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Magazine / COVER STORY: HOW ROMNEY GOVERNED

Man in Charge

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney projected commanding competence. Collegiality and loyalty? Not so much.

Master of detail: When disaster struck at Boston’s “Big Dig,” Mitt Romney knew how to take charge and take advantage.(AP Photo/David L Ryan)

photo of Jim O'Sullivan
November 10, 2011

Around 10:45 p.m. on July 10, 2006, a 3-ton concrete ceiling panel along Boston’s Interstate 90 connector, a crown of the $22 billion “Big Dig” project, gave way and crushed a Buick sedan, killing 38-year-old Milena Del Valle and injuring her husband as they were driving to Logan Airport.

Mitt Romney, governor of the commonwealth, rushed back from a family vacation in New Hampshire. Already in the final months of his four-year term, he had lobbied for years to oust the executive director of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Matthew Amorello, a former Republican state senator whose allies in the Legislature protected his power. Romney summoned Amorello to the governor’s suite. When Amorello refused to come, Romney donned a hard hat and Day-Glo vest and angrily confronted him at the disaster site. Television news crews, circling overhead in helicopters, vividly captured the rawness of their exchange and replayed it over and over. Suddenly, Romney had established himself as the take-charge executive and gained the upper hand in what had been a stalled power struggle.

Within a day, he had taken control of safety oversight for the tunnels. He let himself be photographed as he got down on all fours and personally inspected the fasteners, and he blocked Amorello’s plan to reopen the tunnel 48 hours after the accident. At a Statehouse press conference the following Monday, Romney conveyed an easy fluency as he moved between diagrams and talked about the fine points of rebar and unistruts to explain what had happened. His performance wowed the media, reassured the public, and intimidated Beacon Hill Democrats into giving him control over all things Big Dig—a goal that had eluded him for three and a half years.

 

Detractors and admirers alike still speak of Romney’s showing that day with near-reverence. Steve Silveira, a longtime adviser and now a Boston lobbyist, said it echoed hundreds of moments on the Massachusetts campaign trail when Romney would dive into technical discussions about the professions of people he met. “I had this tremendous déjà vu where—that’s the guy I know, and if you didn’t know that, this is what he does,” Silveira said. “And [if you] walked into the room and saw him speaking, you would think that he was the CEO of the company that does whatever that topic is.”

The episode captured key features of Romney’s governing style in Massachusetts: a mastery of granular detail, a determination to control the spotlight, and a knack for well-timed outbursts at the state’s Democratic-dominated political structure. His single-minded domination of the stage also came at the expense of his loyal lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, who was running for the corner office and needed a jolt in the polls that such a command moment could have provided if Romney had let her take charge. Amorello, meanwhile, lost his job by the end of the month and began a downward personal spiral from which, friends say, he is only now to recovering.

Romney’s ability to wield the bully pulpit—circumventing inflexible lawmakers and appealing directly to the public—was a hallmark of his tenure, and it hints at the CEO style of leadership that he might bring to the White House. The flip side of that style is Romney’s relative disinterest in bipartisan collaboration, a practice that’s already rare in Washington.

“His mentality upon arrival was one of a corporate executive, where he had been used to identifying the proper policy initiatives and business measures and instructing people to carry out his mission, rather than working in a collaborative way,” said Democrat Robert Travaglini, who was the state Senate president throughout Romney’s term. “He had little practice in negotiation and concession, in the art of politics. Because the art of politics is compromise. He didn’t seem to be a very compromising individual.”

Romney did occasionally reach out to legislative leaders, most notably when he pushed lawmakers in both parties in 2005 and 2006 to reach agreement on the state’s groundbreaking health insurance reform. That unprecedented deal ensured universal health insurance coverage for state residents. Today it is a primary-season albatross for Romney, but it remains the signature achievement of his governorship.

It was also an example of Romney’s ability to grab credit. While Democratic lawmakers crafted much of the health care plan, Romney seemed to claim it as his own by staging a pomp-laden bill-signing, complete with fife-and-drum corps, at Boston’s Faneuil Hall. His focus on the end game, and his coolly corporate approach to reaching it, would gradually shift Romney ideologically to the right as he gauged his national prospects. But at that particular moment, he seemed to be the embodiment of can-do government.

“He’s not exactly a one-trick pony, but he is what he is; he’s a businessman,” said Jack Connors, founder of the Hill Holliday advertising firm and a prominent philanthropist who figured heavily in the health care negotiations. He gives Romney mixed reviews overall. “Part of what his appeal is: This is the business of government, and we need someone to treat it like a serious business. It’s not because he’s good at singing ‘Danny Boy’ at a party.”

THE CEO CABINET

Romney took office in 2003, after elbowing out acting Gov. Jane Swift in the Republican primary and then beating the Democratic treasurer, Shannon O’Brien. Democrats mocked Romney for his slightly imperial perks: a public elevator reserved exclusively for his own use; an office cordoned off by velvet ropes; an aggressive phalanx of aides that accompanied him everywhere and looked like a Secret Service detail. Romney also recruited high-powered corporate executives for his Cabinet. The group included Robert Pozen, a Democrat who had been vice chairman of Fidelity Investments, and Eric Kriss, Romney’s former colleague at Bain Capital. Although talented and accomplished, the department heads were often aloof and brusque with the state’s political power brokers.

“They certainly weren’t interested in talking to us,” Travaglini said, “because they thought they were smarter than us. And they had a mandate.”

Instead of trying to cut deals with legislators, Romney positioned himself as the anti-Beacon-Hill governor, capitalizing on public mistrust of what his campaign team had framed as the Democratic “gang.” He furnished the Massachusetts press corps, always looking for conflict, with a running narrative of combat. That was a departure from the collegiality of Romney’s GOP predecessors. With Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and then Swift, Democratic legislators were accustomed to chief executives who either rose along similar career paths, as did Cellucci and Swift, or showed Brahmin bemusement at their roguish ways, as did Weld.

“They had been used to running the show,” one former Romney aide said of the Democratic barons. “And here was this one guy who was equal to 200 of them. After Romney was elected, all you saw was, ‘Romney, Romney, Romney.’ ”

Early in his first year, the governor launched an effort to depose University of Massachusetts President William Bulger. Bulger’s 18-year presidency of the state Senate had earned him chops as the state’s most powerful politician, a silver-tongued South Boston Democrat whose brother Whitey had simultaneously been the city’s most powerful gangster. Weld had appointed Bulger as UMass president, and the well-connected ex-legislator had won plaudits for fundraising and for elevating the school’s national profile.

After a months-long battle, with Romney applying both public and private pressure on the university’s trustees, Bulger negotiated a settlement and resigned in August. The win for Romney had come after the Legislature handed him a series of losses by killing his proposals to consolidate state agencies. But the exchange established a template. Throughout his term, Romney would struggle to impose his priorities on the 200-member Legislature, which consistently ran about 85 percent Democratic, and then pounce when public opinion tipped in his favor.

A second instance of frontal assault on the entrenched Democratic power base came after a 13-year-old girl named Melanie Powell was struck and killed by a repeat drunk driver. The girl’s grandfather, Ron Bersani, launched a campaign to stiffen the state’s drunk-driving laws. In 2005, with Bersani and other family members at his side, Romney proposed legislation that would automatically suspend the driver’s licenses for up to one year of people who refused Breathalyzer tests. The bill would have also required ignition-locking devices for repeat offenders who failed a breath test and imposed higher penalties on drunk drivers who caused deaths.

The Legislature, marbled with defense attorneys, resisted, and top lawmakers questioned whether the bill would impinge on civil liberties. Romney, accompanied by the Bersani and Powell families, opened a full-scale public campaign. They toured courthouses across the state and delegated Healey to meet with lawmakers. Romney, she said, “didn’t hesitate to pull out all the stops.”

When Democrats sent back a hollowed-out version of the bill—stripping out the mandatory license forfeiture and other provisions—Romney met with the families again, to learn whether they approved of the changes. They did not, and they refused to let Melanie’s name be attached to the legislation. Romney returned the bill with amendments and stepped up the public pressure—“just beat the Legislature over the head with it until they did the right thing,” as Healey described it. Cowed, and punished in the media for being soft on crime, legislators adopted almost all the amendments that Romney had demanded.

“When you have 15 percent of the Legislature,” Healey said, “you need some other tool. And public opinion was that tool.”

COLDLY MODERATE

Central to Romney’s presidential campaign strategy is a slightly more moderate profile than most of his rivals for the GOP nomination. After Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s emergence as a tea party and evangelical candidate, Romney amplified his history of collaborating with Bay State Democrats to reform government and to ensure universal health care coverage for Massachusetts residents—even though his health care record inevitably makes Romney suspiciously similar to President Obama.

It’s an overt appeal to political independents who are fed up with Washington’s inability to accomplish big goals.

But Romney’s relationships with the Massachusetts Legislature’s leaders were chilly, even for a state government where control is split between opposing parties. Early on, senior aide Cindy Gillespie restricted department heads’ conversations with legislative leaders, effectively jamming the wheels of government. “We were all brought in and told we weren’t allowed to talk to the Legislature, to legislative leaders,” said one former official who attended the meeting. “I basically ignored that, because I couldn’t do my job.”

Romney also moved to suppress patronage. Michael Mulhern, manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority during most of Romney’s tenure, said that neither the governor nor his top advisers ever pressed him to hire a political appointee at the quasi-public agency—a traditional patronage trough. “It was taboo. He forbade it,” Mulhern said. “There was a sense of discipline within his administration.”

Out on the hustings, Romney has touted his government-slimming initiatives, including an effort to reduce the federal government workforce by 10 percent. He did bring more accountability to the Bay State culture of patronage, although he didn’t fully drain the swamp of politically-installed hacks. An ongoing probe into patronage and corruption at the state Probation Department plumbs deeply into the Romney era. Gov. Deval Patrick, who followed Romney in the Statehouse, achieved many of the reforms—civilian flaggers at construction sites, reduced collective bargaining in municipal health insurance, a deregulated auto-insurance market—that had been beyond Romney’s reach. And notwithstanding Romney’s power play over the Big Dig’s Amorello, it was Patrick, not Romney, who finally won the cost-saving consolidation of the agencies.

Romney kept his distance from Beacon Hill’s leaders, perhaps wisely. Both Democratic state House speakers of Romney’s era have been convicted in federal court. Thomas Finneran pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after lying in testimony about his role in redrawing the state’s electoral map. Salvatore DiMasi faces eight years for, essentially, trading his public office for personal financial gain.

Romney had distrustful relationships with both men. Finneran, who declined to be interviewed for this article, and his allies have long felt that Romney ruptured the relationship by reneging on a promise to grant pay raises to lawmakers. Romney aides and other Democrats say that Finneran either willfully or blunderingly misread Romney’s level of willingness to sign off on the pay hikes.

“[Romney] was looking and hoping for a way that [a deal] could be achieved, really, without his participation,” Travaglini said. “He allowed the discussions to go forward and was quiet in those discussions, but he never gave a real, clear firm picture that he was OK with it.”

Regardless of where the blame lies, Romney’s relationship with Finneran never recovered. Even though the two had similar ideological alignments—Finneran is an antiabortion fiscal conservative whose policies outraged the state’s large progressive base—that disconnect hobbled Romney’s agenda. Thomas Trimarco, his top budget aide for the final 15 months of his term, said that alienating Finneran was “one of the biggest mistakes that the people around Romney made coming in. That was a missed opportunity.”

Romney’s uneasiness about dealing with the legislative power brokers speaks to his reluctance to accept the political status quo. Backers believe that this trait would serve him in good stead should he come to Washington, which is slowly transforming from a nod-and-wink culture to a more disciplined approach toward fiscal issues.

TRUTH-CHALLENGED

One of the most frequent knocks on Romney has been about his flexibility with the truth—too quick to claim credit, for instance, about rescuing the auto industry after having criticized President Obama’s bailouts; too slow to admit that his state’s health insurance mandate for individuals was a prototype for the mandate in Obama’s much-attacked health care overhaul. If Romney feels a need to escape conservative blowback, he’s not shy about changing his story.

Close Romney observers describe his operating style as less that of a blame-assigning or credit-hogging politico and more that of a businessman accustomed to bottom-line judgments. “He’s not a pol. He’s like a 200-year throwback to the citizen government manager,” Silveira said.

When government management—particularly in the realm of public safety—broke down at any level, Romney was quick to move.

Hours after four Boston high school students were struck by a pickup truck after a snowfall in February 2005, Romney fired the state’s conservation commissioner, whose department was charged with clearing the roads. Katherine Abbott had been popular among environmentalists for her management of the state parks, and she was appreciated within the administration for taking control of an agency long mired in mismanagement. Romney’s swiftness in dismissing Abbott angered her admirers and chilled other administration officials, who feared that the governor was far more willing to let the buck stop at their doors than at his.

Similarly, Healey’s campaign aides grumbled that, after the tunnel collapse, Romney refused to cede even small acreage on the stage to his lieutenant, who clearly could have derived political benefits from playing a more visible role in the drama. In 2006, according to a Boston Globe review, Romney spent all or part of 212 days out of state, so the public had grown accustomed to his absence. Healey, who remains close to Romney and advises his campaign, shrugged off such complaints. “It’s because it was his responsibility,” she told National Journal in a recent interview. “He was governor. I was running for governor. He wasn’t going to use [the tunnel collapse] for political gain, either for himself or for me. He’s not political that way.”

When he did choose a political route, Romney was less crafty than direct. In meetings where disagreements sprouted, Travaglini said, “it would be clear at the end of the conversation that he was going forward with or without you. And that if he publicly spotted you, then that was a byproduct of your conversation. In his view, it wasn’t done intentionally, but it was done. And on that level, you’ve got to expect that. And when you expect it and prepare for it, you’re not disturbed by it.”

Romney’s grandest effort at “spotting”—local political jargon for wedging an opponent into an unfavorable position—came in 2004, when he amped up the fanfare to present “Team Reform,” a motley gathering of 131 Republican candidates for the Legislature. He and the state GOP raised $3 million for the effort, and the governor campaigned across the state, depicting Beacon Hill Democrats as resisting his brand of cost-saving government. But many of the Republican candidates lacked even marginal experience and had tenuous ties to their districts, and the Democrats professionalized their coordinated campaign operations. With home-state Democratic Sen. John Kerry in a tight presidential race, Team Reform swam against the tide, and Romney and the GOP suffered a net loss of two House seats and one Senate seat.

The ordeal, one former administration aide said, produced “a lot of blowback. It was a lot of ill will generated toward him in the legislative process.” Silveira, Romney’s former adviser, conceded as much. “In politics, to tell people, I’m going to run 130 people to take you on—well, no good can come from that,” he said. “That’s almost the bad part of the business style Mitt brought to government.”

Travaglini crowed, “He never messed with us again.”

That overstates Romney’s retreat, but in his final two years, he had a less confrontational relationship with the Legislature. His administration eased off its early disapproval of communications between agencies and lawmakers. During the health care negotiations, Romney trekked to DiMasi’s and Travaglini’s Boston homes to deliver letters of encouragement.

Increasingly, the governor focused less on the mechanics of Beacon Hill than on his own national political ambitions. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2006, Romney traveled widely. The ideological shift that began shortly after he took office, with rightward maneuvers on abortion and gay marriage, gathered momentum. He pulled Massachusetts out of a regional carbon-emissions pact and proposed to reinstate the death penalty even though he knew the idea had no chance of passing.

The centrist-governing, crisis-seizing technocrat faded and was replaced by a candidate carefully attuned to the passions of the GOP primary electorate. People who were around Romney during his early days as governor remain wistful.

“I get upset with him sometimes, because he does seem to pander,” Trimarco said. “And I wish people could see this other side, where he is a phenomenal manager. It’s like he’s made for it. His mind clicks in with such a focus.”

But the Romney who operated under Boston’s Golden Dome may offer more hints of what kind of president he would be than the evolved candidate who is currently wading through the GOP primary tides: a top-down manager with an instinct for knowing when public opinion plays into his hands. As he did as governor, a President Romney would arrive in Washington unblemished by the original sin of being an insider. Unlike Beacon Hill, though, Washington has seen that type before.

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