March 9, 2012
Legislators Recall Governor Who Didn’t Mingle
By MICHAEL BARBARO
BOSTON — Well into Mitt Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts, a state legislator named Jay Kaufman developed a nagging suspicion: the governor had no idea who he was.
A committee chairman and a veteran Democrat in the State House of Representatives, Mr. Kaufman routinely waved to Mr. Romney from his capitol office, right above the governor’s parking spot. But when he crossed Mr. Romney’s path in the building’s marble corridors one day, his fears were confirmed.
“Hello, Senator,” Mr. Romney called to Mr. Kaufman.
Sitting in his office five years later, Mr. Kaufman still seemed wounded by the slight. “No name, wrong title,” he said. “Give me a break.”
Accidental promotions and demotions like that became common during Mr. Romney’s four years in office. Despite prodding from his aides, a governor renowned for his mastery of facts and figures never memorized the names and faces of state politicians.
“It was very irritating to lawmakers,” acknowledged John O’Keefe, Mr. Romney’s former director of legislative affairs. “It was hard to explain.”
Mr. Romney’s struggle to tamp down resurgent opponents and secure the Republican presidential nomination, highlighted by his uneven performance on Super Tuesday, is bringing renewed focus to his sometimes awkward style and aloof manner, which have hampered his ability to connect with some voters. A review of his time as governor shows that those traits affected his relationship with another crucial constituency: the Massachusetts lawmakers he needed to pass legislation.
For officials used to the glad-handing and alcohol-lubricated culture of local politics, Mr. Romney was an unfamiliar breed: a data-driven chief executive used to delivering unquestioned orders, a political newcomer who cast the legislature as a foe, a delegator who preferred working with just the leadership and an emotionally remote figure who tended not to socialize — and because of his Mormon religion did not drink.
Even though he worked just a few hundred feet from them for four years, Mr. Romney displayed little interest in getting to know lawmakers and never developed real relationships with most members of the Democratic-dominated body, according to interviews with two dozen current and former lawmakers of both parties and members of the governor’s staff. His approach could offer hints of how a President Romney might deal with Congress, where many members, particularly Republicans, complain that the man he is seeking to oust, President Obama, has been distant and disdainful.
“Romney just didn’t want to deal with legislators,” said Robert A. Antonioni, a Democratic state senator and a chairman of the Education Committee during the Romney years. “Typically, the governor wants to have a productive relationship with the legislature. That is not something that happened with him.”
When their interests aligned, the governor and the legislature, could work together on significant issues, like erasing a more than $2 billion budget deficit without raising taxes and adopting a universal health care system. But the two branches of government remained locked in a bitter standoff for much of his time in office, stymieing what even Mr. Romney’s critics describe as an admirable agenda on a variety of fronts.
Lawmakers blocked his ambitions to remake the state’s judicial, public university and transportation systems, and Mr. Romney wielded his veto pen as no Massachusetts governor has before or since. He issued 844 vetoes, most of which the legislature overrode, sometimes unanimously, in marathon sessions.
“People often talk about Romney’s leadership ability, but a lot of it went unused because of his attitude toward the legislature,” said Maurice T. Cunningham, chairman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “With better relations, he would have been able to do so much more.”
Some of Mr. Romney’s advisers, though, see it as a virtue that he did not cozy up to lawmakers pursuing parochial concerns at odds with his priorities or become captive to the rhythms and rituals of the legislature.
“He campaigned as an outsider, governed as an outsider and left as an outsider,” said Peter Flaherty, a top aide in the governor’s office who now works on Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign.
Of course, a collision between Mr. Romney and Massachusetts lawmakers was all but inevitable. Ideologically, he had staked positions to the right of most of them on issues like the death penalty, taxes and same-sex marriage. And by party, he was vastly outnumbered: of the 200 members of the legislature in 2003, his first year in office, only 29 were Republicans.
While he courted that small group — some recalled a cookout at his home outside Boston — they could not make anything happen on their own. For that, he needed to charm or cut deals with the Democrats.
But as a candidate for governor, Mr. Romney had barely concealed his contempt for the legislature, portraying it as self-serving and dysfunctional. He spoke on the stump of “cleaning up the mess on Beacon Hill,” the seat of the legislature, and his campaign literature darkly described the chambers’ top two officials, the House speaker and the Senate president, both Democrats, as members of a “gang.”
Lawmakers “felt disrespected” by Mr. Romney’s campaign, recalled Robert E. Travaglini, the Senate president at the time. “He did a lot of things and made a lot of comments that didn’t sit well with people who were in the building.”
Once in office, Mr. Romney brought a top-down, business-minded approach to government, even if it meant brushing aside cherished legislative traditions.
He dismantled a network of legislative liaisons that lawmakers had relied on for expertise on how to word a bill or help a constituent, requiring them instead to route all requests through the governor’s office. “He wanted to control everything,” said Pamela P. Resor, a state senator who objected to the change.
Elected officials, of course, tend to have a healthy self-regard — and the grousing about Mr. Romney’s style may stem as much from perceived slights as from the governor’s missteps. “Politicians,” said Robert L. Hedlund, a Republican state senator during Mr. Romney’s tenure, “can be petty — it can be the little things that upset them, not the big picture.”
Lawmakers complained, for example, that Mr. Romney failed to observe the courtesies typically extended during events in their districts. Instead of putting the legislators front and center, the governor’s staff frequently arranged for them to sit in the audience. (“The cheap seats,” as Mr. O’Keefe called them.)
Other times, though, the affronts went deeper. Mr. Romney personally helped recruit 131 Republican candidates to run against Democratic legislators in 2004, an unusual frontal assault against incumbents. He threw himself into the project, calling the slate Team Reform, and overseeing a $3 million fund-raising drive for the election.
The effort backfired. Republicans lost seats that year, and Mr. Romney earned the enmity of the Democrats he had sought to unseat, especially those who had supported his initiatives.
“They took it very personally,” said Mr. O’Keefe, the governor’s aide. “These guys looked around and said: ‘I didn’t screw up. Why is the governor targeting me?’ ”
When Mr. Romney needed their votes, Mr. O’Keefe remembers several offended lawmakers rejecting his request by saying, “Talk to the next guy.”
Perhaps Mr. Romney’s most jarring break with precedent was his reluctance to engage with members of the legislature. He rarely socialized with them, eschewing both the workaday and after-hours mingling that had long greased the levers of Massachusetts government.
His immediate predecessors, Republicans with deeper ties to the state’s political world, had worked at their relationships with legislators. Gov. William F. Weld, for example, a former United States attorney for Massachusetts, was known to walk into senators’ offices unannounced. and Gov. Paul Cellucci, a former state senator, liked to play boccie with the members.
But lawmakers felt that Mr. Romney, reserved by nature, seemed to avoid casual conversations with them. In a move that provoked widespread grumbling, his staff cordoned off a capitol elevator for his exclusive use, preventing lawmakers from riding with him. “It did not convey much of an interest in people,” said Representative Kay Khan, a House member since 1995.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Mr. Romney’s spokesman as governor and now a campaign adviser, said it was a security measure adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks. As for socializing with lawmakers, Mr. Fehrnstrom said, “His spare time, when he had any, was spent with his wife and family.”
Two former Romney aides said they pushed their boss to extend himself more to lawmakers, sensing that his style was counterproductive.
“We tried to get him to,” said Mr. O’Keefe, the former legislative affairs director. “He was used to a different world, where he was the C.E.O. of a corporation, and he made decisions, and that is what happened.” Mr. Romney did develop bonds with the legislature’s leaders, meeting weekly with the top Democrats and Republicans to discuss bills, as his predecessors did. “Once you had the leadership, they would round up everyone else,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said, or so went the thinking.
But even those relationships were not always smooth. In 2003, Thomas M. Finneran, the speaker of the House, thought that the governor supported his plan for pay raises for House committee chairmen, a popular move in the legislature, lawmakers said. When Mr. Romney vetoed the bill over a legal technicality — effectively killing the plan — it created a permanent rift. A former aide to the governor said that the fallout might have been avoided if Mr. Romney had sat down with Mr. Finneran and worked out a compromise.
Mr. Finneran calls it a “missed opportunity” that would have created the kind of reservoir of good will that Mr. Romney needed to advance his agenda. “It would probably would have led over a period of time to more fruitful things,” he said.
There were glimpses of another side of Mr. Romney. Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the House minority leader for the past decade, recalled the governor visiting his office to seek political advice and offering unexpected tales of his domestic life, like the time Mr. Romney used his wife’s hair dryer to melt a frozen pipe in the basement.
But it was a privilege generally reserved for members of his own party, who acknowledged that even they sometimes struggled to break through Mr. Romney’s cool demeanor.
“Mitt Romney is not a schmoozer — that is not him,” Mr. Jones said. “That is what people expect. But it was not going to happen.”
Mr. Romney seemed most at ease talking to lawmakers about the minutiae of policy, frequently dazzling and at times overwhelming them with his command of complex subjects.
Mr. Hedlund, the longtime Republican state senator, recalled casually objecting to the idea of a liquefied natural gas plant in his district while speaking to the governor. Mr. Romney instantly bombarded him with data points about supply and demand in the energy industry, as if reading from a memorized briefing book.
“He sliced and diced me — it was embarrassing,” Mr. Hedlund said. “For anyone keeping score, it was a technical knockout.”
These days, Mr. Romney has little involvement with the Massachusetts political world. But inside the capitol, tales of his unorthodox approach to the legislature have become embedded in local political lore.
Brian A. Joyce, a Democratic senator and a committee chairman, likes to tell the story of the time that he and a group of colleagues walked into the governor’s office in 2005. Mr. Romney turned to Mr. Joyce and made an inside joke that the senator found bewildering.
“It became apparent,” Mr. Joyce said, “that he thought I was a freshman senator from his own party — somebody else entirely.”
Though his ego was slightly bruised, Mr. Joyce and his colleagues found humor in the episode afterward.
“We all just laughed uproariously,” he said.
Ashley Southall and Kitty Bennett contributed research.