Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts just six years ago. Today he’s so unpopular here he’s barely bothering to campaign in the state. There are reasons for that—and they could spell doom for his presidential campaign.
Of course, Romney was once well liked here. He took office in January 2003 as the savior of the Salt Lake Olympic Games and a business wiz who’d built Bain Capital into one of the most successful and influential private-equity firms in history.
Frederick Kalisz, the Democratic mayor of New Bedford at the time, recalls that Romney’s talents could be dazzling. New Bedford wanted to open a new aquarium on its waterfront, so to help secure state funding and tax credits, Kalisz requested a meeting with the governor. Romney—traveling without staffers to handle the mundane details for him—made the 60-mile trip to New Bedford, and soon scheduled a follow-up. “He came the second time and the man had done his homework,” Kalisz says. Romney had drilled down on the topic—aquarium construction, of all things—and returned to New Bedford for a third meeting, too. The project never got off the ground, but Kalisz says it wasn’t for the governor’s lack of interest.
When Kalisz relayed the story to his fellow mayors, though, a funny thing happened: Nobody believed him. “They thought I was joking when I said he was physically in my office,” Kalisz says.
For all of Romney’s intelligence, dealing with people has never been his strong suit. That was apparent to no group more than the mayors of Massachusetts. “Every other governor has been somebody you could talk to,” says William Scanlon, the longtime mayor of Beverly and an independent. While former Republican Governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci were known to show up in town and shoot the breeze, Romney was a different story. “There’s just nothing there,” Scanlon says, “no relationship with the man. He totally ignored the mayors.”
John Barrett, then the Democratic mayor of North Adams, was particularly critical of the way Romney handled cuts to local aid while he was trying to balance the budget. “What bothered us more than anything else is that he never talked to us prior to making the cuts,” Barrett says. Things got so heated that, when Barrett appeared on New England Cable News with Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor’s communications chief—who remains his top adviser—the two began shouting at each other in the station lobby. “It all started when I said to him on the way out, ‘Eric, why won’t the governor meet with us?’ And Fehrnstrom just went ballistic,” Barrett recalls. The specifics of who shoved whom first are in dispute, but before Barrett knew it, they were tussling with each other.
Romney was equally closed off on Beacon Hill. He rankled his fellow State House politicians by designating the elevator near his office as exclusively for his use. “We couldn’t even walk near the governor’s office—we were stopped,” says Jason Aluia, then a top aide to former Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi, a Democrat. “He came in with a lot of red carpets. He didn’t have relationships in the building whatsoever. I just don’t think he tried to build them.” Though Romney maintained cordial and productive relationships with former Senate President Robert Travaglini and former Speakers of the House Thomas Finneran and DiMasi, other legislators complained that Romney was aloof—that he didn’t know their names or seem to care to.