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!’”
Roemer, who hasn’t held a single fundraising event, said that he’s amassed nearly $1 million in contributions from 130,000 individual donors and qualified for matching funds. That’s more than Paul’s 80,000 contributors, and more than the rest of the candidates put together, he proudly adds, complimenting the Texas congressman while noting that they have some “fundamental differences” as independents, such as on foreign policy.
“It comes from disenfranchised Americans,” he said. “And I’m beginning to speak for them without changing my speech at all.”
While we’re waiting to cross a street, Roemer tells me about former President Reagan’s advice to the young congressman during his House tenure, from 1981 to 1988. Become a governor, Reagan advised, before shooting for the White House.
“Normally you’d do it with a poll, you’d survey people; I didn’t do any of that. It’s not as a result of demand,” Roemer frankly said of his candidacy. “This was personally driven: my observation as the only person in this field who’s been a congressman and a governor as to what’s wrong with the system.”
Supreme Court rulings aside, he proudly notes, he voluntarily decided to not take special-interest checks. “And I don’t have any evidence that this can work,” he said. “It’s a powerful little movement. But it’s little right now.”
Roemer beamed whenever we spoke of the 40th president, noting his immense respect for Reagan and how much the commander in chief taught him. “When he spoke to me it was always with kindness and appreciation,” he said. Other favorites who have served in the Oval Office are Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.
Obama, he said, is a “disappointment” because of the “lack of leadership on campaign finance reform, tax reform, budget reform, immigration reform, trade reform. He’s non-existent on any of them. … The thing he hasn’t done is change Washington.”
Roemer also slams Obama for “his immaturity at leadership,” such as telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on an open mic that he would have more flexibility on the missile defense shield after the election. “He wouldn’t tell the American people that,” Roemer said. “He think we’re fools!”
“He wants to be friends with Putin,” he added. “He’s an immature leader. I’m embarrassed by it. … And it’s dangerous. I’m going to warn the American people in that first debate — be careful of who you elect. Be careful because Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama might be different after the election than they are before.”
Obama will be “less effective in his second term.” Romney would be “competent” as president, Roemer said, but “not visionary, not reformist. It would be a marginal move to the right. Not much progress.”
“Mitt Romney’s a one-percenter and Newt is his lobbyist,” he charged. He said Romney received so much primary resistance because voters “see it — that’s not them, they can’t relate. They relate more to Obama. Doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for him, but they relate.”
“They look at Romney as a politician — not a very experienced one; an awkward politician,” Roemer said. “They look at Obama as a politician. They look at them both as politicians.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who has been hitting the campaign trail with stories of his mom and pop, shows he’s “trying to be a human, trying to be a man of the street. Biden comes closer to the average guy than the other two do. And they’re using that — Biden is a skilled politician.”
Since his goal is getting to the presidential debates, Roemer got a bit of warm-up when I hit him with a lightning round of issues.
ObamaCare: “Unconstitutional. Needs to be replaced with medical reform. … I think we need to lower the cost of healthcare.”
Syria: “That’s a place for the United Nations, that’s a place for alliances, but it’s not a place for American troops.”
UN Human Rights Council: “It is a farce. … Libya was president. I haven’t given that a lot of thought, but it needs to be changed.”
Global warming: “The evidence is that the globe is warming. What is not as clear is what’s causing it. But I think we need to be safer. I think we have to reduce our carbon emissions. And I plan on a natural gas initiative that does that. … China’s gonna be the problem, but we need to take care of America and I think natural gas does that. … The evidence grows that fracking is the way to go, below 5,000 feet, do it deep, do it safe, and make us free.”
Buffett Rule: “It’s not enough that the code be fair. It’s got more loopholes in it; we need the code to be fair and progressive and we need to start with simplicity. … I would clean up the tax code. It is the biggest first step we can take to growing jobs in this country. The Buffett Rule, it won’t raise any money. What we need is tax reform and Obama won’t’ suggest that because his buddies all get tax breaks. It ought to be called the Obama rule. He paid less than his secretary.”
Fairness Doctrine: “That’s all he’s got. He’s got no reform, he’s closing no loopholes.”
DREAM Act: “I can differentiate between parents and their children when it comes to an education. If the parents are living here undocumented and illegally, I think they ought to generally be sent back home. But until they do, we ought to educate their children just like we would any other person. But I’m a little more stringent on cleaning up undocumented workers. I don’t think the current situation is healthy for anybody.”
Debt: “Federal spending is out of control and that will be one of the leadership things I’ll do after House Bill 1. … I’d like to bring spending down to 18.5 percent. I can’t do it overnight, it would hurt the country, but I’ll have a five-year plan that I will submit to Congress that will do it. … It will include entitlement reform.”
Our late food by this point highlighted a dilemma I’d never thought about through my years in Washington: Can you ever leave a paltry tip to reflect bad service when one person at the table is trying to get votes for president? When the chips and cheese finally came, Roemer gamely let me tweet a photo of his nacho-eating.
The governor talked about how he hops on the computer late at night to play fantasy baseball. “I’m a baseball guy because I’m small and the only sport I could play was baseball — second base,” he said. “I have the only dog in America named after Earl Weaver,” former manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
Roemer is also a voracious reader who is always thumbing through a book. “I’ve lost two Kindles and I can’t afford to get another one,” he said.
What he obviously hasn’t lost is the determination to keep pressing through until November, despite what the final result may be.
“This is an election. This is not an anointment. This is not a coronation,” he said. “This campaign hasn’t even started to run yet.”
“These boys better watch out, Obama and Romney,” Roemer stressed. “Because I think the country is in serious trouble. … I will go anywhere, anytime to say these truths. And I’m gonna keep it up until I’ve got no money left or no hope left.”