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.”
This article appears in the November 12, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.