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Easy Street
What America’s die-hard Republicans should know about Massachusetts
BY ADAM REILLY
Related Links

Governor Mitt Romney

Romney’s official state-government biography

Boston Phoenix coverage detailing Romney’s political assetts and liabilities, both locally and nationally:

"Onward, Mormon soldiers"

"Road to nowhere"

"Human, all too human"

"Unfriendly advice"

 

Dear Red-State Republicans:

We need to talk. It’s about Mitt Romney. There’s something he’s not telling you.

He’s been wooing you for months now, Mitt has. He’s bragged about his accomplishments here in Massachusetts — streamlining government, fending off an income-tax increase, battling gay marriage and activist judges. He’s hinted at the foreign-policy approach he’d bring to the White House: together, you’ll wire-tap mosques! Together, you’ll confront the rising Chinese menace! And he’s reminisced about the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where, as the governor readily admits, he did a hell of a job.

But these are just details. As he’s worked the presidential pre-campaign circuit, Romney has managed to convince audiences around the country that his biggest achievement is succeeding as a Republican in Massachusetts, of all places. Being a Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention, Romney likes to say. And it’s this believer-among-the-heathen image, more than any specific item on Romney’s résumé, that seems most memorable to those who cross Romney’s path. "Bless him for being a Republican in Massachusetts," Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) said on the occasion of Romney’s February 2005 visit to South Carolina, according to the Boston Globe. "I just want to find out what one of those is like.... If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere."

It’s understandable that Romney would paint this picture, and it’s understandable that you would accept it. After all, Massachusetts gave the country Willie Horton and gay marriage and über-liberal Ted Kennedy. There’s just one small problem, however: Romney’s representation doesn’t correspond to reality. What he’s not telling you is that being a Republican in Massachusetts isn’t a liability to be overcome. It’s an asset to be treasured.

Consider the numbers. Yes, the Massachusetts legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic; Republicans hold a mere 26 seats in the House and Senate, compared with the Democrats’ 174. But the disparity in terms of registered voters is far smaller: 13 percent identify as Republicans, 37 percent as Democrats, and a whopping 50 percent as independent or unenrolled. And, thanks in large part to those independent voters, Republicans enjoy something close to a stranglehold on the corner office. Since Michael Dukakis’s exit, every gubernatorial election has been won by a Republican. In 1990, it was Bill Weld. In 1998, it was Paul Cellucci. And in 2002 — when repeated gaffes by acting governor Jane Swift, who’d taken over when Cellucci left for an ambassadorial post, threatened to end the Republican monopoly — Romney swept in and kept the streak intact.

Think of it as a kind of political affirmative-action program. Voters know that Democrats are going to have firm control over both legislative branches, so when it’s time to pick an executive, they tap a Republican to stand watch over the Democratic hordes and keep them from running amok. "Everyone but the ultra-liberal Democrats are hesitant to give the keys to the lock box to a Democratic governor," says Tobe Berkovitz, a political analyst and associate dean of Boston University’s College of Communication. "Because the assumption is, we will just be taxed and spent back into the Stone Age."

For their part, the Democrats in the legislature seem more than willing to help sustain this dynamic. Back in July, for example, an Opinion Dynamics poll showed Romney trailing Tom Reilly, the Democratic attorney general and front-runner for that party’s 2006 gubernatorial nomination, 40 percent to 34 percent. Then the slow pace of business in the Massachusetts House started making headlines, and the legislature watered down a high-profile anti-drunk-driving bill, and a gaggle of legislators took an ill-timed vacation in Portugal and Spain. Voilà! As of last month, Opinion Dynamics had Romney leading Reilly, 41 percent to 37 percent.

Whatever their individual strengths, every Republican candidate for governor benefits from this tendency to use Republican governors as a check on the Democrats. So, for that matter, do the men and women they pick to play second fiddle. Actually, there may be no better example of the Massachusetts GOP’s career-boosting power than Kerry Healey, Romney’s lieutenant governor. In 2000, after losing her second state-representative election in as many tries, Healey’s political prospects were dim. But then, one year later, she parlayed her personal charms and considerable family wealth into election as chair of the state Republican Party, where, despite her meager electoral track record, she was charged with building the party’s grassroots. In 2002, with that task scarcely begun, Romney pegged Healey as his preferred running mate.

With Romney’s imprimatur, Healey easily outpaced Republican activist Jim Rappaport for the LG nomination. And today — despite the fact that she’s never really won an election on her own — Healey is the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2006, if Romney doesn’t seek re-election. Nice work, if you can get it. And if you’re a reasonably competent Massachusetts Republican, you probably can.

Ultimately, Republican stars like Romney may actually have it too easy in Massachusetts. They rise quickly, with a minimum of resistance; then, after a few relatively impotent years as governor, they lose interest and move on. Weld got bored, tried unsuccessfully to become the American ambassador to Mexico, moved to New York, and went into private equity; now he wants to be governor of the Empire State. Cellucci left to spend a few years in Ottawa as US ambassador to Canada; today, he’s a lobbyist for the racing industry. Now Romney seems poised to leave after one term, although a combination of factors — the GOP’s gubernatorial losses this fall, Kerry Healey’s recent PR struggles, and Romney’s own need to beef up his roster of accomplishments — might lead him to seek re-election. This pattern hurts the Republican luminaries themselves, who’d probably benefit from more electoral seasoning and a greater breadth of governing experience. But it’s even worse for the Massachusetts GOP, which — after 15 years of Republican governors who were focused on bigger and better things — has become a mere shell of a party. (When the opportunity presents itself, be sure to ask Romney about his 2004 push to add Republican seats in the state legislature.)

All of which isn’t to say that Romney wouldn’t be a solid Republican nominee come 2008. He has his charms, as we here in Massachusetts know, including charisma, intelligence, a good sense of humor, and an exceptionally attractive family. If evangelical Republicans can get past the whole Mormon thing, he just might be your guy. But in the meantime, as you’re weighing your choices, don’t let the governor sell you his skewed version of Bay State politics. Being a Republican in Massachusetts didn’t hurt Mitt Romney. In fact, it’s the best career move he could possibly have made.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com.


Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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