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Buddy Roemer, Reformer as a Louisiana Governor, Dies at 77

Buddy Roemer, a clean-government advocate whose four years as Louisiana governor were wedged between terms served by the flamboyant and scandal-plagued Edwin Edwards, died on Monday at his home in Baton Rouge, the state capital. He was 77.

His son Charles E. Roemer IV, who goes by Chas, confirmed the death, saying his father had long been treated for Type 1 diabetes.

A Harvard-educated scion of a prominent north Louisiana farming family, Mr. Roemer was elected governor in 1987 as a fiscally conservative Democrat who promised to fix a state budget crisis brought on by falling oil and gas prices.

He also pledged to steer clear of scandal in a state where Mr. Edwards’s trial on federal corruption charges had dominated much of Mr. Edwards’s third term and ended in his acquittal in 1986. (Mr. Edwards, a Democrat, was convicted in 2000 in a separate federal corruption trial).

Four years after winning the governorship, however, Mr. Roemer, by then running for re-election as a Republican, found himself boxed out of power in large part by the unsettling rise of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who was also running for governor as a Republican. Mr. Edwards and Mr. Duke placed first and second, respectively, in the state’s open primary system, advancing to a runoff and dealing Mr. Roemer a blow from which his political career never recovered. (Mr. Edwards defeated Mr. Duke in the runoff to capture a nonconsecutive fourth term.)

“He never really fit in any party completely,” Chas Roemer said of his father. “It probably added to his downfall politically. But that’s who he was.”

Charles Elson Roemer III was born on Oct. 4, 1943, to Charles and Adeline (McDade) Roemer in the north Louisiana city of Shreveport. He grew up nearby, outside Bossier City, La., where his family owned a cotton plantation. He enrolled at Harvard University at age 16 and studied government and economics as an undergraduate. He later earned a master’s in business administration there.

After college, he returned to north Louisiana to help run the family farming operation, but he was never too far from politics. He helped found a computer company that provided data analysis to companies and political campaigns and founded the first of a number of banks he would be involved with over the years.

Both Mr. Roemer and his father worked on Mr. Edwards’s first successful campaign for governor, in 1971-72, in which Mr. Edwards presented himself as a reform candidate. (He would later push through a rewrite of the state’s cumbersome constitution.)

The elder Mr. Roemer, who was known as Budgie, went on to be Mr. Edwards’s commissioner of administration in the governor’s first two terms, managing many of the daily functions of state government.

The younger Mr. Roemer went to Congress, representing Louisiana for four terms beginning in 1981. On Capitol Hill, he earned a reputation as a sharp orator and as a member of the so-called “Boll Weevils,” a group of conservative Southern Democrats who were amenable to the Reagan administration’s economic policies. In international affairs he supported sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Back in Louisiana, Mr. Edwards had been elected to a nonconsecutive third term as governor. But voters began to tire of his antics — in one instance he was accused of paying off six-figure gambling debts with suitcases and envelopes stuffed with cash — and of the grinding fiscal realities of the oil bust.

Mr. Roemer ran promising relief. Len Sanderson, his former chief of staff and campaign director, said in an interview on Monday that Mr. Roemer had grabbed voters’ attention when he was asked, in a debate before the open primary, whether he would support a Republican over Mr. Edwards if it came down to those two choices.

Mr. Roemer said he would support the Republican, on grounds that it was better to “slay the dragon.” The campaign was quick to print up “slay the dragon” buttons.

As a candidate Mr. Roemer promised what he branded the “Roemer Revolution,” a mix of fiscal reforms and pledges to stop the endemic corruption that had gone hand-in-hand with much of Louisiana’s colorful 20th-century populist tradition.

His administration was able to carry out campaign finance reforms and also crack down on pollution emitted by the state’s powerful chemical industry, Mr. Sanderson said. But Mr. Roemer’s proposal for a fiscal overhaul, which was to include gasoline and other tax increases and would have required a constitutional amendment, was rejected by voters in 1989.

Mr. Roemer’s third-place finish in the 1991 open primary was a result not only of Mr. Duke’s appeal to white racists, with its criticism of the welfare system and affirmative action programs. Mr. Roemer was also blasted in ads funded by the owner of an industrial-waste processing company that had been fined millions of dollars by the Roemer administration.

Mr. Roemer’s switch from Democrat to Republican may have also cost him. That move was in line with his fiscal conservatism and his friendship with then-President George H.W. Bush. But even further, he had most likely concluded that Mr. Edwards, running for his fourth term, would tie up much Democratic support, and that running as a Republican might allow Mr. Roemer to build a successful coalition of anti-Duke Republicans and anti-Edwards Democrats.

As it turned out, Mr. Roemer found himself sitting out a race that Mr. Edwards would win amid widespread revulsion in Louisiana — and in much of the country — over Mr. Duke’s white supremacist background.

That revulsion — coupled with a generally disconsolate mood among some voters — was expressed in a pro-Edwards bumper sticker that famously proclaimed, “Vote for the Crook — It’s Important.”

Mr. Roemer launched a failed comeback campaign for governor in 1995. In 2012 he briefly ran as a long-shot presidential candidate, first as a Republican and later as a third-party candidate. That effort was perhaps most notable for his star turn in a satirical TV ad criticizing money in politics funded by a super PAC established by the comedian Stephen Colbert.

The ad featured Mr. Roemer, Mr. Colbert and a unicorn named Rainbow — paid for with PAC money, the ad claimed — being magically transported to C.S. Lewis’s mythical Narnia.

Mr. Roemer, who worked in banking and business after leaving office, had a stroke in 2014 that affected his speech. Chas Roemer said that his father’s health had been declining over the last year.

In addition to his son, Mr. Roemer, who was married three times, is survived by his wife, Scarlett Osborne Roemer; another son, Dakota Roemer; a daughter, Caroline Roemer; and five grandchildren.

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