Party-switching Roemer under fire from both sides

May 22, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Gov. Buddy Roemer at his elbow, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney peered into the crowded parlor of the Louisiana governor's mansion.

"I didn't know Buddy had this many friends," Mr. Cheney deadpanned. The assembled politicians and journalists broke into laughter nearly as loud as the earsplitting flyover, moments before, of an F-14 fighter jet, part of the state's welcome-home celebration for Persian Gulf war veterans.

Jokes aside, the governor's difficulty making friends and influencing people is a serious concern these days for his re-election strategists -- and a juicy target for opponents.

"Buddy Roemer doesn't like us, and I think we ought to return the courtesy," declares Edwin W. Edwards, the high-rolling ex-governor who heads a large and colorful field of challengers that also includes white supremacist state Representative David Duke.

Two months ago, after persistent wooing by President Bush and national party leaders, Mr. Roemer quit the Democratic Party and joined the GOP. He was immediately showcased at the White House as fresh proof of Republicanism's inexorable spread across the South.

But his party switch, which was supposed to have improved Mr. Roemer's chances in this fall's election, seems only to have created a new set of political woes.

There was the predictable bitterness of Democrats, who now deridethe Harvard-educated, technocratic governor as "The Transvestocrat." But there has also been noisy resistance from Republican activists, who are likely to deny the governor his party's official endorsement.

Mr. Roemer, a lean, intense 47-year-old, is attempting to shrug off the troubles that seem to have united activists in both parties against him.

"I have brought this state together!" he exults, with a sarcastic shout. "I've never gotten an endorsement from any organization in my life and it looks like my record is going to hold clean. Free at last!"

As governor, he's delivered on ambitious promises to cut state payrolls and increase spending for environmental cleanup, teacher salaries and highways. But the political and personal costs have been high.

Voters rejected a 1989 tax reform plan he personally championed, and unions have tied up his teacher evaluation program in court. He's been abandoned by some top aides and advisers, and his second wife divorced him. Statehouse politicians call him highhanded and unreliable.

And there is widespread ridicule of his boyhood friend and adviser, a Baptist minister and self-esteem enthusiast from Shreveport named Danny Walker, who told Mr. Roemer to put a rubber band around his wrist and whenever he got mad at people to pop the elastic to cancel those negative thoughts.

"In the first two years, I didn't crack a smile," says Mr. Roemer. "I fought like a wildcat every day. And it was not healthy."

Now he calls himself a cowboy, has taken to wearing blue jeans in public and says, "I've learned to smile more, enjoy it more."

Many voters, however, have yet to warm to the new image. Polls show that Mr. Roemer, elected with just 33 percent of the vote in a multicandidate field, is viewed negatively by roughly two of every five state voters.

That much discontent could ordinarily be fatal to a candidate's chances, but there is nothing ordinary about the Louisiana governor's race, which is shaping up as a vintage example of this state's richly deserved reputation for political theater.

One of the best things Mr. Roemer has going for him, politicians here agree, is that his chief rivals, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Duke, are even more unpopular than he.

The search for a more acceptable alternative has prompted Public Service Commissioner Kathleen Blanco, a conservative Democrat with Cajun roots, to make plans to become Louisiana's first serious female gubernatorial contender.

A more immediate headache for Mr. Roemer is Clyde C. Holloway, a Republican congressman whose candidacy for governor has become a vehicle for anti-abortion activists infuriated by Mr. Roemer's shift away from a hard-line anti-abortion stance and his 1990 veto of two bills designed to test the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion.

"People have a problem with the way he's come into the party," claims Mr. Holloway, who has turned aside entreaties from Republican leaders, including national party Chairman Clayton K. Yeutter, who hoped to keep other Republicans out of the race.

GOP activists have already embarrassed the governor by blocking an effort by his supporters to scrap the state Republican convention, once it became clear that Mr. Roemer would not get its official, though largely symbolic, endorsement.

As a result, next month's convention shapes up as a party-sanctioned exercise in bashing the party's own governor.

"He will go down in history as the only governor of our state repudiated by both parties," predicts Mr. Edwards, the twice-prosecuted (unsuccessfully) ex-governor whose bid for a fourth term was foiled in 1987 by the "Roemer revolution."

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