Buddy Roemer's sense of right and wrong hasn't always meshed well with his political ambitions.
Twenty years ago, as governor of Louisiana, he shut down Marine Shale Processors for incinerating hazardous waste without the required permits. The owner spent $500,000 on attack ads in the 1991 gubernatorial race, and Roemer lost his campaign for re-election.
Today Charles "Buddy" Roemer is exploring a possible presidential campaign from his RV, refusing any contributions over $100. His stance against corporate influence has left him with a paltry $55,000 in donations, almost half of which came out of his own pocket. It is fair to characterize him as the longest of long shots.
Some call the 67-year-old former officeholder unpredictable -- an ex-Democrat who now identifies as a Republican with an environmental streak. He believes in regulations, but he does not want the U.S. EPA to be "bureaucratically unreasonable." He supports expanded drilling, but he rails against subsidies to oil companies. And he has gained a reputation for being unwilling to compromise, even within his own party.
In Louisiana, Roemer became a "maverick" who went from wildly popular to quickly losing his grass-roots support, said D.C. lobbyist Hunter Johnston, whose father, former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), was in Congress while Roemer was governor.
"It's kind of hard to categorize Buddy one way or another," Johnston said. "Once he formed an opinion on something, it didn't matter what anybody else had to say about it."
In a recent interview, Roemer bristled at such appraisals. He sees himself as a moderate; most Americans, he contends, want clean air and water as well as a less-bloated government bureaucracy.
"This is how I'm predictable: I don't fit in a box and I'm proud of it," he said in a phone interview from his motel room in New Hampshire. "I think it's time to get out of the box and look at who we are."
Roemer has focused his campaign rhetoric on campaign finance reform, calling for a president who is "free to lead" without ties to special interests. But he is also vocal about the country's energy crisis and claims that the United States can be energy independent by the end of this decade.
His plan: Expand drilling with safety requirements, impose a tariff on imported oil, end all energy subsidies, increase natural gas usage and develop sources such as nuclear and wind.
"We have more than enough energy in the United States to last for 200 years," he said. "Let's quit playing football and footsie and politics with it."
Taking on powerful interests
When Roemer entered the governor's mansion in 1988, Lousiana's ties to industry had helped make it one of the most polluted states in the country. EPA's newly formed Toxics Release Inventory Program ranked Louisiana No. 1 when it came to toxic chemicals in the air.
But by the time Roemer left office in 1992, the state had 80 new sets of regulations, dozens of new laws and a stricter permitting process, said Paul Templet, who headed the state Department of Environmental Quality at the time. Louisiana also became an early adopter of regulating naturally occurring radioactive materials, which can accumulate at high concentrations during oil and gas production.
"Roemer let us do all that," Templet said. "He could have said, 'No I can't, the political pressure is too great.'"
Former employees paint a picture of a principled governor who was not afraid to stir the pot. When Templet wanted to put dioxin rules in place that were stricter than the national standard, Roemer was unintimidated when the top paper mill executives visited him at the governor's mansion.
"He said, 'You gotta do what you gotta do,'" Templet said.
Ron Gomez, who served as the state Secretary of Natural Resources from 1990 to 1992, also remembers Roemer leaving much of the decisionmaking up to him and his staff. Previous governors had kept a close eye on oil and gas leases that might bring in money, he said; Roemer, however, was very hands off.
He was also "very sensitive to the environment," Gomez said. He allowed Gomez to charge oil companies for containment from past spills, and in 1991, Roemer filed a lawsuit to stop the sale of oil and gas leases on federal waters. He lost, despite arguing that the state needed federal funds to deal with any adverse impacts to its communities.
Longtime political writer John Maginnis, who is the editor of Louisiana Politics Weekly, said Roemer hit some roadblocks whenever his reforms had to go through the Legislature. But he made plenty of changes unilaterally.
"To the extent that he could do things administratively, he caused a lot of heartburn for industry," Maginnis said.
Roemer concedes that the industry became united against him. But he argues that he is not anti-industry; rather, the politics of Louisiana at the time made a moderate seem like a controversial figure.
"I ran on a platform of clean air and clean water means more and better jobs for Louisiana," he said. But when he implemented his reforms, "you would have thought I was somewhere between a communist and a do-gooder."
Today, he laments the after-effects of the BP PLC oil spill, which he says illustrates the importance of enforcing the drilling safety he advocated while governor.
"The government was unprepared," he said. "I always thought that government was pretentious and bureaucratic and bloated, but one of its clear jobs is to protect national security and to help us as a community to protect our air and water and to keep private enterprise from abusing the privilege that they have to pursue those enterprises."
Compromise: a four-letter word
Admirers and critics alike say Roemer has a hard time compromising. During his time as a Democratic congressman -- from 1981 to 1988 -- he fought with Democratic leadership, calling then-Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) too liberal. And as governor in Louisiana, he was unable to get his tax reforms through the state Legislature.
Toward the end of his term as governor, he became a Republican, but could not win re-election in 1991, even as the state was turning more conservative. He finished third in that year's open primary, leaving Louisianans with a choice between ethically challenged former Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), whom Roemer had defeated four years earlier, and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke (R).
"He wasn't real good with it -- even working with his allies. He didn't compromise," Maginnis said. "I think had he done a little bit better job of working the politics of it, he would have made more progress."
Part of that stubbornness came from Roemer's intelligence, Gomez said. With a bachelor's degree from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School, Roemer was able to debate almost any subject.
"He was pretty headstrong, but he was one of the most brilliant people I ever worked with," Gomez said. "Because of that, he didn't suffer those of us who weren't as bright as he was very well."
Templet characterized Roemer's unwillingness to compromise differently: When given the choice between his principles and politics, Roemer chooses the former.
"He's got a strong moral streak to him and he's very smart," Templet said, later adding: "I think he'd rather lose [an election] than do the wrong thing."