so. I tweeted you yesterday!’”