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"Free to Lead"

Gov. Buddy Roemer Image

Former Gov. Buddy Roemer (R-LA) spoke with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION on April 11, 2011 at a Starbucks in downtown DC; he also had interviews with C-SPAN and FOX News on this day.  Roemer is little more than a month into his exploratory effort.  He recently finished a trip to South Carolina, and in the evening was heading off to New Hampshire.   DEMOCRACY IN ACTION wanted to review Roemer's career and hopefully elucidate some interesting details.  After being largely out of politics for 20 years, Roemer says his biggest challenge is "learning how to ride the bicycle again."  Though his bid might at first glance appear quixotic, a review of Roemer's record shows a combination of private sector experience, service in Congress and success as governor that merit serious consideration.  He offers a business-oriented approach, and emphasizes that by addressing the issue of special interest money in campaigns he will be "free to lead."

Roemer: ...and I'm hoping that the use of the Internet—  [my campaign] wouldn't be possible four, even eight years ago.  But now, you know I don't think we're there yet, but we're sustaining; we're raising anywhere from $30-50,000 a month, 37 different states so far.  I mean I haven't been to 37 different states, I've been to two, but we'll see.  That's the theory behind what I'm doing.

Democracy in Action: Is it two or three?

Roemer: I've actually been to three.  I've been to Iowa, I've been to New Hampshire, and I've been to South Carolina.  And I don't count Louisiana; that's home.

Democracy in Action: I did want you ask you about that South Carolina trip.  You're just driving around the state?

Roemer: In South Carolina—  New Hampshire I start tonight, and that'll be a little bit different operation.  But in South Carolina I had no speaking engagements.  I deliberately went in to talk to newspapers, radio, and television—kind of a media tour.  I also had a number of Tea Party enquiries on my web site, and I had a sprinkling of investors.  So what I use, what I did was make individual calls, make media calls and Aaron [Walker] helped me a great deal.  I spent a little over three days full time in South Carolina.  I started in the capital, Columbia, then I went to Florence and Myrtle Beach and then Charleston, and then I ended up in Greenville up in the northern part of the state.

Democracy in Action: So are you driving around in a car, or you have aides driving you around or—?

Roemer: This was—both.  I love to drive, but they won't let me.  So I have aides in the car with me.  I have two volunteers; aides is kind of a big word.  One of them is my son-in-law, and it's his brother, so it's John and Ben Shirley motored me around.  In New Hampshire I have a volunteer with a motor home, and we put a large sign on the side, so I'm touring New Hampshire the next four days in the motor home.

Democracy in Action: Who is that? 

Roemer: Greg G [Gachassin] from Lake Charles, LA.

Democracy in Action: Oh I see, okay, I thought he would be from New Hampshire.

Roemer: No, nobody from New Hampshire with a motor home has volunteered to drive me around.  Greg did and I said let's do it.

Democracy in Action: So South Carolina went well?  Did you actually speak to individual Tea Party activists or groups? 

Roemer: Both.  It went great.  My main thrust was newspapers.  I'm a newspaper guy.  I just feel like the issues can get discussed more thoroughly, and you can lay the predicate, the ground work, the foundation for building a campaign.  South Carolina will be like running for governor.  One community at a time, one issue at a time.  So I started with the newspapers.  Columbia, both a daily and a weekly, Myrtle Beach, a daily, Charleston, a daily, Greenville, a daily; I'm leaving out one, but basically it was newspapers.  Right behind that was network radio.  They have a lot of radio in South Carolina; it's well organized.  You can go to three or four spots and cover the entire state.

Democracy in Action: What about television, WIS-TV or...?

Roemer: We did I think 11 television interviews.

Democracy in Action: So you were a busy beaver.

Roemer: I was busy, yeah, I talked myself out.  I went home and stayed quiet for a day.  My wife says this is not like you Buddy. 

Democracy in Action: What I really want to get at is your biography a little bit, and be uncreative and just start from the beginning.

You were born in Shreveport.  What did your parents do?

Roemer: Farmers.  Cotton, cattle.  They still live on the farm.  They're 89 and 88.  They had five kids; I was the oldest.  I have three sisters and a brother, and we grew up on that farm.  Went to public schools, and graduated in 1960 from Bossier High School, a great school.  Went from there to college; graduated in '64. 

Democracy in Action: Harvard?

Roemer: Harvard, Harvard undergraduate.

Democracy in Action: What was your degree?

Roemer: Government and economics; combination degree.

Democracy in Action: And did you enjoy Harvard?

Roemer: I did; I did.  It was a challenge.  It was my first airplane trip when I left in the summer of 1960, age 16.  I was one of the young people in my class.

Democracy in Action: And did you have any favorite professors at Harvard?

Roemer: Well I met Robert Frost...  He wasn't my professor, but I met him.  That was my favorite event.  I love Robert Frost.  I had a couple of professors that did me well.  In economics it was Seymour Harris.  I took a year-long seminar with six students under Seymour.  He was John Kennedy's economic advisor as you know.  That was excellent.  I'll leave it at that, but I had a series of good professors.

Democracy in Action: And then following that business school?

Roemer: I took a year off after undergraduate and managed the farm, the family farm, I ran that.  And then in the fall of '65 I was accepted by the Harvard Business School, and graduated two years later in June of '67.  My degree was in banking and finance. 

Democracy in Action: Did you enjoy that?

Roemer: I did.  It was a great challenge.  Met a lot of friends then that are still friends today.  Harvard Business School is quite a—  my struggle was law school or business school, and I decided the business school; that's where my interests were.  Building companies.  And that's what I've done basically ever since, with interruptions occasionally for politics.

{After University}

Democracy in Action: What did you do after business school?

Roemer: I did three or four things over the next several years.  I helped start a community bank called the Red River Valley Bank—what a great name—with a couple of other buddies.  We started that in the early '70s.  I helped start a company called Innovative Data Systems.  It's a computer software company; it's still operating today—IDS, Innovative Data Systems.  And I managed the family farm for several years.

I was elected for my first office in '73.  I ran for the Constitutional Convention and we re-wrote the state constitution in '73-74. 

Democracy in Action: And how did you campaign for that?

Roemer: Door to door.  It was representative districts.  We have 105 representative districts in the state, so each district elected a person; it was by popular vote.  And several people ran, I ran, knocked on doors and won that race.

Democracy in Action: Was there a theme you had for your campaign or how do you win a race like that?

Roemer: That's a good question.  I think I said, take me.  Well I was a non-lawyer, and I think I emphasized that a little bit.  Maybe some common sense.  Themes like that; no earth-shaking themes.  But I was well known in my community; I had been active in a variety of organizations.  It was nice to run and to win.

Democracy in Action: IDS was it?  Why did you get into that; how did you get into that?

Roemer: Computers were just—  This was in the early '70s—'70, '71.  Computers were in vogue, but recently.  Small companies didn't have much access to computers.  It was a big company operation.  So working with my father, working with my brother, working with my sisters, I came up with a business plan where we would have a mainframe computer, and offer computer services to small businesses in the North Louisiana, East Texas area, and that's what we did.  We ended up specializing in engineering services for small utility companies, and we did political work.  We did polls and that sort of thing for political candidates.  We always loved politics, so that was a good excuse to get in that business, and that's what we did.

Democracy in Action: And how long were you involved in that hands on?

Roemer: Long time.  Actually until I was elected to Congress in 1980, so almost 10 years.

Democracy in Action: And any lessons you learned from doing that, mistakes early on, changes of focus?

Roemer: Good question.  Yes.  The foremost of which was the need for a plan, even though the plan would prove incorrect and must be modified, you have to start with a plan.  The plan is not for my banker; it's for me.  And it was a lesson learned.  In all the businesses that I've put together, a tightly woven business plan with six-months, one-year, three-year and five-year horizons is critical.  And you'll notice that same approach when I run for president.  I like to have a plan.

Democracy in Action: So what is your plan?  Is it a binder?

Roemer: Yeah physically it's a binder.  It can be a modest three pager; it can be an immodest 100 pager.  I've done both. 

As a banker, one of the services I provide—we're a business bank, we do businesses—one of the services I provide my customers is I work with them to ensure their business plan is balanced and correct.  And I give that service away.  That's the first road toward a relationship with a small business.  Be familiar with their business plan, and if they don't have one, insist that they get one, and help them get it.... 

You will be amazed at what it will do for you.  You will be amazed.  You'll know right where you stand.  Are you doing better than expected?  And it won't be a gut feel.  You'll measure by six to ten measurements, matrices, how your business is doing.  It could be cash flow, it could be share of market, it could be full use of your time...you figure out how to measure it, and the business plan measures your effectiveness. 

How do you measure it?  Do you want to be a wealthy man?  Do you want to touch more people?  I mean we'll figure out ways to measure your success, and then we'll know every few months how we're doing...

I think I spent the majority of my time helping build Red River Valley Bank, and the other half of my time was helping build Innovative Data Systems.  I was the CEO of Innovative Data Systems.  That was my first priority.  We were expanding into polling.  We became one of if not the largest pollster in Louisiana, and I began to manage campaigns as part of that, statewide, congressional and other campaigns.

Democracy in Action: Any interesting campaigns you worked on that stand out?

Roemer: Well I was successful at this.  I worked on the campaign of Edwin Edwards, who later became arch enemies with me.  I helped draw up his plan, his business plan.  I worked on a campaign for secretary of agriculture, a campaign for secretary of education; these are statewide elected offices.  So I raised money for and ran those campaigns.

Democracy in Action: And then in '78 you decided to run yourself. 

Roemer: I did; I lost an election for Congress. The incumbent after 20 years in office decided he would retire, and a whole host of people ran, better known than I, they were in the state legislature most of them.  And the guy that won it was head of the ways and means committee in the state legislature.  But I finished a close third.  I was not unpleased with my— 

It's interesting I lost that race in the last week.  I was actually leading the polls slightly, but I gave a speech in Shreveport in a debate where I—  The budget was out of balance; we've always been fighting this problem—and I said we had a project in the district that I would give up if other congressmen would give up a project in their district.  And it was called the Red River Waterway Project; it was about a $2 billion project.  And it was very controversial when I said that.  And the seated congressman blasted me for giving away our project.  And I said, well how else are we going to balance the budget?  Are we going to take it from somewhere else?  Are we going to ask others to do what we won't do?  This project is of marginal importance to our district, and the money is more important to America.  I ran on that the last week.  I dropped to fifth place and then I came back to third, but it was a lesson.  I tend to be that way.  I tend to believe that you need to be careful with how you spend your money.  But I learned a lesson that timing is important in politics.  And if I'd said it a month earlier, then I would have had time to explain it.  So I made a mistake.  I waited too late.  I said the right thing, but I waited too late.  So now I try to blab early...just get it out there.

Democracy in Action: And then, was it two years later?

Roemer: Two years later I ran again against the same crew.  I was the only Democrat to beat a Democrat in November in the general election.  Louisiana is the only state in America that has open primary laws, so all candidates run together no matter what party they're in.

Democracy in Action: Who did you beat?

 Roemer: A guy named Buddy Leach....  He's run for governor, he ran for congressman, he was head of ways and means committee.

Democracy in Action: His name's Buddy too.

Roemer: Two Buddys.  Very confusing.  My theme was vote for the right Buddy, for God's sake.  No, it wasn't; I'm making that up.

Democracy in Action: Congress, you were in there for about eight years.

Roemer: Eight years.  Four terms.  Conservative Democrat.  I was an organizer and one of the leaders of a group of Democrats called the boll weevils, and we voted independent of the Democratic Party; we often voted with Ronald Reagan.  And that was worthwhile.  Across party lines we were trying to rebuild America.  That was our theme.

Democracy in Action: Who were some of your colleagues who you were closest to in Congress?

Roemer: Phil Gramm, Charlie Stenholm, Richard Shelby, who is now a Senator from Alabama, John Breaux, who went on to be a Senator from Louisiana, and others.  I had a lot of friends in Congress. 

Democracy in Action: So the highlights would have been your efforts as a boll weevil in terms of your congressional service?

Roemer: Yes, I spent a lot of time—  I was on the banking committee as you know.  I helped put the budget together for the boll weevils; we presented our own budget.  We got more votes than Reagan or Tip O'Neill did.  I mean we were—  I read the budget; I was involved.  I put my own budget together.  It needs to be done now.

Thank God for Paul Ryan; there's nobody else up there I don't think knows what they're doing.

Democracy in Action: What about the whole budget process itself though, does that need to be somehow reformed?  Two-year budgeting?

Roemer: Oh, absolutely, multi-year budgeting, even if they're just targets.  I think what the Congress needs to do, with leadership from the President is to set a percentage of GDP for the budget.  My evidence in doing my research shows that the budget ought to be about 18.5 percent of the gross domestic product.  It's about almost 25 percent now.

Democracy in Action: I thought it was more like 21.

Roemer: No it's little bit bigger than that.  It's a little bit bigger than that.  I think the President likes to say 22 to 24.  I think it's 24.7.  Let's call it 25.  Once they set a target, then they ought to have a specific time frame to reduce spending to meet that target.  And to me it would be five years.  If you lower the target one-percent of GDP a year for five years with a cumulative value, you would go to 18.5 percent of GDP in the fifth year.  You would begin to repay the national debt, you would create jobs, and government would be much lighter, more flexible and more effective.  So you start with a target; that should be set by the president.  18.5 percent.  I've never heard this President or this Congress set a target.  It's why they can't meet it; they don't have a plan.

Democracy in Action: I think I'm detecting a theme here.

Roemer: Yes, yes and it's as old as quality businesses.  It's as old as catastrophic management.  It's as old as banking.  Get a plan.  Set a target.  Give me two or three ways to get there.  And let's keep adjusting as we go.  But set a target.


Democracy in Action: You then ran for governor?

Roemer: I ran in '87.  The election was November of '87...  I ran for governor at the end of '87, was elected, and I took office March 15th of '88.  So it was in the middle just over half way of my last congressional term.  And my aide, my right hand guy, was elected in a special election.  You know in Congress you can't be appointed.  To the Senate you can be appointed.  To the Supreme Court you can be appointed.  Congress is the only job to which you must be elected in the Constitution.  Most people don't know that.   So when I was elected governor I resigned on March 15th; I took office on March 15th.  We called a special election and my chief aide was elected to take my place and he served six months then they had the regular election.

Democracy in Action: Your campaign for governor; how did that go?

Roemer: Fairly well.  It was a tough race; the toughest I've ever been in.  Good people running; I like that.  It's better to run against good people than bad people.  You lift your game; the debate is better.  I don't know how that works but it works.  That was a good field.  It was three congressmen, including myself, a statewide elected official, secretary of state, and a seated governor.  So there were five of us running.  There were others running; there were seven others running, but five were going to be in the top five.  I was in last place most of the time.  I set a limit on money.  I didn't take any PAC money.  Just like in Congress, I didn't take any PAC money.  I think you ought to know who's giving you money, and PACs you don't; so I don't take it.  I put limits.  I accepted money only from Louisiana.  Nobody else did this, but this made me happy, this made me feel free to do what I needed to do.  And I raised $1.8 million to make that race.  The governor spent almost $14 million, and lost.  So it's never about the money.

Democracy in Action: And other than the contributions did you have any other major issues you were pushing.

Roemer: Well I did.  My slogan was "Slay the Dragon."  That I would join with any other forces to defeat Edwin Edwards.  He'd been governor three terms; that had never happened before.  He was corrupt; he bragged on "60 Minutes" about taking cash for jobs.  He was corrupt.  It was a classical old South, one-party corruption, and the Republicans were no factor.  The legislature was 96-percent Democrat.  And so I ran against Edwin Edwards.  I ran against his corruption, I ran against his policies. 

We had the highest unemployment rate in America.  12.8 percent.  We had the worst air and water toxicity of any state in America; we were just smoke and acid, and it was chemical plants, it was oil companies; it was out of control.  The Department of Environmental Quality did not have a penny of state money in it.  Not one penny.  The budget was out of balance.  Our bond ratings were the worst rated in America.  We were below Guam.  And Guam seems like a good place, but their bond rating wasn't very good.  We were below 49 states and Guam.  We were bankrupt.  And so I ran against this condition.  Like running for president.  Where's the plan.  Our education system was rated 50th in America.  Our school teachers were paid 49th in America.  It was corruption, it was incompetence, it was a state going nowhere.  And I challenged Louisiana.  I said we're better than this. 

And let's start with the money in politics, but let's keep going. 

Let's find out who can teach, and pay them.  So I fought the teacher unions; they endorsed anybody but me.  And I broke their tenure law; we tested our teachers.  Those who could teach we gave a 30-percent pay raise to over a three-year period.  Those who could not teach, we asked them to learn how or to get another profession.

We did away with prevailing wage on top of right to work so that we could afford to build our highways.

We closed down chemical plants—plants that polluted the air and water.  We would send a scientific team to measure their toxicity and if it didn't measure we would shut them down until they could fix the problem.  We didn't give any more tax credits for business expansion unless a company adhered to our air and water policies.

We traveled the world looking for companies to come to Louisiana, we traveled the United States—we dropped our unemployment rate to below 6 percent in four years; from over 12 to below 6.

Democracy in Action: It sounds like a fairly successful—

Roemer: Well I did everything I wanted to do, but it was so hard.  I was just amazed at how I'd have to take something to the legislature two or three times and get 'em to go along.  It was tough.

Democracy in Action: Mid-course or three-quarters of the way through, you changed parties.

Roemer: I did.  I was getting no cooperation from the Democrats.  They found every excuse to stretch out what I was doing, to delay it.  But there was a more important thing.  It was a one-party state.  Now how does that—  Libya is a one party state.  Egypt is a one-party state.  Louisiana was a one-party state with the same results.  Corruption, apathy, inefficiency.  You need debate.  You need two parties, maybe more.  You need a healthy debate.  Louisiana wasn't getting it.  So I decided to change parties. 

The Democrats came to see me from Washington.  I won't mention Ron Brown's name, but he came to see me representing the Democrats and said you can't do this.  He said you will hurt your political career.  And I said so?  I said we need a two-party state.  We need a debate here.  He said, I agree Buddy, but let somebody else do it.  They'd done a poll and they showed that I was going to lose six percentage points by doing this, that it would take a while for people— 

Timing, you remember I told you about timing?  I waited a little late.  I waited a little late; I waited 'til about seven months before the election.  I should have done a year and a half before the election because I got most of those six points back; I got four of them back.  I lost by about a percentage point in an open primary where Edwards and Duke each got about 30 percent and I got 29-point-something.

Democracy in Action: What caused you to do it at that time?

Roemer: Well I'd made up my mind that I needed to do it, and I didn't want to wait until after the election.  That seemed disingenuous to me.  So when I made up my mind, I announced it as soon as possible.  It was early in the election year.  I thought it was enough time.  It was a miscalculation on my part.  It was a mistake.

Democracy in Action: Had you thought about the idea six months before that?

Roemer: I had been thinking.  It didn't just come to me some morning.  I had been talking to Ronald Reagan about it, obviously he and I were close; I had been talking to George Bush about it—senior Bush—about it.  But I hemmed and hawed; I couldn't quite make up my mind, and finally I did.  My bad.  I mean I'm glad I changed parties, but the timing was poor.  That's two times when my timing has hurt me.


Democracy in Action: So after governor, what have you been doing?

Roemer: I was a Kennedy fellow at Harvard as you know, selected in the year after I was governor.  I taught at the Kennedy School for one year.  I enjoyed that.  My son was a senior at Harvard then, so I got to graduate with him.

But then I've been in private business.  I, with another fellow formed a company called Sterling Group, and we represented Louisiana businesses in overseas trade with China, been to China many times; Japan been to Japan many times; South America, been there, a lifetime, representing Louisiana companies.  We sold fire engines, we sold equipment made in Louisiana. 

And, I started a series of banks, including the bank that I'm currently president of now, Business First Bank, which is about a $685 million bank.  It's not a small bank anymore.  We're about five years old.  The other one's called the Business Bank in Baton Rouge, and that was my second bank.  My first bank was Red River Valley Bank, Business Bank, and now Business First.  The first two I sold to bigger banks, one when I ran for office, the other when they made an offer that was just too good; this big bank did.  This is my third bank now, Business First Bank.  We're trying not to sell this bank; we're trying to really go across state line into Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, and form a regional bank.  We're halfway through that process.

Democracy in Action: Sterling Group, are you still active in that?

Roemer: I am not.  I sold my interest in that when I went full time with the bank.

Democracy in Action: How long were you working on that?

Roemer: Let me get my numbers right.  We started it in '93 and I sold my interest in '96.  So I spent parts of four years on the Sterling Group.  And the Sterling Group is still around today by the way, very successful.

Democracy in Action: Everyone asks governors [who run for president] what are your foreign policy credentials?  And so it sounds like you would point to that.

Roemer: I like my credentials.  I've not been in Foreign Service, so I'm not a diplomat.  I've never been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  That's experience I don't have, but I have been to these countries, [in] Africa, Europe, Asia, South America particularly.

Democracy in Action: Where in South America?

Roemer: Just name it, I've been there.  Brazil and Mexico and Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Democracy in Action: So talk about one or two of your activities down there.

Roemer: Brazil would be a good case in point.  I went down with a Louisiana businessman and formed a fish farm in Belem, a major city in the Amazon River region of Brazil.  And that farm still operates today growing certain types of freshwater fish in the jungle for delivery to the United States.  That's a good example.  Mexico, working with Louisiana contractors who wanted to do business in Mexico; they were rebuilding the last 15 years their road system, and I helped set up a company to do that, to get them organized properly, those sorts of things.  That took several years to do. 

Democracy in Action: And how about China?

Roemer: It was tough in China.  China's an interesting country, and I'm not totally happy with China, but I do the opposite of what most people do.  Most businessmen go to China to import back to America some goods and services.  I did the opposite.  I went to China to sell American goods and services.  So my view of China is a little bit different than most international traders...  I think China practices unfair trade, and as president that's one of my five or six top goals is to level the playing field with China, particularly for small businesses.

Democracy in Action: But did you actually encounter that when you were dealing with them?

Roemer: Absolutely.  Case in point would be fire engines.  I represented a fire engine company; I won't say where because the Chinese might go after them, but in America and made by Americans here.  Some 500 workers well paid in the United States, building a great international fire truck.  The Chinese cities, municipalities, like Chindu [phon.] and other major cities in China wanted to buy this equipment and the Chinese government put every block they could —bureaucratic nonsense— to keep it from happening.  We finally broke through.  I think the firm that I represented has sold millions of dollars into China, so I don't want to harm them, but I'm telling you it was a struggle the likes of which I have never seen.  And purely bureaucratic government-led interference.  And as president, they know that I know.  It's bullshit.  They send their goods here with no impediments.  We ought to send our goods there the same way or there should be tariffs to keep their goods out.  That's pretty tough talk, but that's what I believe.  We used tariffs selectively in the 19th century to build our manufacturing base.  Right now, you know what our manufacturing base is?  Less than nine percent of our workers.  It's time to revisit some specific actions against China, against Japan if it's appropriate.  Doesn't bother me.  International trade should be free, but it must be fair.

Democracy in Action: In terms of your banking experience, has the banking industry changed markedly since when you were first there starting the Red River Valley Bank versus now?  What are some of the major changes?

Roemer: Let's go back in history.  The Red River Valley Bank was in the early '70s, remember I told you, so it's been almost 40 years.  Some things have changed.  First, technology.  One of the reasons I'm running or considering running for president is technology.  I have an insulin pump.  I've been a diabetic for 40 years.  I've been giving myself five shots a day and fighting the battles of up and down.  The new technologies are wonderful.  I have the pump on me all the time.  I measure my blood sugar; I know where I stand.  I had a roll this morning, a sugar free roll, but I was able to give myself just the right amount of insulin.  So banking's the same way.  We don't have any branches in our bank.  We have one central bank per major metropolitan area, but we put an electronic branch in each one of our customer's offices.  Wow.  And they can deposit directly to their account.  Do it instantly.  So the banking is much faster, much more convenient, much more selective, much more designed for your use and your news organization's use.  We can design a plan for you, put a bank in your shop; you never go to the bank again.  That's how the world has changed. 

And to me big banks are an anachronism.  Wall Street banks have to be propped up.  You know why?  They can't make it on their own.  They're inefficient, they don't know their customers; they just skim off a huge volume.  That's how they make their money.  What's happening to banking in this country is a disgrace, and it's hurt jobs in America.  It used to be that a bank in Kansas City—and I'm picking on Kansas City—or Omaha or Shreveport, Louisiana was owned by the citizens there, it represented businesses there, it knew the customers there.  That's not true now.  Now these national—  the 19 biggest banks in America have 80 percent of all the deposits, and hell they don't even know their customers. 

I opposed the Glass-Steagall being changed under Bill Clinton.  You remember that was '98, '99.  I said it was a mistake then.  It's happened.  We've had the biggest bank failure in our history for the last 75 years, after they got rid of Glass-Steagall.  It should be re-imposed.  Bank capital ratios should go up as the size of the bank goes up.  Too big to fail is not healthy for America, and it hasn't been changed.  I don't care what George W. Bush says, I don't care what Barack Obama says; they don't know what they're talking about when it comes to banking.  Too big to fail.  It's still the law, and it's wrong.  I will change it.


Democracy in Action: And your presidential effort—exploratory effort—

Roemer: Yeah, still exploring.  Keep reminding me.  I'm still exploring.

Democracy in Action: Well you have a plan though?

Roemer: I do have a plan.  I can't show you my plan yet.  But my plan includes asking Congress to work with me to address money in politics.  That's my biggest issue.  I know that Barack Obama can't even do what he ran on.  Remember he ran against special interest money.  He is special interest money.  Health care bill.  Tort reform, it doesn't exist.  Pharmaceutical reform, insurance reform; it doesn't exist.  They gave money.  The special interests buys these bills.  General Electric, talk about special interests.  What do they make?  14.7 billion.  How many taxes did they pay last year?  Zero.  This government is filled with that.  It needs to be changed.  I want a president free to lead on these things, and he can't take the big money; he can't do it.

Democracy in Action: How will you judge whether your exploratory effort is successful and you want to go that next step?  Do you have some metrics in there or—

Roemer: After I complete my tour of South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa, and I'm about halfway through that tour, and then look at the campaign team I've assembled, I will then judge whether or not I can win this thing, and whether or not my chances of victory are healthy enough to put in the full time 24-7 effort in a most unusual candidacy, with a hundred dollar maximum, most unusual.  Is this feasible?  I think it is.  I've got to show to my team that it is.

Democracy in Action: Have you talked to Phil Gramm or other people who have run for president to pick their brains for some ideas?

Roemer: I have, but not during my exploratory committee.  I talked to them over the last three or four years.  Phil was a volunteer for John McCain like me.  John's my closest political friend and I've talked to John about it a lot after I announced my—  John was the only politician I talked to before I announced my exploratory committee.  So I've talked to John, I've talked to Phil, I've talked to Lindsey Graham; I talked to many others about it before I formed my committee.

And it wasn't about me so much as it was about the office.  And I told them it seemed to me from long distance that our presidents were no longer free to lead.  That they had to curry the favor of the people who got them there.  It could be party currying, it could be Wall Street currying, it could be the big givers, it could be the bundlers.  And I said, am I correct in thinking that that's a problem?  And to a person, every person in the system said the system was corrupt.  Not that a person was corrupt; I don't think that, but that the system was corrupt.  That Congress doesn't have time to deal with balancing the budget and having a five-year plan.  Hell there out there raising money.  That the so-called leaders are fundraisers.

Democracy in Action: Is it more corrupt now than when you were in Congress?

Roemer: Oh, no doubt about it.  If you measure that corruption by the importance of money, it's not even close.  I never had a fundraiser in Washington.  Never.  That would be unheard of now.  I mean there's a fundraiser every night in this town, and by day the senior congressmen are auctioning themselves off to become lobbyists.  You see it, you see it every day.  It's happening now.  And I call that system corrupt.

Democracy in Action: Does that require legislative remedies, though?

Roemer: Eventually yes.

Democracy in Action: What would be two or three top remedies?

Roemer: We must be constitutional.  And freedom of speech wasn't outlined in our original Constitution; it was in our original Bill of Rights.  It's fundamental to America.  And money has been correctly ruled as speech, but you can't holler fire in a crowded theater.  So there are some limits on speech if fairly done, and if they apply to everybody.  And I think if I set the example as president, I don't need a constitutional amendment.  These are my rules.  No PACs.  These are my rules.  $100 maximum, not by cycle; for the whole election.  These are my rules.  Every name reported, okay? 

Then I will sit with Congress when elected president and tell them this will be our first top priority, because I want them free to lead with me.  I want them to be free to be stronger as a Congress, not weaker.  I think the president is too strong.  I'm going to tell Congress—and don't tip my hand on this—but I'm going to tell Congress I want them to be stronger.  I want them to lead with me.  I want to do this together.  But first we must manage the money.  And I'm not ready to say it has to be done my way, but it has to be done a better way than it is now.

Democracy in Action: What is your biggest hurdle in your campaign; what are your biggest obstacles?

Roemer: Learning how to ride the bicycle again.  I've been out of politics for let's say 20 years.  I'm big in the Internet in my business; I'm an electronic bank as you know.  I'm trying to apply those lessons to politics.  And it's coming back to me, but it's taken a couple of months here in the exploration to where I'm feeling more comfortable as a candidate.  That's been my biggest hurdle, remembering how to do certain political things.  The business plan is natural to me, it's the political implementation of same that I'm re-learning.  In the age of the Internet the world has changed; it's much faster.

Democracy in Action: On a lighter note, what do you do for fun, your spare time?

Roemer: Well, I spend time with my wife; she's a wonderful person.  I was divorced for years.  I got re-married about ten years ago, and she's 20 years younger than I am and just has all kind of insights—you know in her 40s that in my 60s I need to be reminded of.  And we don't have any children ourselves as a couple.  I have three children from earlier marriages, but Scarlett and I spend a lot of time together with our dogs and our parakeets.  We go to movies.  We read.  We travel a lot.  I'm taking a week off next week; my wife and I, my brother and his wife, and one of my sisters and her husband are going to Holland together.  We've never been to Holland, so we're going to get as far away from politics for one week as we can.  I'm a reader, I'm a baseball nut—

Democracy in Action: Team?  What team do you have?

Roemer: I'm a Yankees guy.  That'll cost me votes all across America.  I'm sorry.  But in Bossier City, Louisiana back in the 50s the only guys we could get were the Yankees.  I'm a Yankees fan.

Democracy in Action: What do you like to read?

Roemer: You name it.  I'll show you my list.  I'm an I-Pad guy.  I'll show you my last 25 books....  No one's ever seen this list.  Let's see.

Democracy in Action: How long have you had this?

Roemer: Since it first came out.

...This is the most recent one, In The Woods [Tanya French] that's an eight-year novel, a detective novel in England; this is about Wall Street [The Monster, Michael W. Hudson]; this is Mickey Mantle; Black Nile; John Grisham, I love John Grisham; Bill Bryson, he's a great writer, about homes [At Home]; this is the best book on the list, The Disappearing Spoon [Sam Kean], it's about chemical reactions, it's about the chemical table.  Wow.  John Le Carre; a novel Tiger; a true book The Tenth Parallel [Eliza Griswold] about Islam and Christianity; the Washington Post Morning Miracle [Dave Kindred]...excellent; Empire of the Summer Moon [S.C. Gwynne] about the Comanches...

Democracy in Action: You read these on this?

Roemer: Yes, I just read them and then get another one.

Look at this one, my second book I got.  Too Big to Fail [Andrew Ross Sorkin], awesome book.  Fair Tax...

Democracy in Action: What do you think about that?

Roemer: I like it, but it needs modifications.  I'm not ready to endorse it.  But I like people who work on those sorts of things.  There are three or four, fair tax not flat tax but kind of a baseline sales tax and then no income tax under $100,000.  So small business would be exempt from income tax, and it's a very interesting idea.  I like it.  I like it.  But that'll be part of my plan, when I unveil it to you step by step.  I'll have five or six steps and you'll say it fits.

Democracy in Action: Very good...