The Mitt Romney who strides the national stage today is almost unrecognizable from the man who was once Massachusetts’s governor. He has lurched far right on a host of social issues, including immigration, abortion, and gay rights. He espouses a philosophy that demeans government and is far more skeptical — even cavalier — about the role of regulation in promoting a successful market economy. Romney now recalls his days as a “severely conservative” governor. Many remember something much different.
A case in point is Douglas Foy. In 2002, the freshly elected governor plucked Foy from his perch as head of the Conservation Law Foundation and, in effect, made him deputy governor, overseeing four state agencies (transportation, housing, environment, and energy). The position — titled Secretary of Commonwealth Development — was dreamt up by Romney as a way to coordinate the activities of different state agencies with often overlapping missions. “His idea of a superagency was really smart,” says Foy. Otherwise we get “silos” — agencies focused solely on their own agendas without regard for their effects on other state priorities.
It’s exactly the kind of smart thinking one would want in a president, too.
Foy had for 25 years run CLF, arguably the region’s most powerful environmental advocacy group. He was respected by all sides, in part because he was practical and data-driven. Far from being anti-business, Foy believed good environmental and energy policies could actually enhance economic growth. (CLF’s best-known case — forcing the state to clean up Boston Harbor — is a perfect illustration: The Harbor’s revival has led directly to a development boom now transforming the city.) Romney seemed like-minded, and he successfully pitched Foy on the idea of moving into government, working from the inside instead of the outside.
The two had a good working relationship. Foy admired the way Romney assembled a government. “He put together his cabinet personally and appointed terrific people,” says Foy, modestly excepting himself. Talent mattered back then; politics seemed a secondary consideration. (Foy is an independent and did not support Romney during his gubernatorial campaign.) Romney immersed himself in the detail of government; “he soaks up information very quickly,” Foy says. Unlike many ambitious individuals, however, he was not afraid of dissent. He surrounded himself with “potent, opinionated people.”
Almost unheard of for a governor, there was no patronage. Foy oversaw departments with over 11,000 employees, “and he never sent anyone over for a job.” It went even further than that. On one occasion, a major Romney contributor approached Foy for state financing. Foy turned him down and the unhappy contributor went to the governor’s political staff. Expecting pushback, Foy met with Romney to explain the situation. The governor’s response was withering: “I’ll never understand how people think a contribution to a politician buys them money from the state,” Foy recounts him saying. “You do what you think is best.” That was the last Foy heard from Romney on the matter.
“It was,” Foy says, “as clean an administration as could be.”
And, far from the popular caricature of Romney as the robo-candidate, Foy found the governor to be a “warm and funny” man. He was even an amateur magician, entertaining small groups with simple tricks. “He was the most gracious person you’ll ever meet,” Foy says. So too his larger family: “They are as nice as they seem.”
It was a great two years, but things changed in December 2005. National politics beckoned and Romney announced he wouldn’t seek a second term. He lost his focus on the state. The man with the common touch became stiff and uncomfortable. Eager to appeal to conservatives, his politics became more partisan and ideological.
For many, Barack Obama’s election was a moment of elation (Foy himself says he wept with joy that night), the subsequent reality a letdown. Particularly disappointing has been Obama’s handling of the economy. Would Romney do better? The pragmatic man who was once governor might; one feels less certain about the presumptive GOP nominee. “Power always reveals,” writes Robert Caro in his new book on Lyndon Johnson. It shows one’s true colors. Should he attain the power of the presidency, “I hope the Romney I knew,” Foy says, “is the Romney we get.”
This column originally appeared on the Boston Sunday Globe's op-ed page on June 17, 2012.