This is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics. I’ll be sharing more content in the coming weeks. –  Bob

Buddy Roemer

In 1995, I left Senator John Breaux’s staff for six months to serve as communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party. Our goal that year was to elect a Democrat as governor and, to us, that meant keeping former Republican Governor Buddy Roemer from winning his comeback effort. Roemer, who switched from Democrat to Republican near the end of his term, had campaigned for reelection in 1991 and finished an embarrassing third behind Edwin Edwards and David Duke. Edwards won the wild runoff election that attracted national and international attention. Bumper stickers that said, “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important,” cropped up everywhere. Edwards saved the state from a former Klan leader, but his fourth term as governor was a disappointment. In June 1994, Edwards announced he would retire from politics, which threw the next year’s governor’s race wide open. In the wake of that decision, Roemer announced he would make another run at the Governor’s Mansion.

The other prominent Republican in the race was Franklin state Senator Mike Foster, who switched parties on the day he qualified for the race. The Democrats included Baton Rouge US Representative Cleo Fields, the only major Black candidate; Lieutenant Governor Melinda Schwegmann; state Treasurer Mary Landrieu; state Representative Robert Adley of Bossier Parish; and Baton Rouge attorney Phil Preis.

With so many Democrats in the running, the state party would remain neutral until one of them made the runoff. Assuming a Democrat-Republican runoff, the Democratic Party would only promote its candidate for the last month of the campaign. Until then, we focused on taking out the Republican who seemed most likely to pose a strong challenge in the fall.

And to all of us, that was Roemer. The party hired an opposition research firm from North Carolina to investigate every aspect of the former governor’s public life. The firm did a thorough job and produced a series of reports that filled a dozen Black binders. For months, my job was to comb through those books, find juicy tidbits about Roemer, and try to persuade local reporters to write stories about them. We had more information about Roemer than we could ever persuade the press to cover. So, we created a weekly newsletter called “The Buddy System,” aimed at spreading some fresh bit of dirt about the former governor. Every week, I would scour the opposition research and conjure a new tale of scandal involving Roemer.

I had some success getting the press to read what I fed them about Roemer, but they usually ignored us. Still, we regarded Roemer as the Republican most likely to make a runoff—and we wanted to eliminate him. That was before I recognized that political campaigns brought out my most competitive and ugly side—a win-at-all-costs mentality that sometimes short-circuited my better judgment.

That is where my mind was on July 15, 1995, when I agreed to speak to a statewide gathering of the Young Democrats of Louisiana in the House chamber of the State Capitol. I did not notice a reporter for the Sunday Advocate, Doug Myers, who sat in the back of the room hoping for something interesting and newsworthy. I did not know until the next morning’s paper that my appearance provided the news for which he hoped.

My phone rang around six o’clock that morning. It was Jim Nickel, the party’s executive director. “Have you seen today’s paper?” he asked in a whisper. I hadn’t. “Go get it and call me back.” So, I trotted to the end of the driveway, threw open the Sunday paper, and saw at the bottom of the front page my blistering attack on Roemer. The headline read: “Democratic official blasts Roemer as ‘racist.’” The story quoted me saying, “You can’t tell the difference between Buddy Roemer’s rhetoric and David Duke’s rhetoric.” About a television commercial in which the candidate proposed bringing back chain gangs for convicted criminals, I observed that Roemer wanted to “bring back the inhumanity and the degradation of chain gangs to deal with our state’s crime problem.”

Knowing that most in the audience would remember that Roemer’s father and brother had been convicted of federal crimes (an appeals court later overturned his father’s conviction), I added: “We say to Buddy Roemer, ‘Why don’t you work on cutting the crime rate in your own family and then deal with the crime rate in the state?’” Myers did not quote me saying this, but I also referred to Roemer and his relatives as “the Roemer crime family.” The story quoted me further about Roemer: “This is the person, you may recall, when he was in the governor’s mansion who played high-stakes poker in the mansion on a regular basis. This is the person who signed the bill that brought us riverboat casinos, and this is the person who now says the gambling he brought to the state is a blight on Louisiana. I don’t know what your definition of hypocrisy is, but I think that’s a pretty good one.”

For years, I wore the episode as a badge of honor. I thought I had told the truth about Roemer, given it to him with both barrels, and covered myself in glory. I never heard from Roemer or any of his people about the attack—Roemer’s campaign declined an offer to comment on my remarks at the time—but it couldn’t have been pleasant to see yourself described as a racist in the local paper. About six years later, however, I ran into the former governor at a local bookstore. “Bob, Bob!” I heard him call in his distinctive, nasally, north Louisiana twang. I knew that it was Roemer before I saw his face. Thankfully, he was grinning as approached. “I just read your Vietnam War book,” he said. “It was excellent.” We had a brief, friendly conversation. I left a bit unnerved and thought, “Why was Buddy Roemer being so nice to me?” For several years, I had observed him sitting in the balcony on Sunday mornings at First United Methodist Church, where my wife, Cindy, and I attended since 1994. For the longest time, we didn’t speak or, if so, only in passing. But Buddy’s new friendliness was unsettling.

I thought about it quite often over the next few weeks, until the moment I realized I had to release whatever bitterness and anger I harbored towards him. He had overlooked my insults, so why couldn’t I find it within my heart to move on, too? Now, whenever I saw him at church, I sought him out. We’d have a pleasant visit. When I went to work for Governor Kathleen Blanco in 2004, I ran into him at a reception at the massive, ornate Highland Road home of business executive James Bernhard. Buddy was kind, effusive, and full of helpful advice about the tough job ahead. I was grateful.

Other than seeing him at church on Sundays, I would not spend much time with Buddy over the next few years. In the fall of 2008, now on the LSU faculty, I was teaching an Honors College course on the presidential election between Barack Obama and Roemer’s friend, Arizona Senator John McCain. I called Roemer and asked if he would speak to my class and give students his insight into McCain’s politics and personality. He readily agreed.

As I stood up that morning in my classroom in the Journalism Building to introduce him to my twenty students, I realized it was time to deal with the animosity that caused me to make a fool out of myself in 1995. It had taken time, but I eventually understood that harboring anger will rot your insides. It will poison your soul. In the years since that turbulent summer in Leesville, I had also learned the art of apologizing to those I wronged. And I learned about offering forgiveness.

“Before I introduce Governor Roemer to you,” I told my students, “I want to tell you about a time many years ago that I campaigned against him and let my partisan and personal feelings get the best of me. I said some awful things about this man. I was unkind and rude. What I said still embarrasses me. We can disagree with each other in politics without getting personal. We can acknowledge that the other person has another idea for fixing the problems we both want to solve. We don’t have to make it personal. I made it personal about Buddy Roemer and I want to tell him in front of you all that I’m sorry for what I said. I hope you’ll forgive me, Governor.” With that, I yielded the floor. Roemer was gracious and kind and returned four years later to speak to another group of students when I taught the same class during the 2012 election.

Say what you will about Roemer—and I have good friends who are still disdainful and skeptical of him—he tried to make Louisiana a better state. That he couldn’t do it was often a failure of tactics and strategy, not policy. He has his faults, but so do I. He was and is a decent person and I’m happy I came around to seeing that. As I write these words (in the summer of 2019) in the coffee shop of a Baton Rouge bookstore, Roemer is sitting three tables away, reading a newspaper, and is nearly hidden from my view by a large stack of books he has collected for purchase. We just had a friendly chat, as we often do these days.

Read more about the book here.