Mitt’s original “white guy” problem

The rich businessman Mitt Romney snubbed the last time he needed a running mate hasn't forgotten or forgiven

Published April 13, 2012 2:00PM (EDT)

Jim Rappaport in 1990 and Mitt Romney in 2002.    (AP/Julia Malakie/Reuters/Molly Riley)
Jim Rappaport in 1990 and Mitt Romney in 2002. (AP/Julia Malakie/Reuters/Molly Riley)

He thought he was going to be Mitt Romney’s running mate and the pieces seemed to be in place, but there was a glitch.

“Let’s be blunt,” Jim Rappaport, the businessman who wanted to lead the Massachusetts Republican Party’s statewide ticket with Romney 10 years ago, told Salon recently. “They didn’t want two rich white guys.”

Finding a suitable No. 2 became Romney’s first major undertaking when he returned to Massachusetts after the 2002 winter Olympics and muscled his way to the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination. The ensuing drama, in which he spurned Rappaport and recruited an unknown woman who had suffered two lopsided defeats for the state Legislature, then kept her as far in the background as possible, may offer some insight into how he’ll handle the running-mate decision he now faces as his party’s presumptive presidential nominee.

The names that are assumed to be on Romney’s radar are by now familiar: Marco Rubio, because of the Hispanic vote and Florida; Chris Christie, because of his working stiff charisma; Paul Ryan, because the right loves him; Kelly Ayotte, because of the gender gap; Rob Portman, because he’s safe; and so on. There are actually some striking parallels between the factors Romney must now weigh and the ones that guided his pick a decade ago.

Then, as now, Romney became his party’s standard-bearer through an ugly process that, his team feared, might have irreparably harmed his standing with female voters. There was also concern, just like today, about drawing too much attention to Romney’s personal wealth and reinforcing his rich corporate guy image.

Romney’s campaign for governor began late. A fellow Republican, Jane Swift, had inherited the job from Paul Cellucci in 2001 and had repeatedly expressed her intent to seek a full term in the ’02 election. But a string of missteps and public relations blunders badly damaged her standing and created an opening for Romney, who was itching to use his newfound Olympic popularity to restart the political career he’d put on hold after a 1994 Senate loss to Ted Kennedy.

As the Olympics wound down in February, Romney quietly joined forces with state party leaders, who orchestrated a “draft” campaign that felt to many onlookers like a classic case of all the boys teaming up against the girl. When Swift gave in and dropped out in late March, women raised their voices.

“It's hard to know which is more enraging,” the Boston Globe’s Eileen McNamara wrote, “the presumption of a rich, white man that he can buy the governor's office or the misogyny of a political culture that makes it impossible for a woman even to try to earn it.”

With another woman, state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, looming as his likely Democratic opponent, there was good reason for Romney and his campaign to be wary of the gender gap. Which helps explain the hostility to Rappaport.

The son of a controversial real estate magnate, Rappaport had used his family’s money to build several businesses. But his real interest was politics, and his ambition was sizable. As a 34-year-old political newcomer, he funded his own Senate campaign in 1990, losing by 14 points to John Kerry in a race still remembered for its negativity, then went on to build his own power base as chairman of the state’s Republican Party.

In the fall of 2001, when Romney was busy running the Olympics in Utah, Rappaport formally launched his campaign for lieutenant governor. This put him at odds with Swift, who was still considered the likely GOP gubernatorial nominee and who wanted to choose her own running mate. In Massachusetts, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary, but it had become customary on the Republican side for gubernatorial candidates to anoint running mates. As a sitting governor, Swift expected that her decision would be honored by the party, but Rappaport believed he could go around her and win the nomination on his own.

With Swift giving him the cold shoulder, he turned to Romney, who was clearly interested in finding a way to run.

“I called him to see if he’d contribute,” Rappaport recalled. “He said he couldn’t because the Olympic board said that he wasn’t allowed to make any political contributions. But he said he’d let Ann, his wife, contribute to me, which she did.

“And I said, ‘Well, I’m running for lieutenant governor.’ I said, ‘I’ll control the convention, and when the Olympics are over you’ll be able to come back and run for governor.’ And he said, ‘Well, Jim, why don’t you run for governor?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t have the NGO experience that you now have from running the Olympics.’”

Rappaport says he and Romney talked regularly through the winter, but Romney made no public moves until the middle of March. The Olympics were over, the state Republican convention was weeks away, and Swift’s poll numbers were reaching alarming depths. With a Boston Herald survey putting Romney 63 points ahead of her in a prospective GOP primary, Romney’s allies in the party launched their “draft” and Swift took the hint.

Instantly, Rappaport’s odds of becoming the state’s lieutenant governor soared, or so it seemed. Before her withdrawal, Swift had selected a running mate of her own, Patrick Guerriero, a 33-year-old who had served as the mayor of a small city outside Boston. But Guerriero lacked Rappaport’s money, name recognition and network of statewide Republican contacts, and now he lacked a running mate, too. Just to make the primary ballot, he would need support from 15 percent of the delegates at the early-April convention, and it became apparent he was going to fall short. When Romney indicated that he’d stay neutral, the matter seemed settled.

And then Rappaport started hearing about the visits that Romney’s people were paying to some prominent Republican women. The campaign was nervous. Romney was getting killed for shoving aside the state’s first female governor. Wouldn’t it be a dream come true for Democrats if the GOP decided to field an all-rich white guy ticket?

The pickings were slim – the Massachusetts Republican universe is microscopic even when you don’t limit it to women with the qualifications to run for statewide office – and time was short, but about 72 hours before the convention was set to begin, a woman named Kerry Murphy Healey stepped forward and announced that she was running for lieutenant governor. She didn’t quite say it at first, but everyone knew: She was Romney’s candidate. Rappaport got the official word from a few Romney aides. They explained their reasoning, which he still can’t understand.

“He was wealthier than me? That was ridiculous,” he said. “And as I said to them, ‘Every governor and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate since probably [James Michael] Curley when he ran for governor has been wealthy. There aren’t a lot of poor people who run for governor or lieutenant governor.’”

Romney himself stopped taking Rappaport’s calls. “Mitt and I were talking on a regular basis until literally two or three days before his people decided that they were going to put that woman in."

Optics, though, weren’t Romney’s sole consideration. There was also Rappaport himself, who saw in the lieutenant governor’s office a chance to establish his own power base on Beacon Hill and to position himself for greater political glory.

“The Romney camp didn’t like or trust Rappaport,” said Todd Domke, a Massachusetts Republican consultant. “They wanted a traditionally subservient lieutenant governor. They wanted someone they could control.”

“They really felt that if Rappaport had won he would have been undermining them -- maybe not consciously during the campaign, but that if he’d been elected that he then would have been going rogue as lieutenant governor, because he’s very ambitious,” he said.

The way Domke sees it, it's this logic that’s most useful in understanding Romney’s V.P. search: “I think it indicates that in Romney world they don’t want someone who’d be independent. While they realize they need someone who can turn on the conservative base, because their candidate can’t, they really don’t want someone who so turns on the conservative base that then conservatives will be saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we reversed the ticket?’

“And that’s why I think they’d be afraid of picking Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio. Because in the Romney campaign, they realize that the loyalty of the base of the party would be to that vice presidential candidate.”

For a while, it looked like Rappaport might knock off Healey anyway. He bested her at the state convention, 55 to 45 percent, and campaigned aggressively in the spring and summer, spending freely and pitching himself as more reliable conservative and a stronger leader.

Healey, meanwhile, made almost no impression at all. She came to the race with virtually no name recognition, having served a brief, undistinguished stint as state GOP chairwoman after losing two bids for the state House of Representatives. Romney formally endorsed her and the two began running as a team, but Romney was the only one making noise. In her rare turns in the spotlight, Healey’s message amounted to: Just give Romney what he wants and vote for me.

This, according to Domke, is exactly how Romney and his team like it. “They want control,” he said. “I mean, that’s pretty common in campaigns, but it’s more so than most. There’s a corporate hierarchy to the campaign, Romney is the CEO, and they all try to be as efficient as possible.”

Healey’s low profile explains why a poll at the end of August, just two weeks before the primary, put Rappaport ahead by 9 points – and 16 among Republicans most likely to vote. Because there was no gubernatorial or senatorial race on the ballot, the Rappaport campaign believed turnout would be low – perhaps 175,000 voters total. “We had 95,000 voters identified for the primary,” Rappaport noted.

Spooked by the poll, the Romney campaign swung into action, with Romney all but declaring the lieutenant governor’s race a referendum on his leadership. "I feel strongly that electing Kerry Healey is critical to my winning in November," he said in one robocall. Massachusetts Republicans responded by turning out in surprisingly high numbers and handing Healey a lopsided victory, 65 to 35 percent.

Rappaport conceded and pledged his support, then stepped back from elected politics. A decade later, he’s still nursing the wounds. “I have not talked one-on-one with Romney since probably two weeks before he stabbed our campaign in the back, and all the people who were supporting our campaign, by putting her into the race,” he said.

For all of the drama, there’s no evidence that Healey had any impact in the fall. She stayed in the background and few voters had any idea who she was; it sometimes seemed like Romney didn’t either – like when he referred to her as “Sherry” during a radio interview. After the election, which the Romney-Healey ticket won by 7 points, the dynamic endured.

“She was very much a junior partner,” said Domke, “which is the nice way of saying she was not given much power at all. She was really treated in a very subordinate way. There was very little effort made, even P.R.-wise, to make it seem like she had any authority at all in the administration.”

(When Romney declined to seek a second term in 2006, Healey replaced him as the party's gubernatorial nominee, but she lost to Deval Patrick by 20 points in the general election.)

To Domke, this suggests that Romney would prefer to pick a low-key running mate, someone willing to keep a low profile and let Romney be the star – a Rob Portman-type. But the way Romney scrambled to recruit Healey in response to the cries of sexism offers another lesson: “They’ll do what’s necessary. I think they’ll wait and see -- you know, ‘How far do we have to go?’ And they’ll pick a Paul Ryan or a Marco Rubio if they think it’s necessary.”

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

MORE FROM Steve Kornacki

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections War Room