By Jesse Roman
---- — Last month’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., attempted to showcase the real Mitt Romney for American voters.
In Massachusetts, no such pomp and circumstance is needed.
Local politicians have a very clear picture already of the man who led the state from 2003 to 2007, and not surprisingly, opinions of the former governor change dramatically on party lines.
“He had fortitude and focus. He set his sights on goals and never wavered,” Bruce Tarr, the Republican minority leader in the Massachusetts Senate, said in an interview before the Republican Convention.
“The man has no core, no foundation. There’s nothing to him but ambition, and he has enough money to carry out those ambitions,” said Rep. Ted Speliotis, a Democrat from Danvers.
Republican lawmakers speak of Romney as a tireless worker with strong convictions and a penchant for getting things done, despite inheriting a huge budget deficit and a Legislature controlled by Democrats.
Democrats contend the former governor was distant, disingenuous, and governed with one leg out the door and one eye on higher office.
“A lot of people like myself knew he was only visiting,” said Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, the second-most powerful senator during the Romney era. “It was really obvious.”
On the budget
Upon taking office in 2003, Romney had to close a budget gap of between $1.7 billion to $3 billion, depending on whom you ask. To fix this, the governor slashed local aid and other spending, dramatically increased fees and closed tax loopholes, but notably did not raise taxes. The state soon had a budget surplus.
“We needed a true leader, someone who could partner with leadership on both sides and come up with a plan to guide us through the economic downturn. He did that,” said Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican. “And he didn’t have the federal government bailing us out to the tune of billions of dollars.”
Hill said Romney met with Democratic leaders once a week and was truly bipartisan.
“He put politics aside and did what was best for the commonwealth,” Hill said. “And because of that, we came out of one of the worst economic times in recent history. No matter what party you’re in, that is something you should be proud of.”
Romney’s methods weren’t universally applauded, however. The governor’s large spending cuts — nearly $1.6 billion — fell on the backs of those who could least afford it, Democrats said.
“Balancing the budget was easy for him, because he had no heart,” Berry said. “It’s true.”
Knowing Berry to be a staunch advocate for the poor and disabled, Romney once asked him how he would cut programs and services to try to balance the budget. The senator balked.
“If I did have any idea, I would never pass it on to a guy like Romney. I would never want to have him figure out a way to hurt people,” Berry said.
Before Bill Scanlon was re-elected Beverly’s mayor in 2003, the Romney administration asked him to be a sort of liaison between the governor’s office and the Massachusetts mayors, but Scanlon declined, he said, because although he “got along with other mayors ... I had nothing to offer these people,” speaking of the massive local aid cuts under Romney.
Romney the man is also a topic that’s hard for anyone to agree on.
Former Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti used the word “distant” to describe Romney’s personality and questioned whether the former governor can relate to the majority of Americans he would govern as president.
During a private moment, Bonfanti once told the governor about his working-class upbringing in Peabody.
Romney “was trying very hard to relate. He said when he was attending Harvard, he lived in a basement apartment, and when times got tough, he had to sell some stock,” the mayor recalled. “Well, in the Bonfanti household, we had a cupboard in the basement with Campbell’s soup and canned beans. That was our stock. I thought, ‘This guy has no clue. We live in different worlds.’”
Scanlon, a political independent, wasn’t a fan of the former governor.
“He never visited Beverly when I was mayor. He met with the Mayors Association once, it didn’t go well, and it never happened again,” Scanlon said, describing a Romney PowerPoint presentation that was “poorly received” and regarded by many mayors as distant. “I don’t think he was accessible to anyone. I think all the mayors felt he wasn’t very connected.”
Most meetings at the Statehouse begin with some lighthearted banter, but for Romney and then-Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, “that wasn’t either of their styles,” said Rep. John Keenan, a Salem Democrat. “I would describe them both as matter-of-fact, very professional.”
Hill also described Romney as very professional, but said the governor was warm and frequently spoke about his family in caucus meetings. Hill disagreed with the perception that Romney’s CEO-like style was cold.
“When he was elected, he was not a creature of Beacon Hill; he had a business background. He wasn’t accustomed to all the backslapping that goes on here,” Hill said.
“When he took office, there was a huge tsunami of an economic downturn, and he had to put his business cap on and be very calculating about how to get us out of this storm. I saw someone who wanted to see the commonwealth persevere through very bad economic times.”
Tarr described Romney as a passionate leader who had the courage to fight for what he believed.
In May 2005, Romney introduced Melanie’s Law — named after a 13-year-old girl killed by a repeat drunken driver — which set new, harsher laws for people convicted of drunken driving. The House Judiciary Committee removed many of the tougher provisions, so Romney sent it back and demanded more.
“He had the fortitude to say, ‘I won’t accept anything less than what’s right for the people of Massachusetts,’” Tarr said. “He was absolutely unwavering in his commitment to what he believed in.”
The bill that Romney signed into law that October included all but one of his provisions.
Speliotis couldn’t disagree more with Tarr, calling Romney “disingenuous,” and wondering if Romney actually believes in anything, considering the governor’s apparent flip-flop on abortion, coal and even his own health care bill.
“I can’t gauge the man. At some point on core issues, you have to have some foundation, but I found that Mitt Romney defies that,” Speliotis said. “The idea that he can change his position depending on what race he’s running is the antithesis of everything governing is about.”
The Romney administration’s effectiveness dealing with local issues is also both praised and criticized.
Keenan, one of the few local Democrats who has kind things to say about the former governor, pointed out that Romney included $106 million in his 2005 capital budget to build Salem’s new courthouse after years of delay.
“We had a very good relationship and got the project moving toward completion,” Keenan said.
Hill said that “within a week” of the infamous Mother’s Day Flood in 2006, Romney’s administration had secured funding to rebuild three bridges in Ipswich that were damaged in the flood.
“Gov. Romney stepped to the plate for us,” he said.
Bonfanti, who was the Peabody mayor during Romney’s tenure, had a different experience with Romney after the floods came. The governor vetoed $6 million in flood-prevention funding for Peabody in 2004; then, after the devastating 2006 flood, promised to help but came up short.
“He showed up for the pictures and told me he would provide assistance. He didn’t,” Bonfanti said, speaking of the aftermath of flooding that left downtown Peabody under 5 feet of water. “It makes me wonder what he would do if he was in charge of New Orleans.”
After the 2006 chemical plant explosion that leveled parts of Danvers, Romney “did everything he was supposed to do,” said Speliotis, one of Romney’s harshest critics. “But it wasn’t anything spectacular.”