Tormenting Teddy

By BOSTON PHOENIX STAFF  |  August 26, 2009

A newcomer straight out of central casting
By Mark Jurkowitz

In may ways, Massachusetts Republicans are like loyal Red Sox fans, haunted by memories of failures past and sobered by limited expectations.

There's hasn't been a Republican US senator from Massachusetts since Ed Brooks lost in 1978. Though Bill Weld finally broke the Democrats' lock on the governonr's office in 1990, activists still blanch at the memory of the 1982 campaign, when up-and-comer John Lakian was caught embellishing his resume, and at the 1986 debacle, when Greg Hyatt was accused of, among other things, running around his office in the altogether and Royall Switzler was forced to admit he'd lied about his military record.

In 1992, with victories by Peter Torkildsen and Peter Blute, the Republicans finally managed to capture tow the state's 10 congressional seats. But in that same year, the GOP lost six of the 15 seats it had held in the 40-member State Senate, weakening Weld's hand and putting Republican aspirations for a legistaltive majority on indefinite hold.

Put simply, long-suffering Republicans in this state are generally heartened by the sight of candidates who can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Which is why Mitt Romney, who hopes to be Ted Kennedy's challenger this fall, has 'em pretty much wowed at the Republican Town Committee meeting in Wayland earlier this month. It almost seems like the man was created in a GOP-candidate laboratory.

At 46, trim and tan, he looks like a cross between George Hamilton and a young George Bush. He is undeniably bright. He has an attractive wife, Ann, who was a high-school sweetheart, and a family of five sons between the ages of 12 and 24.

He has excellent bloodlines: his father is George Romney, the former three-term Michigan governor, HUD secretary, and the 1968 presidential hopeful, still a respected figure among older Republicans. His mother, Lenore, is a former MGM actress who ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate from Michigan in 1970.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and neither smokes nor drinks, which invites comparisons with the weather-beaten Kennedy. A rookie politican, Romeny is a millionare businessman untainted by a career at the public trough. His professed ideology, that of a "social moderate and fiscal conservative" is the current Republican rage, particulary in Bill Weld's Massachusetts. And at least in the small rooms he's now working. Romney is able to pump out a fluid and articulate stump speech that tidily connects that nation's social ills to the Democrats' economic and domestic policies.

Moreover, like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, Romney's chief Republican rivals all seem to lack something. Former talk-radio personality Janet Jeghelian is already being dogged by questions about whether she can raise the money and muster the organization needed to giver h candidacy real lift. Lakina must overcome his own humiliating fall from grace a dozen years ago if he is to be credible. And though Christian broadcasting executive Gary Todd may build a following among religious conservative, he's attracted interest chiefly because of his political strategist, maverick consultant Ron Mills.

Does Romney – who's already being labeled by some insiders as the morning-line favorite – have a weakness? As a virtual unknown in state political circles, the Belmont resident's jump to the head of the class has skeptics wondering who the real Mitt Romney is. Hushed questions, ranging from his stance on abortion rights to the tenets of his religion, are being asked – many planted, no doubt, by supporters of rival candidates. But they underscore one fundamental truth: Mitt Romney is a mystery.

And though he looks almost too good to be true, the subliminal fear may be that Romney – like another young, personable wealthy businessman-turned politician, names John Lakian – could come unraveled in the heat of battle.

The early reviews have been good and the roster of initial supporters impressive. But this, after all, is the Republican Party, in which pragmatic pessimism springs eternal.

"He looks like the latest entry in the tradition of Republican businessmen on white horses who ride in to slay the dragon," says one seasoned party observer who's seen too many of these knights unceremoniously tossed from their steeds.

Out of the gate

Born in Detroit, Willard Mitt Romney was named after his father's best friend, hotel magnate Willard Mariott. ("Mitt" is for his father's cousin, who had two brothers named Ott and Att. Was there a cousin Itt somewhere?)

In 1971, Romney received his undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University; his education included two years of missionary work in France. He moved to Massachusetts to enroll in a joint business-and-law program at Harvard, and in 1975 he graduated with both an MBA and a Harvard Law degree. Shortly thereafter he took an entry-level job at the Boston Consulting Group. In 1977, he joined a new consulting firm, Bain & Company, became vice-president, and then, in 1984, co-founded Bain & Company's venture-capital cousin, Bain Capital.

During these years, Romney was concentrating on building both a family and financial security, and he stayed out of organized politics. He says he was following an old family credo.

"When my dad first ran for governor of Michigan, in 1962, he had been president of American Motors," Romney says. "And he said there are a couple of prerequisites for getting involved politically. One is that you have enough money of your own that you don't have to win elections to pay your bills. And two, you want to have your kids raised. You don't want to be in politics and have people judge your kids by, 'Did your daddy win or did your daddy lose?' I was able to put together a pretty good political nest egg, and my kids are well raised."

George Romney, now a hale and hearty 86 and recently in town to help is son's campaign, cites Dwight Eisenhower as the source of that philosophy. The two men were flying to a political confab in the early '60s, says the elder Romney, and "on the plane he said to me, describing his own experience, 'Before you launch an offensive, you should always have a firm, impregnable base you can fall back to.'"

Former Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Ray Shamie, who ran against Ted Kennedy in 1982, says he tried unsuccessfully to interest Mitt Romney in a 1988 run against Kennedy, a battle eventually waged by Joe Malone. Although Malone got his clock cleaned, he parlayed his nice-guy campaign into a winning bid for state treasurer two years later. Romney says he decided to run this time after two candidates he would have backed – Weld and Bush's secretary of Transportation, Andy Card – demurred. He hired former Ronald Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin, who went into the field and told him, "It's an uphill fight, but it's winnable." Romney says he assessed "the reality of Massachusetts Republican politics" and decided "if not me, who?"

Like any new combatant, Romney recognized he'd be judged at least in part by the quality of his tema. So he's been quick to masass a coterie of staffers and supporters that helps cement his status as a serious candidate. His campaign consultant Charlie Manning, who helped mastermind the successful campaigns of Weld, Malone, and Blute. His campaign manager is former state representative Bob Marsh, who's leaving Blute's staff. Priscilla Ruzzo, who's worked as Malone's chief-of-staff, and finance director, will lead the fundraising effort. And Mike Sununu, the son of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu and a former Torkildsen aide, is coming on board to do research.

In one of his early "Dear Republican Friend" letters, Romney also touted the endorsements of two party bigwigs who happen to be ideological opposites – the conservative Shamie and liberal party mainstay Polly Logan, a friend of George Romney's.

Though Weld and Malone will doubtless remain netural, it's widely believed that both would be comfortable with Romney at the top of the ticket. While saying he'll stay on the sidelines during the primary campaign, Malone adds that "it is great to see a candidate with mitt Romney's intelligence, his intergrity, and his energy stepping forward to run for the US Senate."

Whether or not the party's nominating convention, in May, proves to be fertile ground for Romney reminas to be seen, giving the universe of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives activists who tarditonally cast ballots that day. In 1990, they were downtright inhospitable to Weld. But Romney says he's prepared to spend a minimum of $6 million to $7 million to beat Kennedy, pointedly noting that "if for some reason there were a gap, and even a substantial gap, wioudl make a sizable contribution of my own resources."

Down to Business

Taking a page from the Ross Perot playbook, Romney builds the philosophical foundation for his candidacy atop his business success. Not only does he boast of Bain Capital's acquiring, investing it, or starting up more than 60 companies with revenues of more than $5 billion, he is widely credited with helping rescue Bain & Company, as temporary CEO, after it ran into serious financial problems in the late '80s.

According to Romney, Bain Capital raises a pool of funds (currently about $300 million) from sources ranging from Notre Dame to pension systems, and invests them in new or troubled companies that show serious potential for growth. The Staples office-supply chain, for example, got started with an infusion of almost $1.5 million from Bain. Of course, as Romney is quick to admit, there are plenty of failures to go with the success stories. "We're a little like bankers, except bankers loan businesses money and we give them equity," he says.

"My entire education and experience for the past 22 years is learning how the economic engine of America works," he continues. "I'm talking about someone who has been able to come into a business that was in real trouble, turn it around, save a lot of jobs, and get it growing again&ldots;about helping other small businesses start off that couldn't find capital&ldots;That kind of experience is&ldots;very much relevant to the kind of problems we face as a state and nation."

Romney has cobbled together a philosophy that tries to bind two overachieving themes, the economy and the culture, and that lays the blame for the state of both at the feet of Kennedy and his cronies. It's a philosophy that's stronger on a diagnosis than on cure.

"I'm concerned about two basic problems," he says. "First, the large and growing population of what I'll call disengaged Americans – people who, for whatever reason, have dropped out of the system. They're either totally welfare-dependent or&ldots;.they're involved in crime, they're involved drugs. I am convinced that what we are oding as a country and what Senator Kennedy is doing is not solving the problem.

"Number two," he continues, "is the whole economic situation. We're in a worldwide economic race as a country and as a state. If we are to employ Americans in good jobs and actually solve the problems of the disengaged as well, we have to win that economic race in meet after meet&ldots;As I watch the record of Senator Kennedy and, frankly, of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts over the last 22 years, it's been troubling to me that the leadership hasn't been attuned to what has to be done to build our economy and nationwide economic race."

On some issues, Romney sounds much the doctrinaire conservative. He believes the nation has "been timid on crime," will offer a "on new taxes" pledge, supports a balanced-budget amendment, and strongly backs term limits, vowing not to serve more than 12 years himself.

On other issues, Romney is a 'tweener. He favors the Brady bill, but believes the seven-day waiting period should be reduced if a way is found to conduct immediate background checks. On health care, he blasts Bill Clinton's efforts to "throw out" the current system and "put in place a new government bureaucracy to manage all of healthcare&ldots;it scares me to death." But he believes reform is needed to guarantee universal care, to ensure that those who lose or transfer jobs don't forfeit coverage, and to standardize paperwork – although he doesn't talk about what trade-offs might be necessary.

Though he speaks confidently and crisply on most matters, Romney seems uncomfortable on litmus-test cultural issues. On the question of abortion rights, he picks his words with painstaking care, saying that "it is the law of the land and I would not change that. my personal beliefs and my personal faith is that choosing an abortion is not right unless it's in the case of rape, incest, health of the most, health of the fetus. But I would not seek to legislate my view."

On the matter of the military's new "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding lesbians and gay men, Romney tersely says: "I think it's an appropriate outcome."

Although Romney is not as pro-gay-rights as Weld, who recently adorned the cover of the Advocate as a "hetero hero," Polly Logan recalls one campaign stop at which Romney was asked to comment on the governor's position. "I believe in everybody being treated equally," she recalls Romney saying.

Thus far Romney, who looks like a grown-up version of the kid who regularly brought the teacher shiny apples, seems interested in playing strictly b Marquis of Queensbury Rules. On the hustings, for example, he eschews the role of cultural warrior. Speaking to about two dozen Wayland Republican Town Committee members who braved a snowy night to see him, he brought up the dreaded L-word ("liberal") for ridicule only once during his address, and made it clear that his vision of imparting "American values" in schools includes teaching tolerance of others.

It's no surprise to hear Romney – at this tage of the game – adhere to "Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment&ldots;I will not speak ill of another Republican." But he takes that a step further, answering one committee member's question by flatly declaring he will not attack Kennedy on personal or character issues, an area in which the incumbent would seem vulnerable.

At some point, Romney may have to grow some sharper elbow, but for new he's left it to tohers to toss the gentle digs. "The one things about Mitt is that if he's at the top of the ticket he'll make the party proud, and he'll help each and every candidate from Weld down to the state reps," says Charlie Manning, in what could be construed as subtle criticism of his GOP foes.

But the line of the day belonged to George Romney, who managed to keep a straight face while telling the Wayland crowd: "I knew President Kennedy, and I knew Ted. And Ted is no Jack."

Mitt Romney spoke confidently and comfortably, with flashes of humor, linking social and economic problems, in what he called a "doom loop." His performance impressed the mostly middle-of-the-road Republican gathering, perhaps as much with his style as with substance.

"He's not gong to go to the convention and give the speech that everyone remembers for 20 years," says one Republican official. But by all accounts, he's good in smaller venues.

"He's smooth. He's got good ideas," said committee chair Randy Hoes at the end of the festivities. "And he looks so young to me. He's got a kid who's 24? How old was he when he has time? Twelve?"

"I thought he was great, the whole notion of things being interlocked between the economy and social problems," added Wayland Finance Committee member Walter Pope, who claimed to be "leaning heavily toward him" based on that performance.

Sighs and Whispers

The downside to Romney's fresh-face/private-sector entry into politics is that he hasn't been toiling in the fields, meeting party regulars, and building a Rolodex.

Lakian partisan Vincent McLaughlin, a Republican State Committee member from Lowell, says he never ran across Romney when he was stumping for Weld in 1990 or running for Governor's Council in a district that included Belmont. "I believe in party politics," asserts McLaughlin. "He hasn't been there, and I really think that's important."

Counters former State Senate minority leader David Locke: "What he brings to the race is something I've been urging for years – someone who's successful in life." But a moment later, Locke allows that Romney's lack of previous political activity "does trouble me to the extent that I've always admired candidates who came up through the ranks."

Jeghelian's political experience is minimal, Lakian has taken a 12-year hiatus, and Todd has never run for anything, so that shouldn't necessarily be a major liability for Romney, whose current name recognition is miniscule. But it is a hurdle to be surmounted. Many party officials have never met the man, and even key legislative leaders have only in recent weeks shaken his hand for the first time.

"I think potentially he could win. The problem I see is that candidates who come out of the business community can have a lot of difficulty, because it's difficult to adapt to the political word," says State Senator Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield). Romney can counter that he grew up in a political world, but that was 30 years ago in a state 1000 miles away.

For now, most of the questions about Romney stem from fact that he's largely an unknown quantity. For that reason, there's some speculation about his ideology, primarily about whether he's really pro-choice. But that may be rooted in the fact that people such as the pro-life Shamie (who says, "We see eye to eye on important issues") and the pro-choice Logan (who says, "I like the fact that he's for women") both like him.

Romney, who changed his registration last October from independent to Republican only last October, is also being criticized for voting in 1992 Democratic presidential primary. The Boston Herald reported that he didn't recall whom he voted for, leading Lakian adviser Ron Kaufman to crack that "he must have been brainwashed." That was a reference to George Romney's infamous statement explaining how he had been misled about the Vietnam War, a gaffe that helped doom his 1968 presidential candidacy.

Romney, who says the Herald story was misleading, makes it clear that he voted for Paul Tsongas in that primary. "In 1992, George Bush was, I believe, virtually unopposed," he says, an interesting statement in light of Pat Buchanan's right-wing challenge. "So I voted in the Democratic primary for Paul Tsongas because he was from Massachusetts and I thought he was a fighter, overcoming cancer, and I thought people in Massachusetts should give him a positive send-off."

Romney may also have to defend the Mormon Church, given the whispering campaign alleging, among other things, that the institution is hostile to black and women. The innuendo in viciously tribal Massachusetts is that somehow Mormonism, which is far more common out West, is bizarre and out of step with the local culture.

"If you look at the voters of Massachusetts, they've proved to be thoughtful and open-minded about people's differences and backgrounds," says Romney, who professes to be unconcerned about the gossip. "I know people in this state accepted with open arms Bruce Hurst and Danny Ainge. And there are not many members of my faith in Massachusetts."

If all of this seems like pretty thin gruel, it is. So far, there is no hard or substantive knock against Romney, only a question o f whether he's all he's crack up to be. And in the present stage of the fledgling Republican campaign, this latest white knight bears the earmark of the candidate with, as Shamie puts it, "the best chance of winning." What remains to be seen is how he performs when the race begins, and the press and the public really start paying attention.

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