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The Making of Mitt Romney

Ambitious goals; shifting stances

Governor Mitt Romney addressed the media at the State House after announcing that he is in favor of President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.
By Brian C. Mooney, Stephanie Ebbert, and Scott Helman
Globe Staff / June 30, 2007
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After his failure to elect more Republican legislators in the 2004 campaign, Mitt Romney met with the Globe's editorial board and made a surprising declaration: No longer could he put so much time into promoting his party.

''From now on, it's me-me-me,'' he said.

Within weeks of the election, Romney issued a plea for bipartisanship and laid out his vision for what would become a defining achievement. In a Globe op-ed piece headlined ''My Plan for Massachusetts Health Insurance Reform,'' he unveiled a novel approach to providing health care for everyone.

The initial response fell somewhere between skepticism and incredulity.

''This administration hasn't been willing to work with anyone,'' Christine E. Canavan, then House vice chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Health Care, said at the time. ''I just came out of a campaign where the man was trying to make sure I wasn't here any more.''

Within two days, though, Romney got a bracing response from an unlikely quarter. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion who turned back Romney's freshman venture into politics in 1994, offered emphatic encouragement. One of the great champions of universal coverage saw promise in Romney's gambit.

''We're basically stalemated [in Washington], so the states are going to have to try to come up with a response,'' said Kennedy, who would play a behind-the-scenes role at key points in the legislative process back home in Boston.

    The healthcare campaign became the signature accomplishment of Romney's four years in office, showcasing the governor in all his complexity. It exhibited his strengths - a willingness to challenge convention by attacking an intractable problem in a creative way; but it also, critics say, revealed his shortcomings - taking too much credit for achievements and subordinating compromise for the sake of his own political prospects.
In the coming healthcare battle, Romney's ambition for higher office would turn out to be both a spur and an impediment - making him hungry for a deal but unwilling to accept provisions that might anger national Republicans.

Throughout the healthcare debate, he downplayed speculation that he planned to run for president. But by that point, the scaffolding for his 2008 campaign was well under construction.

Seed money

In the summer of 2003, barely six months into Romney's governorship, Robert White, a confidant, had huddled in Washington with political strategists Michael Murphy and Trent Wisecup and a top GOP lawyer, Benjamin Ginsberg, to ponder Romney's next move. At Ginsberg's law office near Georgetown, and later over steak in a private room at Morton's, the seeds for Romney's presidential campaign were planted.

They conceived the Commonwealth PAC, a political action committee that enabled Romney to travel the country with a checkbook, currying favor with Republican leaders by contributing to their campaigns and causes.

Romney's advisers organized the PAC in an innovative way, setting up affiliates in six key states - including some states with no limits on contributions, which allowed Romney's wealthy associates to give five- and six-figure sums. In all, the PAC raised $8.8 million and doled out $1.3 million, much of it in key presidential-primary states.

Romney also positioned himself to lead the Republican Governors Association, advancing from chairman of the group's annual dinner in 2004 and vice chairman in 2005 and putting himself in line to be chairman in 2006. The job would give Romney visibility, contact with Republican donors, and the chance to visit other states.

Meanwhile, his State House staff was collecting information to answer media inquiries about Romney's background, including his Michigan draft board records from the 1960s.

''I didn't know if I wanted to run, I didn't know what would happen, I didn't know who the opposition would be,'' Romney said of his early preparations. ''But I knew I didn't want to foreclose the possibility.''

Healthcare opportunity

What the governor lacked, however, was a defining achievement after two years in office. He seized on healthcare reform. The timing was right: Massachusetts was in danger of losing up to $585 million in Medicaid funds, because the Bush administration believed the state was spending money on services that were ineligible for federal assistance.

Aides to Romney and Kennedy had worked closely on the Medicaid issue, and on Jan. 14, 2005, the two leaders met for more than two hours to negotiate an extension of a regulatory waiver with Tommy Thompson, who was stepping down that day as US health and human services secretary and whose support was in doubt. ''It was touch and go,'' Kennedy recalled.

As Thompson signed the agreement, his farewell party was starting a floor above his office in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building. Kennedy and Romney joined the festivities, cracking up the crowd with an impromptu standup routine as ''the odd couple'' while sharing a stage for the first time since the debates in the 1994 Senate race.

Over the next 15 months, Romney pursued an innovative approach: Require all who could afford insurance to buy it; use $1 billion set aside for free hospital care for the uninsured to subsidize coverage for the working poor; and create an agency to help market affordable health plans from private insurers.

Meanwhile, the Senate crafted a more incremental plan and the House advanced one that added a payroll tax on employers that did not provide health insurance.

As a legislative standoff rolled into 2006, Romney became anxious. One Sunday morning in January he hand-delivered letters to the homes of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi in Boston's North End and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini in East Boston, urging them to compromise.

DiMasi wasn't home. Travaglini was, and he cackles as he recalls the sight of Romney at his door. Romney rarely lobbied lawmakers, let alone made house calls.

''How often does the governor ring your bell on a Sunday morning to deliver personally a letter?'' he said with a laugh.

After months of hard bargaining by Romney aides, legislators, advocates, business leaders, insurers, and healthcare providers, a compromise bill emerged from the Legislature in early April with a goal of providing coverage for virtually all of the state's more than 400,000 uninsured. Gone was the payroll tax in the House version. In its place was an annual fee of $295 per person for companies that had 11 or more employees and didn't provide a health plan.

At first, Romney voiced no objections to the fee, which some conservatives saw as a new tax. But in an April 11 op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal, Romney said he would take ''corrective action.''

Democrats who were invited to Romney's bill-signing extravaganza the next day at Faneuil Hall felt betrayed, furious that Romney had vetoed the ''employer assessment'' and seven other sections of the 145-page bill.

Politically, Romney was able to have it both ways. With a stroke of his pen, the would-be presidential candidate signed a landmark law and used his line-item veto to wash his hands of something resembling a tax increase to help pay for it. The vetoed parts of the bill were certain to be overridden in both the House and Senate anyway.

More than a year later, DiMasi is still angry, saying Romney's vetoes, if let stand, would have ''torn the guts out of the bill....... He was protecting himself, knowing he was running for president.''

But Timothy R. Murphy, Romney's human services secretary, said of the fee: ''We didn't believe it was the linchpin. ..... When you're talking about billions of dollars, it was pretty inconsequential.''

Kennedy had a prominent place at the signing ceremony. But today, stumping before conservative audiences, Romney uses his sometime ally as a laugh line. At a National Review forum in January, Romney said: ''I was a little concerned at the signing ceremony when Ted Kennedy showed up.''

In fact, Romney invited the senator. ''It was a joke, obviously,'' Romney said of his National Review comment.

It remains uncertain whether the law will succeed, but it has already shaped the national debate around healthcare, according to US Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.

''I'm now working with 25 states to develop some version or all of the things Massachusetts has done,'' said Leavitt, who, as governor of Utah, recruited Romney to take over the 2002 Olympics. ''I don't know if what Mitt Romney did is a conservative idea or a liberal idea, but it is clearly an innovative idea.''

Trending right

If the politics of Romney's healthcare plan were difficult to categorize, his overall political direction was not: He was moving to the right, away from the state that elected him and toward a national audience of conservative Republican voters.

The Romney of 2002, so attractive to moderates and independents, became unabashedly conservative on hot-button social issues.

His shift is traceable in part to what he describes as an awakening on an entirely new issue - stem cell research.

In February 2005, Romney stunned and upstaged Travaglini - who had introduced legislation to advance embryonic stem cell research - by announcing in a New York Times interview that the bill's provision for a technique known as therapeutic cloning would ''cross the line of ethical conduct.''

As a candidate for governor, Romney supported stem cell research but refused to take a stand on the cloning procedure, which is one way to create embryonic stem cells. In the course of the process, which many scientists believe holds promise for developing treatments of major diseases, the embryos are destroyed.

Romney aides say he arrived at his position after heartfelt reflection. But after he announced he would veto the bill, others saw a governor preparing for a presidential race.

''There's evidence that he is clearly concerned with the national agenda,'' Travaglini said at the time. (On the campaign trail, Romney, unlike many conservatives, endorses using leftover embryos from fertility treatments for medical research.)

During the stem cell debate, Romney says, he had an epiphany on abortion. As recently as 2002, Romney had called his support for abortion rights ''unequivocal.'' But in May 2005, he told USA Today that he was ''in a different place.'' Two months later, he began saying that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights, had cheapened life. He vetoed a bill promoting emergency contraception, which he had supported as a candidate.

''Changing my position was in line with an ongoing struggle that anyone has that is opposed to abortion personally, vehemently opposed to it, and yet says, 'Well, I'll let other people make that decision,'.'' Romney said. ''And you say to yourself, but if you believe that you're taking innocent life, it's hard to justify letting other people make that decision.''

Romney also implemented abstinence-only sex education in public schools, reversing another campaign position. Moreover, the candidate who'd been endorsed in 2002 by the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group, for his message of tolerance and embrace of some domestic partner benefits, became a crusader against gay marriage.

After the Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in November 2003, he testified on behalf of a federal gay-marriage ban before a US Senate committee, lobbied lawmakers on a proposed state ban, and was the featured speaker at a nationally broadcast anti-gay marriage rally last fall at a Boston church.

''For four years, Governor Romney has been right there beside us, providing leadership on key issues - whether it was politically expedient to do so or not,'' Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, wrote in a letter to conservatives early this year.

But where conservatives saw leadership, skeptics - even some Republicans - saw opportunism, believing Romney's political agenda contributed to the further decline of the GOP in Massachusetts, which saw its numbers dwindle to historic lows of 19 House members and five senators, out of the 200-member Legislature.

''It's almost as though he had his eye on higher office very early into his governorship. I think it ended up hurting his performance as governor, and the fortunes of the party in general,'' said Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, of Wakefield, a supporter of Rudy Giuliani in the presidential race and one of four Republican state legislators who are not backing Romney.

Allies drift away

Early in Romney's term, Tisei and other Republicans generally stood by their governor. But later, they began to desert him with regularity, as Romney's vetoes seemed aimed in part at impressing Republicans outside the state.

In a television ad for his presidential campaign, Romney asserts, ''I know how to veto. I like vetoes. I've vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor.''

What he doesn't say is the Legislature overrode those vetoes almost at will. When the House decided to challenge him, Romney was overridden 99.6 percent of the time: 775 to 3, according to the House minority leader's office. In the Senate, Romney was overridden every time, often unanimously.

In more than 100 instances, Democrats did not contest Romney and the vetoes stood.

He won a few victories. In 2004, the Legislature let stand Romney's veto of in-state tuition discounts at state colleges for illegal immigrants and sustained his veto of a one-year moratorium on publicly funded charter schools.

On budget line items, the vast majority of his vetoes, Romney's success waned - in his first year, lawmakers let stand 21 percent of his cuts; in his last, they restored all of them. ''As the financial condition of the state improved, the Legislature was more inclined to override and spend more money,'' Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's spokesman, said.

But DiMasi, the Democratic speaker, pointed to dwindling Republican support: ''You didn't even have to debate ..... Even the Republicans voted against him.''

Of 283 budget veto overrides in 2006, Romney failed to attract a single Republican vote on 81 roll calls in the Senate and 60 in the House, records show.

Mastering the media

Instead of pushing his agenda through closed-door appeals to legislators, Romney used well-orchestrated media events. It was a key component of his approach to leadership, according to both supporters and opponents.

Romney's gifts as a communicator produced some triumphs, notably a drunken-driving law that he and his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, prodded lawmakers to toughen in 2005 by enlisting family members of victims to make emotional appeals before TV cameras.

''[Romney's] theory of government was, 'I'm going to the bully pulpit, which is the press, and beat you up so you succumb to my position,'.'' DiMasi said.

Often Romney hectored the Legislature to cut spending, but his instinct for the grand gesture produced a notable exception. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Romney arranged to take in 235 evacuees at a state facility on Cape Cod.

More often, though, the Legislature ignored Romney's appeals. He failed to reinstitute the death penalty. Legislators deep-sixed his attempt to roll back the income tax rate from 5.3 to 5 percent.

One of Romney's longest-running battles with the Legislature was over the Big Dig, the $14.6 billion highway project that became a symbol of patronage and mismanagement.

Romney had twice sought control of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversees the project, but was rebuffed by the Legislature, where the authority's chairman, former Republican state senator Matthew J. Amorello, had important friends.

It took a tragedy to bring change.

'A moment of crisis'

On July 10, 2006, a ceiling panel fell on a car driving through a Big Dig tunnel, killing Milena Del Valle, a 38-year-old mother of three from Jamaica Plain. Three days later, the Legislature handed emergency powers to Romney and Amorello soon resigned.

After the accident, a fearful public wondered how safe the mega-project truly was. Romney stepped in, a commanding, reassuring presence. At press conferences, he demonstrated a mastery of complicated engineering details as he announced plans for inspections and repairs.

''At a moment of crisis, he exercised significant leadership,'' said David Luberoff, co-author of a book about the Big Dig and other mega-projects.

Many other observers say Romney was at his best in crisis mode, taking charge of an issue and seeing it through to resolution. At other times, though, Romney seemed conscious of little other than political image.

He embarked on a road trip to cities around the state to promote a 20-year transportation plan - an ambitious $31 billion blueprint to improve highways, expand rail lines, and repair the state's aging infrastructure.

But more than a year later, as the plan underwent public hearings and revisions, a nonpartisan transportation finance commission identified an enormous funding gap - another $15 billion to $19 billion would be needed over 20 years just to fix existing infrastructure and clean up the financial mess at the state's deficit-ridden transportation agencies.

Stephen J. Silveira, a Republican Romney appointed to chair the commission, said he warned the governor about the funding gap.

''I said, 'Before you finalize it, I think you want to be aware of what it is we're seeing,'.'' Silveira recalled. ''And he said, 'We're done with that. We put a plan out.' And that was it. ..... It was an afternoon meeting, and it was literally as if he was telling me it's pitch black outside.''

Romney faced complaints in other areas, as well, that he raised expectations on big initiatives before retreating to safer political ground.

Early in his term, the governor agreed to pursue talks with other northeastern states to develop a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Proposed in 2003 by then-New York Governor George E. Pataki, the initiative sought to create market-based incentives to cut carbon dioxide, which scientists say is one of the leading contributors to climate change.

Business leaders, led by Associated Industries of Massachusetts and Raytheon Co., argued that the plan would hurt Bay State job growth. About a month before the deal was to be signed, however, Romney signaled his support for it, even recounting how he had dismissed concerns raised by a large Massachusetts corporation that the initiative would boost energy costs by 30 to 40 percent.

''It's a far more modest figure than that,'' Romney said at a green energy conference on Nov. 7, 2005. ''The range of analysis is 1 to 2 percent. At 1 to 2 percent we can effectively create incentives to help ..... stimulate a sector of our economy and at the same time not kill jobs.''

But he soon changed his tone and began insisting that the measure include a price cap to limit how much any company would have to pay for excessive polluting - a provision that environmentalists said would undermine the market-based structure of the agreement.

''Despite their predictions of a small price rise, the other states and the environmental community were unwilling to agree to a cap,'' said Fehrnstrom, Romney's spokesman. ''That was puzzling to us, and a little bit of a warning bell.''

Nonetheless, officials in other states, environmentalists, and even some in Romney's administration were stunned by the governor's about-face.

''There was a point at which it became very clear to me and others that Massachusetts was not negotiating in good faith,'' said Franz Litz, New York's former climate-change policy coordinator.

To keep Massachusetts on board, negotiators from other states agreed over two hectic weeks to make changes to appease Romney. But the governor backed out anyway and said Massachusetts would set its own emissions regulations.

Romney today cites the concerns of that same large corporation as the reason for his decision.

''I had one of the very largest employers in our state ..... say, 'By the way, if you sign without that cap, we'll never build another plant in this state,'.'' Romney said. ''Well, I looked at that and said, 'Look, for a symbolic measure that's not going to do anything for the planet, I'm not going to move in that direction.'.''

''To this day, I'm sorry that I couldn't land my own governor,'' said Douglas I. Foy, Romney's chief environmental official. ''But that was his decision to make and that's why he was elected governor.''

Working the economy

Romney's reason for rejecting the initiative - that he wanted to protect jobs - was consistent with a major promise of his 2002 campaign, during which he declared: ''My program for creating jobs is second to none in the entire history of this state.''

But Romney inherited a sluggish economy. Hammered by a collapse in some technology sectors, Massachusetts lost 205,100 jobs, or about 6 percent of its workforce between February 2001 and December 2003, the end of his first year in office.

The climate improved, but by the end of Romney's term, the state had generated only 24,400 net new jobs, a 0.8 percent increase and the fourth-weakest rate of job growth among all states over that time, according to an analysis by Moody's Economy.com, an independent research group.

Nonetheless, Romney's policies are credited with improving the state's competitiveness. His administration promoted high-density development to increase housing production, got a fast-track permitting law enacted by the Legislature to help businesses expand, and revived an agency to help firms move to the state.

Under Ranch C. Kimball, who became Romney's secretary of economic development in 2004, the number of companies in the Massachusetts development pipeline jumped from 13 to 288 in three years.

Last year, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. chose an 89-acre site at the former Fort Devens over one in North Carolina for a $660 million complex that will create 550 jobs. The deal required a customized tax credit, a $34 million infrastructure bond, and an unusual show of teamwork by Romney and the Legislature.

Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, said Romney - again working closely with Kennedy - was impressive in the campaign to spare Hanscom Air Force Base and other facilities in the state from a 2005 round of base closings that threatened 33,000 jobs.

A spokesman said Romney each year met an average of about 50 chief executives who were considering expanding or locating in the state. A persistent complaint in the business sector, however, is that Romney never fulfilled his promise to be a Massachusetts cheerleader around the country and that he spent too much time lampooning the Bay State's liberal political culture while selling himself to national Republican activists.

''Instead of serving as the Commonwealth's number one salesperson to encourage firms to locate in the state, he tended to poke fun at the state,'' said Brian R. Gilmore, executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents 7,600 businesses.

''Significant successes,'' such as healthcare reform ''showed what Romney might have accomplished as governor had he focused his efforts more steadily on state policy leadership,'' Gilmore said.

Romney rejects the criticism.

''The truth is, if you look at the record, it's a heck of a lot more than I expected I'd get done in four years,'' said Romney. ''I'll put it up against any other governor's in America, not because I'm brilliant, but because the Legislature and we did pretty well together.''

But even close aides acknowledge he had little interest in playing by the old rules of the State House, and not just because his was the minority party.

A quintessential solo act who governed as an outside reformer, Romney detached himself from the hothouse of Beacon Hill politics.

He met often with leadership, but many lawmakers complained that he rarely tried to negotiate and developed few relationships that went beyond pleasantries, unlike previous Republican governors.

One predecessor, William F. Weld, once traded his support for a legislative pay raise in return for leadership's promise to cut the capital gains tax.

''Weld had a genuine curiosity about the people in the building and what made them tick, and how to develop functional relationships that proved to be productive in the clinch,'' said Thomas M. Finneran, House speaker for the first 21 months of Romney's term. ''Romney was considerably more reserved.''

Romney said his approach was based on principle. ''I don't think that government is about doing favors for people,'' he said. ''I think it's doing the right thing for the folks we represent.''

Romney did cultivate at least one Democrat, Representative James E. Vallee, a legislative leader who fought for high-profile bills backed by the governor.

''The first couple of years, he'd call me on my cellphone and we met maybe a dozen times,'' Vallee recalled. ''He supported me when I was going against the grain of my own colleagues.''

A few days before he left office, Romney thanked Vallee and asked whether there was anything he could do for him, Vallee recalled.

The Legislature had passed a home-rule petition for an additional liquor license in his home town of Franklin. Vallee asked Romney to sign it.

''I'll take care of it before I leave,'' Vallee quoted Romney as saying.

The Franklin petition was in a stack of last-minute bills left unsigned on Romney's desk.

Romney said he did not recall the conversation with Vallee.

Staging a transition

On the evening of Jan. 3, in the custom of departing governors, Romney took his final walk out of the State House. Like so many Romney events, it was a masterpiece of political stagecraft.

With cameras recording, he left his third-floor office, and, with his wife, Ann, descended the 31 steps of the State House. Along the way, he made a series of planned stops designed to highlight his record.

He greeted the family of Melanie Powell, a 13-year-old killed by a repeat drunk driver and memorialized by Melanie's Law, the tough drunken driving bill signed by Romney. He met students attending state colleges under the John and Abigail Adams merit scholarships he created. And he hailed two families who should be able to afford medical insurance under the state's new healthcare law.

Then the Romneys left Beacon Hill and returned home for a quiet evening, a chapter of their life closed. The opening words of the next chapter had already been written. An hour before Romney departed the State House, the Federal Election Commission docketed a four-page form establishing the Romney for President Exploratory Committee.

Now, as he crisscrosses the country, reflections of Romney's six decades shine through: his belief that anything is possible with the right organization and a willingness to outhustle and out-analyze the competition; his obsession with controlling his environment; and his ability to quickly grasp the essence of an issue.

And yet his emergence nationally has exposed him to some familiar critiques - that he's a self-salesman who inflates his accomplishments; that his buttoned-down slickness is off-putting to the average person; and that his political ambition burns so hot that it's reshaped his core.

Through it all, Romney portrays himself as essentially the same aw-shucks Midwestern kid for whom religion is a bedrock and family is paramount. As Mitt pursues the dream that eluded his father, George Romney is a spiritual presence on the campaign trail - an inspiration and also a cautionary tale.

Mitt speaks reverentially about his father but also points out what so many others see - that he's on his own.

''I'll make my own mistakes,'' Mitt Romney says. ''He made his. I'll make mine.''

Brian Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com. Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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