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Romney remembered as CEO governor

By Jim Acosta, CNN National Political Correspondent
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Thu June 7, 2012
  • Democrats controlled Massachusetts Legislature during Mitt Romney's tenure
  • Democrats give Romney high marks for passing health care reform as governor
  • Romney alienated some by taking over one of State House elevators
  • Watchdog group official says Romney had his eye on national office at the end of his term

Boston (CNN) -- It is one of Mitt Romney's favorite selling points. Romney often notes that as governor of Massachusetts, he worked with a mostly Democratic legislature to tackle his state's problems.

"It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out if I was going to do anything as governor, I had to have a working relationship with the Democrats," Romney said at a campaign event last year in Nashua, New Hampshire.

But inside the Massachusetts State House, down the hallway from Romney's official portrait that hangs inside the governor's office, longtime lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remember a more CEO-style leader.

Robert Hedlund, the second-ranking Republican in the state Senate, said Romney tried to carry over the corporate culture that existed at his former private investment firm, Bain Capital, in a way that sometimes alienated Democrats who were accustomed to a different way of doing things.

"He was all business. It was all about policy. He didn't trade jobs for votes. He didn't trade capital projects for votes. So that came back to bite him a little bit," Hedlund said.

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Romney replaced many of the career bureaucrats in the executive staff with private sector outsiders. At times, Hedlund argued, that management structure produced results in balancing the state's budget.

"Some Democrats begrudgingly, maybe not publicly on camera, but privately will admit that he had a lot of great, talented people around him who got the job done," Hedlund said.

Across the aisle, Romney still gets positive reviews for his willingness to work with Democrats to pass health care reform.

However, many rank-and-file Democrats are still bothered by what they describe as a distant and guarded leader.

"He had three security people around him, and you could never get to touch him or say hello," said state Rep. Frank Smizik, chairman of the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change. "He was very elitist."

On this reporter's unannounced visit to the Legislature, there was no shortage of Democratic lawmakers who complained about Romney's unprecedented move to block off one State House elevator specifically for the governor's office.

"He took over the elevator for the west wing of the building. He kept it only for his staff and him," Smizik said.

Listening in on Smizik's comments, another Democrat, state Rep. Ellen Story, said the elevator restrictions and security ropes installed outside Romney's office turned off some lawmakers for good.

"When Romney came in, he treated government like the only thing he ever knew, which was big business, and he was the CEO of the big business," Story said.

Another lawmaker, Democratic state Rep. John Scibak, was far more blunt in his feelings about Romney.

"Many people said, 'Good riddance. Don't let the door hit you on the way out,' " Scibak quipped about Romney's decision to forgo a second term to run for the presidency in 2008.

Aides to the Romney campaign chalked up some of the hard feelings among State House Democrats to election-time loyalties to President Barack Obama. But the campaign called on another Democratic lawmaker, state Rep. Jim Vallee, to offer some positive comments on Romney's time as governor.

"I think you're getting a lot of partisan political comments," Vallee said in reference to the Democratic criticism of Romney.

"Did he have an ego? Absolutely," Vallee said. "But what do you expect?" he asked, describing Romney as "high-caliber."

"He wanted to turn the company around," Vallee said about Romney's hope to fix the state's fiscal problems. "I had a positive relationship with him. I know that some people did not."

Mike Widmer, a government watchdog with the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, noted Romney set aside his CEO approach to woo Democratic leaders to pass health care reform.

The law -- widely considered to be Romney's signature achievement -- is memorialized in his official State House portrait, sitting on a small table along with a framed picture of the former governor's wife, Ann.

Romney struggled in other areas such as job creation, Widmer said, in part because of the governor's CEO style. However, Romney was beginning to divert his attention to pursuing the White House, Widmer and other state lawmakers recalled.

"He clearly had his sights set on running nationally," Widmer said. "That was no secret. Certainly not among the political leaders."

State House insiders, such as Widmer, often contrast Romney's style with another recent Republican governor, William Weld, who seemed to revel in the kind of behind-closed-doors backslapping that Democrats had come to expect over the years.

"Governors aren't CEOs. They just aren't," Widmer said.

Democratic leaders, who now dominate the Massachusetts State House and control the governor's office, gleefully note the rope lines are gone and the Romney executive elevator has since been reopened to the general public.

Romney's Democratic successor, Gov. Deval Patrick, conceded he made those changes after taking office.

"I'm a governor of, with and for the people. We have a different style in that respect," Patrick said, adding he has great respect for Romney.

Vallee noted Patrick has also upset Democratic lawmakers with his reform efforts.

"You can pick apart any of these guys," Vallee said.

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