Romney mixes business and politics at exclusive Utah conference

PARK CITY, Utah — John Schoenfeld came to an exclusive resort here to do business with Mitt Romney. But he stayed for the politics.

Schoenfeld spent most of Wednesday in a downstairs conference room of the Stein Eriksen Lodge assessing the investments of Solamere Capital, the firm co-founded by Romney’s son Tagg and increasingly managed by Romney himself. Then he learned that several potential GOP presidential candidates would be attending a separate Romney conference at the same exclusive lodge.

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“I’m going to stretch my clothes another day,” the Chicago-based lawyer said after moving upstairs to join hundreds of Romney’s top donors to kick off the former Republican presidential nominee’s Experts and Enthusiasts 2013 conference. Schoenfeld said he became enthusiastic about the prospect of spending Friday morning driving golf balls with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), breaking bread with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or shooting skeet with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s running mate in 2012. “That looked like fun.”

The concentration of wealthy Romney backers in one place is a natural draw for politicians with national ambitions. But, as Solamere investors acknowledged, the gathering also provided them with potential targets, lending the retreat an aura of personal enrichment along with the focus on public policy.

The former Romney campaign aides who haunted the old alpine hotel played down the overlap between the two conferences, arguing that they had planned the ideas conference for the following weekend but moved it up for logistical reasons.

Romney himself made no mention of Solamere as he spoke onstage about “great challenges for America.” Former adviser Ron Kaufman shrugged about Solamere’s sponsorship of the event: “Someone has to pay for it.”

Instead they characterized the three-day event as Romney’s own Aspen Ideas Festival, a significant step in his return to public relevance and proof of his political clout. But the retreat also highlights the enduring flaws that helped sink Romney’s candidacy.

His ideas conference, much like his campaign, had no specific agenda and would define itself over time, aides said. The off-the-record sessions, the cigar rooms and the vanilla homogeneity of the exclusive event evoked the elitism of his disastrous speech to donors about the “47 percent.”

And Romney hasn’t exactly loosened up. When the former GOP nominee suddenly appeared in the lounge on the way to the kick-off festivities, he responded to a question about his ambitions for the conference by grabbing his wife’s hand and scampering out the door.

He did take time to sit down with CNN and ruminate on his election loss and its possible causes.

“I wish the hurricane hadn’t have happened when it did because it gave the president a chance to be presidential,” Romney said in reference to Hurricane Sandy. “But, you know, you don’t look back and worry about each little thing.”

Romney took a more expansive tack in his keynote address Thursday, offering an explicitly nonpolitical speech, with slides exploring national challenges such as the federal deficit and economic growth, according to attendees. He then urged conference participants to discuss possible solutions in working groups. The speech was closed to the media.

Even after the speech, there was confusion about the exact purpose of the retreat.

“What are Mitt’s plans?” was the major question coming out of the retreat, said former senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah). “There doesn’t seem to be an answer coming out of this.”

The Experts and Enthusiasts (E2) event featured serious policy chats about education, the economy, disease and foreign policy. It also included a horseback riding session with Romney and a hike early Thursday morning with Hewlett Packard CEO, failed gubernatorial candidate and Solamere investor Meg Whitman. (“I got a tear in my muscle but I still hiked the mountain,” Ann Romney announced as she limped down some stairs.)

In addition to panel discussions Friday with the Republican hopefuls for 2016, there were other featured speakers, including former Clinton administration insider Erskine Bowles, longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Organizers said they had also reached out to potential Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Andrew Cuomo, though spokesmen for both said they had no knowledge of an invitation.

On Wednesday afternoon, fleets of black Mercedes sedans and luxury SUVs dropped off men in suits in front of the lodge’s facsimile of the Olympic flame. Blond ushers directed them to either turn left at the stone fireplace for the “Solamere Capital Founders Fund Update,” or to hang a right and register for the “E2 summit.” The blue canvas E2 swag bags came with Solamere-branded jackets, shirts and hats.

Attendees mingled on a veranda overlooking ski slopes spotted with patches of snow, and said things to each other like, “Why are you protecting your downside? This is a billion-dollar opportunity.”

Late Wednesday evening, as former campaign advisers and Solamere investors drank in front of a TV showing the Bruins game, conversation turned to whether former supermodel Cindy Crawford had in fact thrown out her shoulder and would not lead a morning yoga session.

Deems May, a former NFL player and Solamere partner, called over to Spencer Zwick, Romney’s former national finance chairman and co-founder of Solamere, who was also organizing the next day’s E2 conference activities.

“Hey, Spencer,” May shouted. “Who’s teaching yoga tomorrow?”

(The answer: Campbell Brown, the former television anchor and wife of former Romney adviser Dan Senor.)

Romney’s aides argued that focusing on Solamere missed the point of an important, ideas-driven conference committed to finding solutions to national problems. But other Romney supporters were candid about the apparent synergy.

“They tied it into Solamere, they’re raising another fund,” Anthony Scaramucci, the New York investor who organizes a popular hedge fund schmoozefest known as the SALT conference, said as he sank into a leather couch. “There was a micro business thing — Solamere; a macro business thing — managerial leadership.”

Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who served as Romney’s national finance co-chair, said he received a save-the-date note for the event months ago and understood it as an effort “to try and keep some of Mitt’s folks together, some politics and policy but also business.”

He said he wanted to go mostly to keep in touch with Romney the businessman, although an already scheduled trip to Italy’s Lake Como kept him from attending.

“To me it’s in no way offensive,” he said in a telephone interview, referring to the presence of Solamere. “To me, whatever Mitt Romney and his family have touched in the world of business is gold. I would hope there would be the ability to network and beyond with them.”

 
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