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Dems welcome Romney


Venture capitalist and former Salt Lake Olympics Organizing Committee president Mitt Romney executed nothing less than a hostile takeover on Tuesday — a conclusion shared by the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh. Taking a page from his business background, Romney located a tottering organization (the Massachusetts GOP), appealed quietly to shareholders (the Republican delegates), and unseated the weak chief executive, Governor Jane Swift. Although Romney has so far expertly engineered his transition back to the Commonwealth from Utah, Massachusetts Democrats are champing at the bit to transform him into the political equivalent of a close-lipped Enron executive.

There’s no question that Romney is exponentially stronger than Swift for a run against any of the Democratic candidates — Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Senate president Tom Birmingham, former secretary of labor Robert Reich, former Democratic National Committee chair and MassEnvelopePlus chief Steve Grossman, and former Watertown state senator Warren Tolman. But even as Republican activists rally around the sure-to-be-formidable Romney, the Democrats seem even more energized about drawing out the candidate’s policy positions, many of which are still a mystery to the people of Massachusetts.

Romney launched his campaign in a style befitting a corporate executive. After making his announcement standing casually outside his Belmont home, Romney addressed Republican supporters at the Sheraton Boston Hotel. There, he eschewed traditional policy discussion to make a general pitch: he alone has the management ability to fix our flailing state.

"In our view this is not so much a race about ‘How do you think about rule 40B on this issue?’ or ‘How do you think about that?’ " said Romney. "It’s instead a question about whether we’re going to get new leadership and new management."

The state’s Democrats — from state Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston and Representative Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge to all the gubernatorial candidates — spoke with one voice, saying they were preparing to force Romney to declare where he stands on the issues. At Tuesday’s press conference, for example, Romney was vague on the question of choice, saying he supported the current laws on the books, but remaining mute on the specifics, such as whether he favors public funding for abortion.

"I think we are still waiting to hear from Mitt Romney. He changed his position on choice," said O’Brien. "I’m pro-choice. Certainly that will be an issue in the campaign." Romney will also have to clarify his position on domestic-partnership benefits and marriage rights for gays and lesbians. (Seven same-sex Massachusetts couples are currently suing the state in Suffolk Superior Court to be granted marriage licenses.)

Romney already appeared reluctant to delve into the issues raised by Democrats. "I do know there will be an effort in the campaign on the part of the opponents, the many opponents on the Democratic side, to try and break the race down to as low a denominator as possible," he said.

In addition to trying to pin down Romney, Democrats are now preoccupied with the question of which candidate can defeat him in a general election. "The person who demonstrates that they are the one who can beat Romney and draw the clearest contrast between themselves and Romney is the one in a position to become the next governor," says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. "I think they need to campaign on who is best able to beat him."

Two candidates — O’Brien and Grossman — immediately claimed that they have the management skills to compete with Romney. "I think if you hear all of the positive things that people are saying about Mitt Romney, they echo many of the things that have been said about me," said O’Brien. "I blew the whistle on Big Dig, managed our state finances smarter, came into a scandal-ridden treasury and lottery, and had to help uncover theft-mismanagement."

Grossman, who has spent his life in the private sector, made a similar case: "I’ve met a payroll. I’ve been a chief executive. It seems to me my whole rationale for my candidacy meets his strengths straight on. I have a proven record of fiscal discipline and responsibility and a proven record of having met a payroll and created jobs."

Two other candidates — Reich and Senate president Birmingham, who is also a labor lawyer — signaled they will go after Romney’s record on economic issues, which they maintained has consistently favored businesses over workers. "I’d relish debating Romney," said Reich, also mentioning that as secretary of labor he managed a $35 billion government agency. "He opposed the minimum wage I fought for. I don’t think he established himself as a friend of the working people." Birmingham, who has engineered legislation creating $99 million in prescription-drug benefits for the elderly this year alone, called Romney "fundamentally out of step with the working-class values of the people of Massachusetts."

Tolman, finally, called upon Romney to run as a Clean Elections candidate, as he is doing. "We’ll have a discussion on the issues on the merits, not on who had the greatest fundraiser," he said.

Each of the Democrats can make the case that Romney’s entry into the race helps him or her. For O’Brien and Grossman, the case centers on their management abilities combined with their social progressivism. For Reich, obviously, his high name recognition, verbal fluidity, and celebrity make him a national figure who can compete on an equal footing with a Mitt Romney. Tolman can say that angry unenrolled voters will vote for him in the Democratic primary.

Oddly, Romney’s entry is perhaps most liberating for Birmingham. The conventional wisdom holds that Romney, an outsider, immediately puts Birmingham, the insider’s insider, out of contention. Instead, however, the contrast between Romney, son of a wealthy auto executive, and Birmingham, self-made son of Chelsea, gives the Senate president’s campaign a mission it formerly lacked. For the first time, Birmingham’s campaign has a rationale: the Rhodes scholar with the Harvard background who made it on his own is needed to battle the Michigan aristocrat.

"I have devoted my entire professional background to improving the lives of working people. I think Mitt Romney’s record is 180 degrees of that," says Birmingham, adding that a Romney-Birmingham match-up could be "a fight for the soul of the Commonwealth."

While Romney largely avoided specifics, Charles Manning, a Republican consultant working with him, criticized the Democrats for getting ugly so quickly. "Isn’t it amazing that Mitt has just announced, and already the Democrats are attacking him," said Manning. "They know they can’t do as good a job as governor as Mitt would do, so they’re going to try and drag him down in the mud."

At the Sheraton Boston Hotel event, many Republican activists were celebrating a "rebirth of the Republican Party" and expressly comparing Romney to another GOP hero, Ronald Reagan. One such supporter, Jack Lindsey, an aide to Reagan when he was governor of California, compared the excitement level around Romney to that around Reagan when he began his political ascent. Reagan, as president, famously attracted independent and Democratic voters based on his own personality and individual skill — despite his robust conservatism. Romney will try to do the same thing in Massachusetts. So the question remains: will Romney be able to coat himself with Reagan’s Teflon, or will the Democrats turn him into Kenneth Lay?


Issue Date: March 22, 2002
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