Romney's CEO style rankled Mass. lawmakers
BOSTON (AP) — What worked for Mitt Romney in the corporate boardroom didn't fly in the more raucous corridors of the Massachusetts Legislature.
Now the Republican candidate for president, Romney took over as governor in 2003 after a long, successful career as CEO at the private equity firm Bain Capital.
But his top-down, corporate management style soon rankled Democrats who overwhelmingly controlled the state House and Senate and saw themselves as an equal partner in the government. His approach jolted a clubby political culture where schmoozing over after-hours drinks and cutting backroom deals are well-worn pathways to success.
Unlike his three GOP gubernatorial predecessors, the politically inexperienced Romney was never at ease in the chummy world of trading favors for votes. He bypassed rank-and-file Democrats and dealt mostly with the party's legislative leaders during his four-year term, though he did work with Democrats to pass the state's health care overhaul.
Romney's mostly fraught relations with state lawmakers could provide insight into how he'd handle a Congress that might still be politically divided if he becomes president.
He so far has embraced his party's conservative leadership in Congress — a break with recent GOP nominees, who had kept some distance. That plays to the conservative GOP base, but many independent voters view the congressional GOP with suspicion.
These days, Romney the candidate puts a positive spin on his Massachusetts record, holding it up as proof that he can bridge Washington's bitter partisan divides.
"I began a relationship with the speaker of the House and the Senate president that was personal," he said of his governorship in a recent NBC News interview. "We respected each other. We often disagreed. But we found common ground from time to time."
Some Democratic lawmakers accused Romney of being aloof, unapproachable and not much interested in working with them to build the kind of friendships and alliances that are needed to help pass legislation. They say Romney's legislative agenda on big issues like transportation and higher education fizzled as a result.
"He didn't get that government was not a business," said state Rep. Cory Atkins, a Democrat elected in 1999.
A notable exception was Romney's work with Democratic leaders to craft a landmark health care bill, which then launched his 2008 presidential bid. Romney's signature legislative success got a big boost from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, then the state's most powerful Democrat and a passionate advocate for universal health care.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom stressed Romney's ability to work with Democrats to solve the state's economic woes.
"Working on a bipartisan basis, Mitt Romney balanced the budget without raising taxes, created tens of thousands of new jobs and lowered the unemployment rate to 4.7 percent," Fehrnstrom said by email. "Working together with Democrats in the Legislature, Mitt Romney left Massachusetts in better shape than he found it."
While he did not raise state income or sales taxes, Romney and Democratic lawmakers raised hundreds of millions of dollars in new and higher fees on everything from marriage licenses to real estate transactions.
Former House Speaker Tom Finneran, a Democrat, recalled being "summoned" along with fellow legislative leaders by Romney for a meeting on the state's fiscal crisis early in Romney's term. Romney delivered a PowerPoint presentation brimming with numbers and charts on his plan for fixing the budget. Finneran said it quickly became apparent that Romney was issuing marching orders, not seeking their advice.
"Initially his sense was, 'I have been elected governor, I am the CEO here and you guys are the board of directors and you monitor the implementation of what I say,'" Finneran said. "That ruffled the feathers of legislators who see themselves as an equal branch (of government)."
Finneran said that, while he grew to respect Romney, "you have to work to have a conversation with him."
Romney supporters say he ran for governor as an outsider vowing to "clean up the mess" on Beacon Hill, and governed accordingly. They say Democratic leaders ruled with such an iron hand that there was no need for Romney to cultivate rank-and-file lawmakers who rarely strayed from their party's line.
Democrats portrayed Romney as being out of touch.
"He made no effort to get acquainted with lawmakers," said Tom Birmingham, a former state Senate president who left just before Romney took office. "To call him disengaged would be charitable."
Romney's GOP predecessors enjoyed smoother relations with the Legislature.
Bill Weld ran as an outsider, but he quickly developed an inside game working with Democrats. Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift had served in the Legislature, so they had plenty of allies and knew how to work across the aisle.
Weld's goofy personal charm and fondness for after-hours drinks also made him especially popular with lawmakers.
"You could negotiate anything with Weld," said Birmingham. "It was a game to him."
Republican state Sen. Robert Hedlund said Romney doesn't get enough credit for refusing to cut deals with Democrats.
"Some administrations used capital projects like goodies, handing them out like candy," said Hedlund. "Not Romney."
Romney often opted for confrontation over compromise. He issued more than 800 vetoes, but they were routinely overturned by lawmakers irked at what they saw as grandstanding by the governor.
In an ad during the 2008 presidential primary, Romney boasted: "I like vetoes. I vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor. And, frankly, I can't wait to get my hands on Washington."
"If you're a Republican governor in Massachusetts, you have to work around the Legislature and use the bully pulpit," said Richard Tisei, a former state Senate minority leader running for Congress this year. "On big issues that mattered like health care and the fiscal crisis, Romney did work with the other side of the aisle."
On the health care bill that laid the foundation for his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid, Romney aggressively courted Democrats. The law since has become a political liability for him.
He reached for compromises with top Democrats, particularly Kennedy, whom he had unsuccessfully challenged in a Senate race in 1994. Kennedy, who died in 2009, had the strong personal and political ties to state legislators that Romney lacked. Democrats marveled over how engaged Romney was, even showing up on a Sunday at the homes of top legislative leaders to try to break a key logjam on the bill.
In a rare moment of unity, Romney, Kennedy and leading Democrats were all handshakes and smiles as they shared the stage at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall for the bill signing ceremony in 2006.
"My son said that having Sen. Kennedy and me together like this on this stage behind the same piece of landmark legislation will help slow global warming," Romney joked to Kennedy, who was instrumental in shepherding the bill through the Legislature. "That's because hell has frozen over."
"My son said something, too," Kennedy retorted. "When Kennedy and Romney support a piece of legislation, usually one of them hasn't read it."
Miga reported from Washington.