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Private equity could be back in the spotlight if Mitt Romney runs for president

Industry took a beating when Romney ran in 2012

New York CNN  — 

Add Wall Streeters to the list of Republican power players uneasy about the prospect of another Mitt Romney bid for the White House.

The corridors of high finance were the target of intense hostility during Romney’s last presidential run. President Barack Obama’s campaign successfully seized on the former Massachusetts governor’s time at private equity firm Bain Capital to paint a picture of an industry that destroys middle-class jobs while wealthy executives reap generous profits – often taxed at lower rates.

Financial executives remember the attacks in 2012 all too well and, faced with the possibility of another Romney campaign, are wary of another round of negative attention.

“His formal entry will shine brighter light on some of the issues in the industry that people in the industry would rather not have a bright light on,” said Jonathan Foster, managing director of the New York-based private equity firm Current Capital.

Romney told supporters Friday he won’t embark on another campaign.

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The Private Equity Growth Capital Council, a Washington trade group that spearheaded a campaign in 2012 to improve understanding about the industry, stood ready to beat back criticism if Romney went back on the campaign trail.

PEGCC is “prepared to engage and counter any mischaracterizations and attacks from the right or the left that could undermine the reputation of the private equity industry,” Ken Spain, the group’s vice president of public affairs, said in an email before Romney’s Friday announcement.

Romney faced widespread skepticism from plenty of fellow Republicans who questioned his conservatism and ability to bond with voters. Everyone from News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch to rank-and-file GOP members of Congress threw cold water on the idea of a third Romney campaign.

That would have made make finance – where Romney spent decades of his professional life – even more important as he sought political and financial support. In a sign of the industry’s significance, Romney made one of his first significant public acknowledgments that he is seriously considering another campaign to GOP donors in New York this month.

If Romney ran again, the spotlight would have again shone most brightly on the private equity sector, which acquires companies and restructures them with the end goal of turning a profit.

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Scott Meadow, a private equity investor who has done business with the former governor, said one of the biggest challenges in 2012 was to get the media to portray fairly the kind of work that PE does and the range of organizations, such as pension funds and endowments, the industry supports.

“It really felt like it was not in the interest by the press to get out – to really explain what the idiosyncrasies are and benefits are to private equity,” Meadow said, adding that there’s a prevailing sense among PE executives that it’s “a waste to go forward trying to defend the industry.”

But there’s no sign that the climate for Romney has improved since 2012. The wealth he accumulated during his years as a PE executive will still be scrutinized, as issues like income inequality and raising the minimum wage have become even more politically potent.

The midterm elections in November demonstrated that private equity – which had already become a better-known household phrase thanks to the 2012 elections – remains a rich target for criticism. In several key statewide races across the country, politicians with PE backgrounds, including gubernatorial candidates Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Tom Foley in Connecticut, were targeted by their opponents for their work in private equity as well as their massive wealth.

Rauner won his race, while Foley and other PE candidates, such as Senate hopeful Greg Orman in Kansas, were defeated.

“His opponent basically trashed the hell out of him and trashed the hell out of the fact that … companies that he invested in killed old people or something like that,” said Bill Daley, Obama’s former chief of staff, who served as an adviser on Rauner’s transition team. “Those sort of stories are tailor-made out of the private equity industry.”