HERE’S AN IMPROBABLE news story that would get the mouths of Republican stalwarts watering.
MARCH 1, 2002, SALT LAKE CITY — Fresh on the heels of a triumphant Winter Olympics, Republican multimillionaire Mitt Romney declared yesterday his candidacy for the governorship of Massachusetts.
Right now, the idea that Romney would get back into Massachusetts politics this year is still fanciful. Romney, who ran against Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994 (and gave Massachusetts’s senior senator perhaps the toughest fight of his career), is fully engaged in his role as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Winter Olympics. And while Romney would likely commit millions of his own dollars to a gubernatorial run, he would start at a serious financial disadvantage compared to his opponents. The Democrat who has raised the most money so far, Senate president Tom Birmingham, has a war chest of $2.9 million. Governor Jane Swift herself has raised $1.7 million. Besides, the pragmatic Romney would be unlikely to break Republican Party discipline and challenge Swift.
Nevertheless, Romney, 54, is very much a dream candidate for Bay State Republicans — especially when juxtaposed with Swift. For 16 days this February, Romney will take national center stage. Given the scrutiny surrounding the Olympics this year — heightened by the outburst of post–September 11 patriotism — he will receive a frenzy of nationally televised attention, much of which will include shots of him enthusiastically waving the American flag. The story of how he righted the ship of the Salt Lake City games — previously plagued with inefficiency and corruption — is sure to be repeated endlessly. Barring catastrophe, Romney will emerge from the Olympics a national hero.
Swift, meanwhile, is watching the floor fall out from under her — at least for the time being. A Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll of 400 state voters, reported in Sunday’s Globe, showed all six of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates beating Swift by measurable percentages — Birmingham by 35 to 23; Secretary of State William Galvin by 32 to 22; former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman by 27 to 25; State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien by 39 to 21; former secretary of labor Robert Reich by 35 to 23; and former Watertown state senator Warren Tolman by 28 to 24. Such numbers feed the perception that Swift is unelectable. Her supporters can take refuge in the facts that none of her would-be Democratic opponents has really caught fire yet and that the Democratic nominee will be wounded by the presence of a Clean Elections–fueled Green Party gubernatorial candidate, Jill Stein. But core Republicans remain pessimistic. Despite the weakness of the Democratic field and her considerable energy, initiative, and even star power, the thinking goes, Swift is such a wounded political animal that the Republicans still pine for a number of high-profile but unavailable alternatives — Romney, White House chief of staff Andy Card, or perhaps former Suffolk County district attorney Ralph Martin. And of these prospective Republican candidates, it is Romney’s name and money that most excite party activists.
Although Olympic Stadium in Salt Lake City is more than 2000 miles from the State House, Romney’s name has repeatedly surfaced in the local press. Following the federal indictment of Republican ally, Massport board member, and Teamsters head George Cashman, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr wrote of Swift’s sinking star: "Mayday, mayday. Abandon ship. Does anyone have Mitt Romney’s telephone number?" The Globe has also fed the recent Romney boomlet, reporting a statewide survey of 402 voters that showed Romney drawing "a 33 percent favorable/15 percent unfavorable rating, [which] would beat all major Democratic gubernatorial candidates except State Treasurer Shannon P. O’Brien, whose numbers are about the same." The Globe concluded: "The poll shows that if Swift falters in the next few months, Republicans have an alternative."
The case against Swift focuses on electability. Peter Blute, a former Republican congressman and WRKO talk-show host, is willing to say publicly what others are not. "I think the thought that maybe there’s somebody who could run a stronger campaign is not without foundation," says Blute, who fell out with Swift rather famously when she fired him for indiscretions at Massport while he was head of that body. Swift, who was then the lieutenant governor, terminated Blute after the press caught him cruising Boston Harbor with a lobbyist aboard the charter ship Nauticus. It didn’t help matters that an attractive female guest flashed her breasts for a photographer. Of course, Blute had to be fired. But consider the zeal and near glee — in circumstances that called for a somber demeanor — with which Swift got rid of him and the timidity with which she approached removing his replacement, Virginia Buckingham, who held the post on September 11, when terrorists hijacked two planes out of Logan and crashed them into the World Trade Center. Blute was fired in one day. Buckingham lasted 20. Swift’s disproportionate response, when measured against what we now know about the extent and longevity of Massport hackery — something with which she has been intimately familiar all along — has been puzzling, at best.
The voices against Swift come from others besides Blute, although he is more outspoken than most. Another Republican, speaking anonymously, is willing to assert even more boldly the need for an alternate candidate. "There’s never been a better time for a Mitt Romney–type candidacy," he says. "I think everybody thinks [Swift’s] going to lose."