Kevin McGill: What we saw at the revolution

These things, we knew, were true by the end of 1987.

Buddy Roemer was a rising star on the state and national scene. Presidential material, perhaps. He’d leapt past a flock of better-known candidates for governor that year with intellect and forthright, dead-earnest promises to “scrub the budget” and reform state government. He was already a political veteran, elected to Congress from northwest Louisiana for four terms. But, really, he was just getting started.

Edwin Edwards’ political career was over, buried by Roemer after being mortally wounded by a foundering Louisiana economy and by federal prosecutors — they had not been able to convict him during trials in 1985 and 1986 but they damaged him. When he finished behind Roemer in the 1987 governor’s race, the “Cajun King” stunned a crowd at his election night party by conceding the runoff.

David Duke, when anyone gave him a thought, was largely known for cross burnings and Nazi sympathies. He was not a serious political force.

It wasn’t long, though, before what we knew proved illusory.

Roemer, who died last Monday at age 77, took over a state with huge money problems and horrible bond ratings. “He inherited a deficit that in today’s dollars would have been in the billions,” the government watchdog Council for a Better Louisiana noted in a tribute to Roemer last week. “That wasn’t like the shortfalls we deal with today. This was a real deficit where the state had already spent money it didn’t have.”

His administration dealt with the financial problems in creative ways, like creating a statewide taxing district that raised some eyebrows, but also worked. He also managed to make improvements to budget procedures, environmental enforcement and teacher pay while passing campaign finance reform.

But a major tax overhaul he pushed as needed reform was rejected by voters. And there were emotionally draining debates over abortion. The revolutionary fire dimmed. His reputed prickly personality became more evident, as did his distaste for high-profile politicking. The late political writer John Maginnis, in his book “Cross to Bear,” said Roemer’s strength was sapped by the pressures of office and his long struggle with diabetes. “Roemer lacked the stamina to be a revolutionary and the temperament to be a king,” Maginnis wrote.

And there was this cockeyed idea circulating in Baton Rouge — a wild scenario where Duke, who had squeaked into a state House seat in a 1988 special election, and Edwards, who still carried a loyal base, might wind up in a 1991 runoff, pushing Roemer out.

It happened. Edwards — buoyed by voter sentiment evident in the famous bumper sticker that read “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important” — trounced the ex-Klansman in that runoff, winning an unprecedented fourth term. He would retire from politics four years later. And he would face more trials. He was convicted in 2000 and served nearly 10 years in prison for crimes involving riverboat casino licensing.

Duke’s influence plummeted. And he, too, would do prison time, sentenced to more than a year on federal fraud and tax charges.

Roemer is being remembered for successes in the business world, for successes during his time as governor that were often overshadowed by his troubles and for his devotion to reform.

He would try and fail to regain the governorship again in 1995. He would launch an entertaining if seemingly quixotic run for president ahead of the 2012 election, lamenting the influence of money in politics. A one-time Democrat who turned Republican in 1991, he first sought the GOP nomination, then a third party slot. He never gained the poll numbers needed to make it to a debate stage but won praise from some pundits. And he showed signs of the old reform fervor.

What if he had made it onto the debate stage with fellow Republicans, or maybe as a credible third party candidate facing off against Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?

With caustic wit, candor, the old revolutionary fire, he would have made it all more interesting. That much, for sure, is true.


EDITORS NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter based in New Orleans.