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Understanding the Gentleman Warrior

After just a year in office, Mitt Romney has confounded the Legislature. The CEO governor professes that politics should be partisan, hard-fought -- and polite

Mitt Romney's eyes roll back in his head. His mouth falls open. His tongue lolls from the corner of his mouth. The governor, right arm extended above his head, has just hanged himself with his own silk tie. What has occasioned this theatrical auto-execution?

 

A question comparing him to a first-term Michael Dukakis, who was such a government-reforming, patronage-battling, budget-cutting crusader that he found himself left without allies and broomed from office in the 1978 Democratic primary.

Romney quickly cuts himself down from the imaginary gallows. "First-term Mike Dukakis?" he protests. And then, shrinking back again in mock horror -- and conflating eras -- "The tank helmet. Jeez."

No offense to the former governor, he says. It's just an impish impulse, for as strait-laced and business formal as he seems when he's on public display, in relaxed settings, Romney is a bit of a cutup artist.

And today, he's clearly enjoying himself as he reviews his first year in office.

It has included several big victories, a few lesser accomplishments, and a large number of proposed reforms that died aborning. Romney closed a $650 million gap in the budget he inherited and later won passage of a no-new-taxes spending plan for the current fiscal year. He oversaw the reorganization of the sprawling human-services bureaucracy and a (somewhat more cosmetic) elimination of the mossy, patronage-packed Metropolitan District Commission.

Oh, yes, and in a stunning lesson in executive power, Romney gave such a protracted public push to William M. Bulger that Bulger, a wily veteran of the political wars, resigned his post as president of the University of Massachusetts.

As Romney rounds the turn into his second year in office, this much is clear: The private-sector chief executive turned public-sector CEO is unlike anything Beacon Hill has seen before. He's an outsider who takes his campaign promises as his governing instructions, a reformer who insists that the old days of the wink-and-nod deal are dead, a venture-capital superstar who insists that the state should adopt some of the best practices of the private sector.

But in important ways, Romney is also a study in contradictions. He's a businessman determined to boost the state's commercial climate but with no time for schmoozing with conventioneering CEOs. He's a governor who has ambitious goals for, say, affordable housing and full-day kindergarten, but one who vows he'll continue paring government back rather than raise taxes.

He's a man who says politics should be waged hard but clean, that public officials should duke it out on the issues and not stoop to personal attacks. And yet several times in his inaugural year, the governor has found himself on the defensive over statements that have been untrue or unfair or personal.

He's a public official who tries to neutralize or avoid divisive social issues, perhaps realizing there is a conflict between his own more conservative inclinations and the views of suburban voters who support him on fiscal and reform issues.

And yet, though he is not a social crusader, Romney reacted to a Supreme Judicial Court decision in November that cleared the way for gay marriage by saying he backed a constitutional amendment to forbid gays and lesbians from marrying and that he thought civil-union legislation would satisfy the court.

Through it all, Romney, who early in the year seemed palpably skittish at times, has evolved into a happy political warrior, ready, willing, able, and eager to join a war of ideas.

"It is going to be a battle; it is not going to be a honeymoon," he says, looking ahead. "I ran on the platform of cleaning up the mess on Beacon Hill, [and] reform means changing the way things are. Legislatures, by and large, despite their political titles, are conservative. They don't want to change the way things work. So of course it is going to be a battle. But that is the way democracy is supposed to work." IN HIS VISION OF DEMOCRA-

cy, Romney sounds like a political ingenue. He believes in a world where decisions are made on the merits, without regard to power bases or special interests. He thinks government should be a place where people can disagree without being disagreeable, where all politics is issues, where the actors have thick enough hides to get beyond the partisan grudges, petty grievances, and the palace intrigues that can render Beacon Hill such a Bruegelesque bog. Whereas other governors have let their Cabinet officers languish, using them mostly as outreach to important constituency groups or occasional props for administration initiatives, Romney spends a good deal of time meeting with members of his team, subjecting them to a full review of its mission and goals.

Like the CEO he is, he keeps them on a short leash -- so short that, at one point, they weren't supposed to meet with legislators alone. Instead, all contact and testimony were to be cleared through the governor's legislative office.

Romney still insists on tight message control. GOP legislators in the Democrat-dominated Legislature have told him that in the past, officials in Republican administrations have schemed with Democratic legislators to add more money to programs or otherwise undercut their own boss's intent. That won't happen on his watch, he vows. "If someone doesn't like my agenda, they should either convince me that they are right or find some other job," he says.

But legislators have found the governor's tight control of information and of his own officials disconcerting. With the last three Republican governors, "there was a greater degree of conversation, a greater degree of socialization, there were people who were constantly communicating," says Senate President Robert Travaglini.

How different is it under Romney? "I don't know the majority of the people who are serving as Cabinet heads in this administration, and I haven't had any conversation with them," Travaglini says. "To me, that is" -- he pauses to search for the diplomatic word -- "a detriment to the Senate and to the governor's office. There has got to be a greater degree of communication, a greater degree of cooperation."

Legislators weren't the only ones left perplexed by the new governor's style. Even loyal Republicans grimaced as Romney's anti-patronage broom swept away state workers who also served as loyal party apparatchiks. The business community fretted as calls went unreturned and policies were announced without prior consultation, while perplexed private-sector pillars traded stories about how hard it was to get in to see the governor.

"What I hear from business leaders is that they haven't been involved in the discussion of things, even where there is a business or management element to be discussed," says Alan Macdonald, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. While Macdonald hastens to add that the administration is belatedly addressing that neglect, others paint a different picture. "I think it is a very general, widespread discontent," says one close Republican observer.

But David D'Alessandro, chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services and a personal friend of Romney's, says that is a necessary offshoot of Romney's no-nonsense CEO style. "He is not into backslapping," says D'Alessandro. "He will meet with whom he needs to meet with to solve the problem, but given the state's problems today, I don't know why he should have to meet with people just to get to know them. I certainly don't."

Asked about that, Romney says he gets plenty of feedback through business leaders he has appointed to his regional competitiveness councils. Beyond that, he says, he has to guard his time closely. "I do not want to be lunch, dinner, or breakfast entertainment," he says. "A lot of governors have told me that they spent their time being free entertainment for various groups that are having conventions in town. I just don't do that. And I know it gets me in a lot of trouble. A lot of people are mad that I don't show up to all these events, but it is a matter of where the priority is." IF THERE'S ONE INCIDENT

that reveals the clash between the private-sector governor and public-sector culture, it's the Curious Case of the Deal That Didn't Go Down. Early in the year, as he tried to bring the fiscal 2003 budget into balance, Romney wanted the Legislature to grant him greater budget-cutting powers. House Speak er Thomas Finneran, meanwhile, coveted the ability to create some new committees and to boost the pay of the lieutenants he would tap for the new posts, without having to ask for gubernatorial approval. Thus it was that outlines of a possible quid pro quo began to take shape. The House and Senate leaders would slide the expanded budget-cutting powers through their chambers, and in return, Romney would give his blessing to the legislative-reorganization authority.

The enhanced budget-cutting powers sailed through the Legislature in January. But when newspapers started asking Romney what he thought of the pay-raise plan favored by Finneran and Travaglini, hints emerged that Romney wouldn't go along. And would, in fact, veto the measure.

After some attempts at compromise, the governor did just that. The speaker was apoplectic, telling his lieutenants that he had had a deal with the governor and that Romney had reneged when the political heat began to rise. While Finneran declined comment for this article, he supposedly told Romney that in the State House, your word is your bond. As the legislative version of the story goes, the governor replied in a way that acknowledged he had reneged: "Look, I'm not as politically astute as you guys are. You'll have to give me time to catch up."

That, however, is only the legislative version. Romney insists there was never a deal of the sort Finneran envisioned. The governor was willing to cede the committee-creating power for one two-year term, he says, but when the legislation eventually surfaced, it would have expanded the arrangement by giving legislative leaders absolute sway in perpetuity.

"I said, `Look, I am happy to have you do this during our working together,' " Romney says. " `But you want to permanently say that all governors in the future will have no say on chairmanship and compensation of people who have leadership? That is something I can't do.' That was clearly not something that had ever been discussed."

Although the affable Travaglini is reluctant to weigh in, when pushed, he offers this careful statement: "My recollection of that conversation is more consistent with the speaker's interpretation than it is with the governor's." To wit: "That there was an understanding that in return for our cooperation in expanding his powers, that he would allow us to expand our own, independent of his review or participation. And then there was obviously an opportunity to reflect upon what was discussed, and then things changed. There was a different interpretation of the conversation."

Romney rejects out of hand the notion that any sort of deal on those terms had been struck. "I have been in the deal business all my life," he says, referring to his days as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital. "I will stick to a deal and not back away from a deal."

Now, it's possible that what we have here, as Cool Hand Luke once sardonically put it, is failure to communicate. Or rather a very different understanding of what constitutes a real deal. On Beacon Hill, it can frequently be a smiley, wily arrangement, like the magical meeting of minds in the fall of 1994 that saw the Legislature whisk through a capital-gains tax cut and Governor William Weld then sign off on a 55 percent pay hike for lawmakers, all the while insisting there had never been an outright quid pro quo but only a sudden appreciation of each other's priorities. "Good will does beget good will" was the way Weld put it at the time.

Romney adheres to a businessman's definition of the word. "I'm used to a setting where people shake hands, where they write it down, where they describe all the key terms," he says. "They may not find that standard practice, but I am going to adhere to the practice where we are very explicit about our understanding, and not rely on implicit implications that people may have ascribed to another that he has not agreed to."

At any rate, Finneran was widely said to be irate. Travaglini offers this wry but diplomatic comment: "He expressed his disappointment. I have seen him much happier before."

The simmering speaker decided he'd rather fight than compromise. He spent weeks working his members. But unable to muster the margin he'd need to override a gubernatorial veto, he was finally forced to back down, something he did in a speech laced with bitterness toward the governor.

For Finneran, it was a stinging defeat. Nor was the import of what had happened lost on Beacon Hill. Tom Finneran, such an influential figure that he had been considered the de facto governor during the Cellucci-Swift years, had just been downsized by the CEO governor.

In part to send a message, Finneran and Travaglini temporarily discontinued their weekly meetings with Romney. Although the meetings have since resumed, with Finneran, at least, a decided coolness is said to remain. Asked recently how Romney was doing, the speaker, usually generous with his praise of fellow politicians, offered only a terse "It's too early to say." And when Romney, in an apparent effort at detente, recently invited both Travaglini and Finneran to a Celtics game, the Senate president said yes, while the speaker, pleading conflicting engagements, declined.

The pique the speaker felt spread to lesser members in mid-July, after Romney launched an electoral offensive against the Legislature. When the budget passed with only a fraction of the reforms he'd proposed, and when the Legislature moved to amend the state's new English-immersion law, Romney embarked on a talk-radio tour, denouncing lawmakers for their anti-reform moves and promising to recruit a slate of Republicans to run against Democratic incumbents inimical to his agenda.

Among Democratic lawmakers, the charge that Romney was still campaigning, that he had no interest in governing, that he was just another Republican governor with his eyes on bigger things, grew to a derisive crescendo.

So who's right and who's wrong? Romney insists he is not thinking national, though even his friend D'Alessandro says he has always had the idea that Romney has Washington in his long-range plans. Not from him, says Romney. Even if Senator John Kerry defied the odds and got himself elected president, and Romney had a chance to engineer his own appointment to the Senate, he wouldn't, the governor says. "Going down there and yakking for how many straight hours as they have been doing would be frustrating to me," he says. "Being a governor is more down my alley."

And as for someday running for president, Romney sidesteps. "The prospects of that are kind of remote, so I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, thanks," he says. Fair enough, but here's a basic rule of politics: Any politician of Romney's profile and prominence has likely spent some time contemplating the course that would render remote possibilities more plausible.

In part, what Democratic legislators mean by their criticism is that Romney has no interest in governing the way they want to govern. That is, the charge expresses Democratic annoyance that the Republican governor is sticking by his campaign promise not to raise taxes and has instead insisted on restructuring government and cutting programs -- and, yes, raising fees -- to keep the budget consistent with what existing tax revenues will support.

"He has stuck to what he ran on, and he is talking about reforming and reshaping state government," says Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees.

Romney says he'd rather be hiking budgets than paring them but that the fiscal pressure does offer an opportunity to press for reforms that would otherwise be ignored.

Still, Romney's fealty to that pledge may limit the kind of governor he can be. Romney's role model, his father, George Romney, was both a business executive and a progressive governor of Michigan -- so progressive that he instituted an income tax there to stabilize the state's finances -- and Romney would clearly like to follow in his footsteps. He speaks hopefully of expanding affordable housing, for example, and instituting full-day kindergarten in underperforming school districts. But all that costs money, and choosing not to raise taxes will, at very least, dictate a go-slow approach.

A second flashpoint with Democratic legislators is Romney's plans to recruit Republican candidates to run against them. Once won, a legislative seat quickly comes to be seen as a personal duchy, something that an incumbent is entitled to forever.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association and a careful observer of Massachusetts politics, says the tensions created by Romney's party-building efforts have clearly hurt him with the Legislature. "On the one hand, they are trying to build up the Republican forces, but on the other hand, that clearly has consequences for his reform agenda," says Widmer.

Romney rightly expresses amazement that legislators would take that personally. Ideally, the Republicans would run a candidate for every legislative seat. Beacon Hill Democrats should realize that's perfectly proper, he says. "Is there anyone on the other side of the aisle who is not going to work hard to get an opponent to beat me in my next reelection campaign?" he asks. "They are all going to raise money for my opponent, they'll work for my opponent, they'll endorse my opponent, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest. That is the nature of the political process."

But where the legislators' bill of particulars rings true is in the posturing the publicity-conscious administration has engaged in. A governor commands public attention the way no legislator can. And when he tells the public, as Romney did in his inaugural speech, that it was massive overspending (rather than a dramatic recession-caused decline in revenue) that has landed Massachusetts in its current fiscal mess, he has used the bully pulpit to do them a deep and cheap disservice. And when he disguises actual budget cuts as merely banishing waste or inefficiency, he has added injury to insult.

Similarly, however one feels about the departed University of Massachusetts president, lawmakers have reason to suspect that Romney has played the political shark when it comes to UMass and William M. Bulger.

Early in the year, with little warning, Romney announced a plan to do away with the UMass president's office, insisting his scheme had nothing to do with Bulger himself but was proposed merely because of the logic of the consolidation. He then invoked an obscure constitutional provision to force an up-or-down vote in the Legislature. But since lawmakers defeated the plan, there have been broad hints that the Republican Party will use the vote to portray legislators as having backed Bulger.

And Romney does little to allay those fears. "Who said politics is fair?" he says, indulging a belly laugh. "They voted for Bulger. There is no way you would have gotten me to vote for Bill Bulger for University of Massachusetts president, and they did. That is as clean a vote as you can get."

Reminded that he himself had said that the vote was on the merits of his reorganization idea, and not on Bulger or the job he was doing, Romney sidesteps, claiming he can't remember "what the specific vote was on the Bulger matter." Hmmm.

So will the Republican Party use that vote against Democrats? "I don't know," he says. "I don't know whether you do that or not." If he does, it would be another example of political expediency.

In the same vein, the October insinuation by Romney's press secretary that legislators aren't sufficiently patriotic because they hope to name the main conduit of the Big Dig after Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., the late speaker of the US House, instead of calling it the Liberty Tunnel, is the sort of pointless insult that offends even those who think a federal building named after O'Neill should suffice.

Meanwhile, in a move that was as dopey as it was pointless, Romney's aides justified his initial plan to campaign for California gubernatorial hopeful Arnold Schwarzenegger despite allegations of sexual harassment by saying that Romney had "heard rumors similar to these about his opponent during his first campaign and he never once thought to make an issue out of them."

US Senator Edward M. Kennedy was Romney's opponent in that 1994 campaign, and he and his wife, Victoria, were said to be irate.

Romney concedes that the administration's statement on the tunnel was dumb, though he insists that he didn't mean the comment the way it came across. On Kennedy, Romney notes that he has apologized to the senator, explained to him that the statement hadn't been checked with him, and made it clear to the two advisers responsible for crafting it "that they had made a major, major error in judgment."

Still, the incident and its aftermath also illuminate his view of politics. Kennedy, according to one person who knows him well, "just thinks Mitt's a jerk now."

"That's fine," Romney says, chuckling ruefully. "I'm a big boy."

But if those are truly Kennedy's sentiments, then Romney just as obviously thinks the old liberal lion should grow a little thicker skin.

"Don't forget that there was a time when I ran in 1994 when he and his family were talking about my Mormon Church, and I needed to explain Mormonism and so forth," he says. "I can deal with those sorts of things. People are going to make mistakes, and our team made a mistake in that regard."

What Massachusetts has, then, is a new governor resolved that he will change the ways of Beacon Hill rather than be changed by them, a man who insists that people can disagree without being disagreeable, that differences can be fairly and fiercely fought while maintaining good personal relationships, that partisan electioneering should be seen as legitimate and not a cause for grievance. That's refreshing, but is it realistic?

Michael Dukakis has some reflections about his own experience. "If there was one lesson I learned very painfully in my first four years, it is that when you go down the policy road on anything, you need to involve the Legislature from the beginning on what you are doing," he says. When he returned to office, chastened, in 1983, his new, more consultative style yielded much better results.

Dukakis's experience is instructive, but it's hardly a perfect analogue: He, after all, was a Democrat dealing with a Legislature full of Democrats, and not a Republican governor trying to enact broad reform even as he attempts to build the minority party into a genuine legislative force. And the consensus style Dukakis adopted upon his return to office in 1983 sometimes sacrificed real reform to the cause of avoiding conflict.

Here, however, is the key to understanding Romney. Unlike Dukakis, Romney sees that conflict as integral to the process. Indeed, as he sits in his office, laughing about the triumphs and defeats of his first year, he is clearly looking forward to the battle ahead. Of course, there will be tensions, he says, but he won't go along to get along.

"I think we'll get a lot done on Beacon Hill, in part because of the conflict, not in spite of it," Romney says. "The citizens don't vote for someone just to agree with what the Legislature wants. They want someone with a different viewpoint. They want a battle, they want a competition of ideas, and one party pointing out the weakness of another party. I mean, that is how democracy works. There will be some comfortable with that kind of combat, and others that aren't."

The new governor clearly is. And as he heads into year two, Mitt Romney is determined that he won't be the one who's left hanging.

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