By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006
BOSTON -- He has been a successful venture capitalist and management consultant, and he saved the tainted 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from scandal. But it is his single term as Massachusetts governor that is Mitt Romney's chief credential in his bid for the Republican nomination for president.
He began his term four years ago on a high note, rescuing the state from an inherited budget deficit. But now, as he prepares to leave office and focus full time on his White House aspirations, his tenure is being viewed in a more mixed fashion.
While he can point to a major policy success in health care, his relationship with the Democratic-controlled legislature that made it possible is in tatters. His efforts to challenge the Democrats and promote Republican candidates for the legislature failed. His partner in the statehouse, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, lost a bid to succeed him. And Romney is leaving office with the state GOP weaker than when he arrived.
Massachusetts is a liberal state and was the first in the nation to permit same-sex marriage. But Romney is a staunch conservative who finds himself running against all that his state symbolizes to national Republican voters -- he opposes single-sex marriage, stem cell research and abortion. That may help him with GOP conservatives who hold sway in the party's primaries. But if he wins the nomination, Romney could find himself in the same position as Al Gore in 2000 -- losing his home state in the general election.
In fact, Romney has commented that if he had known he was going to seek the presidency, he probably would have chosen to plant his flag not in Massachusetts but in Michigan, where his father, George Romney, served as governor and where the political culture is more compatible with his conservatism.
In a recent interview reflecting on his administration, Romney said he accomplished his main goals of balancing the budget, resisting any general tax increase and launching initiatives that can spur growth. He said he has shown he can surround himself with smart advisers and set high expectations.
"I am used to debating things back and forth," he said. Credited even by critics with having an agile mind, Romney said he has learned to manage by "hiring people smarter than I am and then arguing with them," adding: "I will by nature disagree when everybody has the same view; I want to hear an alternative."
Romney has run Massachusetts's government with a handful of close aides, many of them drawn from Bain & Co., the consulting firm whose venture capital arm he ran. It is top-down management, designed to keep control firmly in Romney's hands and to deliver a single, upbeat message to voters through a relentless public relations offensive.
Even before he was sworn in, Romney ordered a reorganization of the executive branch, designed to improve the coordination of government services. Warned by a predecessor, Gov. William F. Weld (R), that the departments of transportation and environment were perpetually at war, Romney ordered them to join the housing and energy agencies in a new Office for Commonwealth Development. To the surprise of many business supporters, he named Douglas Foy, a prominent environmentalist, to head the super-agency, which has worked to concentrate business development and housing close to transit lines and reduce sprawl.
Romney ordered a similar consolidation of the business, finance and economic agencies into another super-department and picked another Democrat, Robert Pozen, to run it. Foy and Pozen, along with then-Chief of Staff Beth Myers and a handful of others, formed an inner circle of decision-makers, working more or less smoothly with Romney's political team from the 2002 campaign.
Their initial challenge, a threatened state budget deficit of almost $3 billion, was created by the dot-com collapse. Having vowed in the campaign to oppose any general tax increase, Romney quickly won approval from the legislature for a variety of spending cuts.
But when those came far short of balancing the budget, Romney turned to closing what he called "loopholes" in the corporate tax code. That, along with higher local property taxes, produced millions in new revenue -- and allowed critics to challenge Romney's claim that he held the line on taxes.
As the budget crisis eased, fights with the legislature became more frequent and bitter. Romney failed to develop the warm personal relationships with Democratic leaders that Weld had enjoyed with some of their predecessors. The Democrats had no compunction about rejecting Romney's initiatives, including his push to reduce the state's top income tax rate.
Frustrated by seeing big parts of his program roadblocked, Romney mounted a major effort to change the makeup of the legislature in his midterm election in 2004. He campaigned and financed races in dozens of districts, spending $3 million, and when the returns came in, Republicans had two fewer seats than before -- leaving the Democrats with an overwhelming, veto-proof majority in both the state House and Senate.
The result has been a series of fights that have left the state politically polarized, and that reality has shaped -- and limited -- Romney's actions in the past two years. Where the Democrats have been motivated to act, he has had notable successes. His plan for health care treats it much like car insurance, requiring people to buy it or face a fine. It was tweaked and substantially expanded by the legislature, and in the final analysis, the negotiations that led to success were managed more by the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate than by the governor.
But Romney could claim parenthood of the plan, and he presided with pride over the bill-signing ceremony, cheered on by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) and prominent leaders of business, labor and the health-care industry.
Romney has taken the health-care bill on the road as he has carried on his undeclared campaign for the presidential nomination. He has also emphasized his efforts to hold down taxes, restore the death penalty, block research on embryonic stem cells and oppose same-sex marriages.
His national effort to portray himself as a counterforce to the liberalism of his state has not gone down well with many at home. In the 2006 campaign, Deval Patrick, the Democrat who will succeed Romney as governor, spoke out in defense of his state and its traditions.
Patrick's victory over Healey marked a kind of repudiation of the Romney legacy in Massachusetts. The Republican Party there, never robust, is now at its weakest point in years.
Romney's campaign travels as head of the Republican Governors Association kept him on the road much of the past year. But he was on the job, and deeply immersed in the details, when the collapse of a concrete ceiling in a "Big Dig" tunnel in Boston killed a motorist this summer. He forced the legislature to give him control of the independent Turnpike Authority -- power it had previously denied him -- and he fired the administrator and moved in his own people.
"He was 100 percent engaged in all the critical decisions," said Myers, the former chief of staff.
As Romney turns his focus to the presidential race, those decisions and his record will receive greater scrutiny than ever.