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Mitt Romney’s an empty suit, but the Dems are trying to win November’s election on technicalities

CONSIDERING THAT he’s never held political office before, GOP gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney’s ability to contradict himself is impressive.

First, he said he wouldn’t run for governor in Massachusetts as long as Jane Swift wanted the job. All it took to get him into the fray was one poll (paid for by Mass Turnpike board member and Republican fundraiser Christy Mihos) showing Romney ahead of everyone else in the campaign, and next thing you know, he’s back in Massachusetts declaring his candidacy.

Then he said he wouldn’t pick a lieutenant governor to campaign with. Next thing you know, he’s pushed Swift’s candidate of choice, Patrick Guerriero, out of the race and pulled Kerry Healey into it.

And now Romney has been caught in a lie about whether he maintained Massachusetts residency during his three-year tenure working on the Olympics in Utah. It’s a significant question, given that the Massachusetts Constitution requires that eligible candidates for governor must be residents of the state for seven consecutive years before taking office.

When the issue of Romney’s eligibility to run came up, Romney said he had filed income taxes as a resident of both Massachusetts and Utah during his time in Salt Lake City. Last Wednesday, political writer Frank Phillips reported that Romney had received a break on his property taxes in Utah worth $54,000 over three years. The tax break is available only to Utah residents. Next thing you know, Romney’s clarifying his statements and telling us he declared himself a part-time resident of Massachusetts on his 1999 tax return and a nonresident in 2000.

With this latest flip-flop, Romney comes off as holier-than-thou, an empty suit. On Monday, WGBH’s Greater Boston covered the issue, running a clip from Sunday’s edition of John Henning’s News Conference, which airs on WBZ, of Romney being interviewed by Phillips. In the clip, the candidate earnestly tells Phillips that he’s handled the issue as "best he could" and that maybe Phillips could give him some advice on how to deal with something like this the next time it comes up. Phillips quickly responds, "Tell the truth."

The scary thing is that Romney obviously believes he was telling the truth. After all, his claim that the tax returns he filed while living in Utah list him as a Massachusetts resident is technically true: one week after announcing his candidacy, he amended his returns to reflect just that. But the fact that Romney believes that this constitutes truth-telling tells us a lot about the man. Namely, that he has a lot in common with a certain former president who once tried to parse the meaning of the word "is."

The Democratic State Committee has pounced on the issue, filing a lawsuit seeking to get Romney thrown off the ballot based on the residency requirement. The question of Romney’s residency is substantially ridiculous. Romney has lived in Massachusetts for 30 years. It’s where he made his fortune as a venture capitalist. It’s where he and his wife Ann have raised their five children. Yet there is technical merit to the Democrats’ lawsuit. The Massachusetts Constitution is clear: gubernatorial candidates must have resided in the Commonwealth for seven consecutive years prior to the election. Commentators have made fun of the rule. But the Constitution is what it is. If people don’t like it, they should change it.

The Romney campaign believes the public will view the legal challenge by the Democrats as petty. Toward that end, his campaign is filming an advertisement, as Phillips reported Wednesday, touting his deep Massachusetts roots. But even this move has pumped what looks like another lie from the Romney campaign. Phillips reports that Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe was contacted twice by the Romney campaign for help preparing its defense to the Democrats’ lawsuit. Tribe declined to work on the case because, as he tells Phillips: "I’m strongly inclined to think his claim of residency for those two years manipulates the legal categories and doesn’t really comply with the letter or spirit of Massachusetts law."

Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom insists that no one from Romney’s camp ever contacted Tribe. So what are we to believe? The Harvard law professor is making it up? Is Romney serious?

Politics, of course, is nothing if not Machiavellian, and the bottom line is the end result. So who’s going to end up looking worse: Romney for lying, or the Democrats for relying on a technicality to get him off the ballot? It’s hard to say. Chasing an otherwise legitimate candidate for governor off the ballot on technical grounds is a dangerous game. As Phoenix contributor Dan Kennedy has pointed out on his Web log (, if the challenge succeeds, state Democrats will have done nothing more than deny "voters the right to cast a ballot for a candidate who has consistently led in the polls since jumping into the race." It’s hard to see what this will accomplish beyond further alienating an electorate that is, as pundits are so fond of pointing out, already alienated.

Of course, if the public finally catches on to just how much Romney is lying about his residency, the poll numbers may change. That said, the Democrats’ defensive challenge to Romney’s candidacy is another demonstration that the state Democratic Party is wedded to the bad old days. Take, for instance, state Democratic party chair Phil Johnston’s incredible assertion that Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein shouldn’t receive Clean Elections funding because she belongs to a "marginal" party. "I say this as a supporter of Clean Elections, but marginal parties should not be part of this," he told Phillips. In the same story, Johnston says, "A vote for Stein is a vote for Romney," revealing his true concern about how Clean Elections money gets distributed.

Democrats haven’t held the governor’s office since 1990. After 12 years out of office, the party should be able to win based on its ideas, not on technicalities. There are five months to go before the November election, when voters will pick our next governor. Here’s to hoping the Republicans field a candidate who knows a thing or two about telling the truth and that the Democrats start talking about ideas instead of technicalities.

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Issue Date: May 13 - 20, 2002
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