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News and Features: Features

Meeting him halfway

BY: Robert Keough
Issue: Winter 2005
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Meeting him halfway

In a mid-term visit, Gov. Romney talks about what he’s learned and what he’s got planned for the next two years - and four more after that

By Robert Keough
Winter 2005

Recently, as I contemplated Massachusetts politics, my mind turned to physics. Since science was never my strong suit, this is by no means a common occurrence. But it crossed my mind that one way to think about the lack of staying power among the Republicans who have occupied the State House corner office continuously since 1991 is the phenomenon of exponential decay. Specifically, it struck me that the half-life of our GOP governors has gotten shorter and shorter.

Bill Weld, whose attention span was notoriously short, served a full term, won re-election, and was more than halfway into his second before succumbing to wanderlust. His 1996 challenge of US Sen. John Kerry doesn’t really count: Moving up the elected-office food chain is something of a natural instinct for politicians, and Weld can’t be faulted for taking a shot. His sudden urge to become a diplomat - something no one would have thought to call him - soon thereafter is another matter. When he resigned from office in 1997, ostensibly to fight the opposition from members of his own party to his nomination to be ambassador to Mexico, it seemed not just a desperate attempt to salvage his nomination but a handy excuse for getting out of the rest of his term as governor.

His successor, Paul Cellucci, bailed out of the corner office soon after his two-year anniversary as governor. But that was after seven years as lieutenant governor and one year as acting governor, not to mention 24 years in the Legislature and, before that, service as selectman in Hudson. The job he seemed to have been angling for his entire political career may not have been all he expected it to be, but when Cellucci accepted President Bush’s offer of the ambassadorship to Canada, at least he’d paid his dues.

MARK OSTOW

Cellucci’s departure for Ottawa shortly after passing the mid-term mark was much on my mind as I went to see Gov. Mitt Romney in December, just short of his first-term midpoint. I had done the same with Cellucci (see “Hanging Tough,” CW, Winter ‘01) and was starting to wonder whether I was a jinx. I didn’t spend much time in the company of governors, but when I did they seemed poised to move on.

Of course, Romney, now just two years into his first term in his first elective office, has not left - yet - and he may not do so for some time to come. Yet the rumor mill grinds away: He won’t finish his term; he’ll finish this term but not run for re-election. He won’t run for re-election because he’s running for president in 2008; he will run for re-election because he’s running for president in 2008. He’s going to/not going to run for re-election because he’s running for US Senate in 2008 - and so it goes, and goes, and goes.

In part, this is just the parlor game that the political hot-stove league plays to keep itself amused in the off-season. Still, I had to wonder whether the restlessness, actual or presumed, now being ascribed to Romney has become an intrinsic part of being a Republican governor presiding over a Democratic state, and especially a Democratic state Legislature. Is there something inherently unsatisfying about governing from a minority position that makes the office something to be left at the first opportunity?

“I think it’s the press and the public’s infatuation” with national politics and the presumed attraction of national office that fuels the rumor mill, Romney said. That speculation should, in his view, be dampened by the actual track record of Massachusetts politicians who have sought national office, which he noted “has not been particularly stellar.” He ticks off the Bay State presidential casualty list: “[Paul] Tsongas, Sen. [Edward] Kennedy, Mike Dukakis, now John Kerry. You have to recognize it’s not exactly a pathway paved with success.”

When it comes to him specifically, Romney took issue with the idea that the jobs in Washington, DC, hold any attraction over the one he’s doing now. “I like the job I’ve got,” said Romney. “I’m able to do things as a governor that [US] senators only dream about. We’re able to take on tough issues, build consensus around them, and make extraordinary change that is helpful to the people of the state.” In contrast, he said, “I look at our senators there and congressmen, they have to do an awful lot of talk and get very little done.

“We got a lot done here in the last two years,” continued Romney. “Frankly, I think we got more done in the last two years than I expected I could get done in the first four years. I’m pretty pleased with what’s been done. The Legislature deserves a huge amount of credit for that, of course. I get nothing done without their support. So I like the job and I’m keeping it. I’ll serve all four years and hopefully four after that.” (Read the full transcript of the Romney interview here.)

Looking for leverage

Still, from inauguration day on, Romney has been, like his Republican predecessors, operating without a net in the Legislature. Weld alone enjoyed a veto-sustaining bloc of Republicans in the Senate, and only for his first two years in office. I asked Romney what he has learned about governing from a minority position. Was there anything he would have done differently, had he known what he knows now?

“I’ve made, I’m sure, plenty of mistakes and I’d do some things differently if I could go back” - not that he named any - ”I’m sure that could be said by anyone. I do feel, though, that [my] approach has worked pretty well in the last couple of years.”

And how would he characterize his approach? “Let me tell you how I’ve worked and what seems to be effective. On issues where there are not powerful special interests aligned with the Democratic Party, we’re able to work on a very collaborative basis between the Legislature and the administration to get things done.

“Then there are those topics where there is an entrenched special interest aligned with one party or another,” Romney continued. “When those types of issues arise I’ve taken much more of a campaign approach, meaning go to the public, call for change, try to create a lot of energy around the issue and overcome the special interests that may be putting pressure on my colleagues across the aisle.”

Asked for an example of one of those special-interest-tinged controversies, Romney cited education reform. “Anytime you deal with education you’re dealing with the teachers’ unions, and they have a very strong view on what changes they will accept and will not accept. So in education I come out and make more of a campaign, if you will, to try and generate public support, to give the Legislature the cover and the encouragement necessary to make positive change.”

ON WORKING WITH THE LEGISLATURE:

'Where there are not powerful special interests aligned with the Democratic Party...we're able to work on a very collaborative basis.'

Drunk driving is another issue on which Romney said he used public leverage to his advantage. “We were the last state in America to finally have a per se drunk driving law. There were entrenched interests that didn’t want to see that changed.” Romney declined to say so (“Well, I’ll let people surmise who might have been on the opposite side”), but it was the criminal-defense bar that resisted making a 0.8 reading on the Breathalyzer test sufficient evidence of driving “impairment.”

“But there was enough public attention and enough willingness on the part of some extraordinary Democrats” - in this case, he said, it was House Criminal Justice Committee chairman James Vallee - ”to go against powerful constituencies, to say, 'I’m behind this. We’re putting it on the floor.’ We got it out there. We got it to a vote and it passed unanimously, because once it’s in the light of day no one wants to be against tougher drunk-driving sanctions.” That long-pending bill passed in time for July 4th weekend of 2003.

Mid-term grade: Incomplete

On education, however, Romney acknowledged that he has by no means overcome the “interests” he has taken on. Indeed, when asked about his greatest disappointment to date, Romney said, “My biggest disappointment is we haven’t made more progress in reforming education - yet.” Of course, he touted the new John and Abigail Adams Scholarships (“The top quarter of our high school graduates will be able to go to a Massachusetts college or university tuition-free. That’s extraordinary. That’s unprecedented in the nation.”) and the school building assistance program, which was restructured to clear the backlog of school construction projects.

In citing these achievements, Romney made no mention of the criticisms leveled at the scholarship program: that a small proportion of poor or minority students qualified, and for those who did the tuition waiver amounted to meager support, given that fees levied at public higher education institutions can be as much as four times as great. And in school building assistance, he took no note of the fact that the refinancing scheme he signed into law was one of Treasurer Tim Cahill’s devising, not his. These two measures nonetheless count as Romney triumphs, a fact that never fails to rankle lawmakers.

It’s the third leg of his “legacy of learning” education-reform stool that Romney is still struggling to secure: what he calls “reforms to help our underperforming school districts - to give the principals and superintendents of schools the ability to hire and fire, to pay merit bonuses, to give additional money to science and math teachers.” Said Romney, “These kinds of reforms we made progress on - I got a little success there - but there’s a lot more to do.”

Chief among the victories on this score was defeating the moratorium on new charter schools - a rare instance of the Legislature falling short in an attempt to override his veto. “One of the things I love about charter schools is, if they’re not working, we revoke their charter, so we can, over time, get better and better charter schools,” said Romney. “Kids have more choice, particularly in our urban settings.”

ON HIS BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

'We haven't made more progress
in reforming education—yet.'

Intriguingly, Romney said his best ally on management reform going forward could be the Supreme Judicial Court, in its much-anticipated Hancock ruling. (See Conversation, page 84, and Symposium, CW, Fall ‘04.) “Adopting these measures is something which I believe will happen this year because the Supreme Judicial Court is watching this issue with great interest.”

What made him think so? After all, the trial judge’s recommendations in the case suggested more money, possibly in vast amounts, as well as more attention to the “capacity” of schools and districts to spend that money effectively.

“I think the initial observations [of Judge Botsford] will be reviewed with great seriousness by the Supreme Judicial Court,” said Romney. “[The justices’] comments and questions in court suggested that money is not the answer. I believe they’re right. Look at school districts that have dramatically increased spending in the school and it doesn’t change the performance of the students. You have to manage that money differently as opposed to just spending more money. Right now in America 53 percent of the funds we’re spending in our schools is being spent on teaching; 47 percent is overhead. That is nuts.”

Warming to this theme, Romney continued: “We’re spending billions of dollars more today than we were when education reform passed in 1993 and we have not fixed the schools in the inner city. It’s time to adopt some of the approaches recommended by people like those that serve on the Grogan Commission... and those experiences of our charter schools.”

Not such a head start

One education innovation Romney seemed to have his doubts about is early-childhood education. Last year, the Legislature embarked, without objection from the governor, on a process of creating a new Department of Early Education and Care, a single agency devoted to serving the educational and developmental needs of children who are not yet school-aged. It is a project that, if it leads to universal preschool statewide, could ultimately cost up to $1 billion a year. In December, Romney reacted to the report of an advisory committee charged with recommending the parameters of the new department by stating that he had “serious reservations” about the plan. In particular, he stated, “I am concerned that understandable efforts to increase the standards and quality of early education and child care programs will increase the cost of child care beyond the economic capacity of working parents, especially low income working parents.”

When I asked Romney about early-childhood education, however, his “reservations” seemed to go beyond the price of daycare. For him, the case for early-childhood education had yet to be made.

“You know, I began my career in the consulting industry and in that industry what I learned was you didn’t come to a problem with a preconceived answer. You instead gathered information, analyzed the information, and then said, okay, what have we learned from this that would tell us how to make things better? We did the same thing in education. We spend billions of dollars in Massachusetts on education. We have 351 different school districts. We can learn from them. We have charter schools. We can learn from them. We can learn from the think tanks that have been studying education to say: Which changes to the education system will actually produce results for our kids? What things will make them better? Early education is often suggested as one of the things that will help our kids.

ON EARLY EDUCATION:

'I would like to see the data...before
we start spending
that money.'

“Well,” he continued, “let’s look. Before we spend a billion dollars, let’s look at the data of kids who are currently in Head Start and see. Do we have a higher graduation rate with kids in Head Start than with kids in the same socio-economic group and neighborhood that did not get Head Start? If so, let’s invest in more Head Start. If not, let’s not. I don’t bring to this a doctrinaire, prepackaged series of answers to how to make our schools better. Instead, I look for recommendations based on analysis of data. With regards to early education, I would like to see the data to know where we should invest and how much we should invest before we start spending that money.”

I asked him if his need for data was based in questions about early-childhood education itself, or how to do it. “I’d like to see more full analysis, [but] the preliminary information shows that kids that get early education get a real head start for the first two or three years of elementary school,” Romney said. “But by the time kids start dropping out of school - sixth, seventh, eighth grades - early education hasn’t impacted their dropout rate nor their success on the MCAS.... If that’s the case, I’d rather be spending money in after-school programs for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, spending money on more support in the classroom for teachers, computers in the classroom.”

Once again, Romney saw the principal obstacle to open-minded consideration of the merits - or lack thereof - of preschool education as “special interest groups,” one in particular.

“Let’s put aside the special interest groups,” said Romney. “Let’s put aside the teachers’ union and all the others that have a financial stake in the outcome and instead look at the data and determine what’s the right thing to do for our kids.”

Under construction

When I asked what accomplishment to date he’s most proud of, Romney distinguished between short-term and long-term. Short-term, he said, closing the budget gap - estimated at $3 billion when he took office - without raising broad-based taxes was his most important achievement, one that he shared with the Legislature. (“I don’t do these things alone. We do them together.”) The measure he thought would have most long-term payoff for the Commonwealth, on the other hand, was the housing and development package, known in legalistic shorthand as Chapter 40-R, passed last summer as part of the budget. Based in part on the recommendations of the Commonwealth Housing Task Force, an ad hoc group of academic experts, business leaders, and housing advocates (“Can housing plans pass inspection?CW, Winter ‘04), the new development rules encourage cities and towns to create “zoning overlay districts” that will allow dense development near municipal centers and transit stops in exchange for certain state incentives.

“It is the quintessential smart-growth strategy,” said Romney, with enthusiasm. “We are applying it. We are adopting it. And I think it’s going to be a huge benefit for generations.”

Romney is one of many state (and business) leaders who have come to see the rising cost of housing not only as a problem for the poor but as a threat to our economic competitiveness. I pointed out that while housing permits for multifamily housing were up, so were home prices - 14 percent in the first half of 2004, the highest rate in four years. I asked him how his housing legislation was going to alleviate that cost pressure and provide more opportunities for affordable, middle-class family housing, and if there is more to be done.

“There will always be more to be done, but we’re making huge strides forward,” said Romney. “As the additional housing that is currently under construction comes into the market, it will continue to bring down prices and open up homes and multifamily homes to our citizens at reasonable prices. I know of no way to bring down price other than by increasing supply. That is the only way you can do it on a permanent basis. We have constricted supply in the Commonwealth for decades, and that’s what’s been driving the price of our housing out of sight.”

I asked what made him believe that cities and towns were going to sign on to his “smart growth” plan - the law, after all, made these new development districts simply a local option, not a state mandate. And of the incentives proposed by the Commonwealth Housing Task Force, those incorporated into the new law were the short-dollar ones, while the big-ticket items - such as subsidizing the education costs of children living in the new densely built housing - were left on the cutting room floor.

ON HOUSING COSTS:

'I know of no way to bring down price other than by increasing supply.'

“Well, we did get one financial incentive and that’s a bounty on each housing permit,” Romney replied. “I wanted a $6,000 bounty. It’s only a $3,000 bounty, but that’s the nature of the legislative process.” In addition, municipalities get upfront money at the time of rezoning - $350,000 for 400 units of housing planned for in the development district, $600,000 if more than 500 units - but these are all one-time infusions of cash.

But Romney also reminded me of the “stick” he had put in the hands of Doug Foy, his development czar, to reason with local leaders who might not jump to the bait. “We, as an administration, dispense a lot of money from the state to municipalities and localities on a discretionary basis,” said Romney. “We have communicated to cities and towns that we are going to send that money out [largely] based on whether they have adopted multifamily housing zones in their cities and towns. Basically, what we’re saying is, if you’re playing in a smart-growth world, then we’re going to be playing with the dollars that you need to help beautify your community and to do the things you want to do. But if you’re holding up multifamily housing, if you’re not allowing your citizens to enjoy a future in your city or town, then we’re going to take our money elsewhere.”

Whether it’s carrots or sticks doing the trick, are Massachusetts communities getting on board Romney’s town-square development bandwagon? He says they are. “We’ve had a number of cities - Secretary Foy can tell you the number but it’s more than a handful, it’s more than your fingers and toes combined. We’ve had a number of cities say we’re on board. We’re signed up.”

Well, maybe not “signed up” exactly. After checking with Foy’s office, it turns out that, with Chapter 40-R going into effect in July, regulations were still being drafted for public comment; they would likely be promulgated by the end of February. So far, about a dozen communities have apparently expressed preliminary interest in the overlay district idea, but officials are hoping to see much more activity once regulations come out, with possible action at town meetings as soon as this spring.

Election returns - and fallout

I couldn’t leave without asking the governor about the election season just past. In an interview during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney had told CommonWealth’s editors that he intended to revive two-party politics in the Bay State. Romney certainly tried to do so last fall, recruiting and aiding a bumper crop (by Massachusetts standards, anyway) of Republican candidates for legislative office. But not a single Democratic incumbent was knocked out by a Republican challenger, and not a single open seat went to the GOP. In the end, the party became even a smaller minority in the Legislature, losing two seats in the House and one in the Senate.

I suggested to Romney that things could hardly have turned out worse had he and his handpicked state party chairman, Darrell Crate, done nothing at all. He jumped all over that remark.

“As a matter of fact, things could have turned out much worse,” said Romney. “We lost not one incumbent seat. There was a very aggressive effort by the opposition party to knock off a number of our candidates, including Scott Brown,” the Wrentham Republican who had won, in a special election last year, the state Senate seat vacated by Cheryl Jacques. Romney also cited “a very aggressive effort by the AFL-CIO” to “knock off” Sen. Richard Tisei of Wakefield. “So things could have been a lot worse.”

But Romney readily conceded that things “could also have been a lot better. I was disappointed we didn’t pick up seats.... It is very difficult for the minority party to be able to pick up seats, particularly when people are generally happy with incumbents in a Democratic state and with John Kerry’s name at the top of the ticket.”

Isn’t it possible, I asked, that all you accomplished was offending Democratic members of the Legislature you’re going to have to deal with over the next two years?

“You know, I imagine there are some who feel that an elected position is an entitlement, but they have to be in the distinct minority,” said Romney. “The great majority of my Democratic colleagues understand that elections are a good thing, that it builds strength in both parties. It strengthens the muscle of their own campaign teams. From the leadership that I meet with regularly there is a full understanding of how the democratic process works and no hard feelings. I can assure you I had no hard feelings when I took office, even though the leadership and basically the entire Democratic organization was working very hard for my opponent. That’s how it works in a democracy. And it should work that way. I have no concerns about that and I recognize that about a year from now my Democratic colleagues will be beginning to work very hard for my opponent. And that’s fine. When the election is over, the campaign ends, we go to work to do what the citizens elected us to do.”

ON RECRUITING REPUBLICAN CHALLENGERS:

'My Democratic colleagues understand that elections are a
good thing.'

Does he feel any need to mend fences with Democratic lawmakers? “Well, it was important for me, in the campaign, that any individual or any campaign I was associated with never made a personal attack on a Democratic colleague in the State House. Instead, the campaigns focused on voting records and issues, not personalities and personal integrity and matters of that nature. I’ve also expressed respect for the individual members of the opposition party... so I don’t feel like any bridges are burned because we have sound personal relationships and respect our differences.”

At the same time, Romney allowed that he was making new efforts to reach out to lawmakers. Not long after our meeting, The Boston Globe reported on Romney’s courtship of legislative leaders, with the governor taking Senate President Robert Travaglini and newly elected House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi to dinner in the North End and hosting DiMasi and his wife at Romney’s Belmont home. But in our conversation, the governor indicated that his charm offensive would move ahead on a wider front.

“In the first two years I worked pretty extensively with leadership and with the chairpersons of the respective committees,” said Romney. “I’m broadening that this year and reaching further into the Legislature with other members. My legislative affairs director, Peter Flaherty, is making sure that we’re seeing more people and touching more bases, particularly in those arenas where I think the agenda is most needful, namely health care, education, [auto] insurance,” in addition to the budget.

Romney said he had no doubt that, whatever wounds were still raw from Election Day, things were looking up in the State House. “I expect that we’ll get a lot done and I really believe, contrary to what some people feel, that once the elections are over, Democrats and Republicans work together pretty well in this building. Just like the first two years. To be honest, I think what we accomplished in the first two years that I’ve been here was an extraordinary record. I know Speaker Finneran said the same thing as he was going out. He was very complimentary of what the Legislature achieved. I think President Travalgini had the same comments to make. I think state government did a pretty good job.”

He paused. “And, by the way, that may be one of the reasons it was so hard to elect new people to replace incumbents.”

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