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George Romney Gone Bust

The Michigan governor's record doesn't look very presidential.

Mr. George Romney, the honorable Governor of Michigan, has promised apprehensive Republican legislators of his state that he will not actively seek the Presidential nomination. But he plans to make out-of-state speeches all the way from Florida to Hawaii. If Governor Romney were to win the Presidential nomination, it would throw the Michigan gubernatorial race into chaos. The deadline for filing in the gubernatorial primary is June 16 – well before the GOP national convention; the primary election will be held on August 4 – shortly after the convention. Romney says he will run for re-election as Governor. But, if he withdrew from the Governor’s race, a replacement would have to be designated by the Republican State Central Committee, thereby denying Republicans the privilege of choosing a gubernatorial nominee in an open primary. One thing is clear about Romney's position: he will do everything in his power to block Goldwater. He greeted Goldwater’s announcement of candidacy with conspicuous coolness. However, Goldwater is unquestionably the favorite of most Michigan Republicans. His forces are well organized, and he has more visible strength than Romney, whose key proposals have failed ignobly in a legislature controlled by his own party. His program to straighten out Michigan’s tangled tax structure – the main plank of his governorship – ended in a sorry wreck without even coming to a vote. His administration has been plagued by conflict, confusion and contradiction, and at times he has seemed incapable of coping with simple arithmetic.

Romney’s program realigned $306 million in state revenues by granting relief to business, retirees and property owners, and imposing a state income tax of 2 percent on individuals, 3 1/2 percent on corporations and 6 percent on financial institutions. Romney insisted the program would not raise total taxes. The plan authorized cities to enact a vehicle tax and an income tax of one percent on residents, half of one percent on non-residents, but banned local income taxes on corporations to make way for the new state tax, to the great annoyance of Detroit.

Detroit Mayor Cavanagh protested that the Romney plan would cost Detroit $9 to $11 million by reducing the yield from the city’s income tax. Romney insisted the loss would be only S4 million. After a confused series of meetings between Detroit officials and Romney aides, the conflict was unresolved, although it appears that the Mayor’s figures were correct. Romney then stated that he had reached a compromise agreement with Cavanagh – which Cavanagh flatly denied.

As Romney began to push his tax program through the legislature, the mathematics of the situation dictated only one course of action: coalition. The legislature had 58 Republicans and 52 Democrats in the House, and 22 Republicans and 12 Democrats in the Senate. The Democrats had traditionally supported tax reform, the Republicans had opposed it. Therefore the Governor had first to win over the Democrats and then pick up the Republican votes necessary for passage – four in the House and six in the Senate.

But to nearly everyone’s amazement, Romney followed an opposite course: he went after Republican votes and tended to freeze out the Democrats. “He stumbled over his Presidential ambitions,” said one legislator. “He didn't want to lose the tax fight, but he didn't want to risk alienating his own party either.”

Recognizing that Romney was heading for trouble, Senator Stanley G. Thayer, GOP Senate leader, apparently with the Governor’s sanction, sought help from the Democrats. But when the news leaked out, Romney issued a stunning rebuke of Thayer, from which Thayer has yet to recover.

In desperation, Romney made an 11th-hour plea for Democratic votes. It was too late. A series of Romney tactical errors had placed Democrats in a position where they could with some justification oppose the Romney program. None of the Romney tax bills was ever voted on. The program died in a parliamentary vote in the House, 47 to 44. Thirty-one Democrats and 16 Republicans voted against it.

Romney blamed his defeat on “legislative members of both parties – not just Republicans and not just Democrats – who are more interested in self-preservation or in playing narrow partisan politics than in supporting needed state programs.” He also accepted some of the blame himself, and listed lobbyists’ pressure and citizens’ apathy as other factors. But this month Romney changed his tune. Democratic legislators, he said, were exclusively responsible for the failure of tax reform, “and they shall not be able to escape the consequences.

A Slap from HEW

Before becoming Governor in 1962, Romney said he would ask for enabling legislation that would qualify Michigan for federal assistance to dependent children of unemployed persons. Such assistance would ease the state's welfare burden by an estimated $10 million a year. The Governor argued that since Michigan contributed far more to the federal government than it got back, it was imperative for the state to take full advantage of the ADC-U program.

In a commendable victory, Romney succeeded in pushing his ADC-U bill through the legislature. But no sooner was the bill passed than it touched off a confusing and sometimes ludicrous series of events. It quickly ran afoul of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which declared that since it excluded the children of one-third of the state’s work force, the bill was “arbitrary, discriminatory and unreasonable.” Michigan, therefore, would receive no money. The bill excluded all who were not covered by unemployment insurance, and Michigan's unemployment compensation laws cover only two-thirds of the labor force.

Lies and distortions, Romney retorted. Children not covered by the bill were already being taken care of through state welfare programs. But the Governor apparently missed the point: under the federal plan, recipients would get 30 percent more than under the state setup. Besides, if it were important for Michigan to get its full share of federal aid, how could Romney object to a more liberal bill which would do precisely that for the state?

Romney protested that it was the prerogative of the state, not the federal government, to determine ADC-U eligibility. He held stubbornly to this position. When urged to press for a broader bill that would meet federal standards, he stalled. The original bill, he insisted, was perfectly sound. The issue dragged on.

The Dynamic Executive

“I hope the Governor is having his kicks,” a welfare official remarked acidly. “It's costing the state $30,000 a day and depriving these kids of a better standard of living.” The impasse so enraged Detroit Mayor Cavanagh, whose hard-pressed city stood to gain $2.2 million in ADC-U assistance, that he accused Romney of intending to enhance his Presidential prospects by using ADC-U to project a states’ rights issue at the national Governors’ Conference – which Romney did. The matter was further confused when Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley ruled that the Romney ADC-U bill denied equal protection of the law, and was therefore unconstitutional. Romney, who had been at odds with Kelley and therefore had not sought his opinion before presenting his legislation, disputed the Attorney General’s ruling.

“I have consulted private legal counsel; they have assured me the bill is constitutional,” Romney said, adding that he planned to take the matter to court, which started people wondering what had possessed him to let private lawyers issue governmental rulings. Who were these lawyers, and how could they say the bill was constitutional when the state's duly elected Attorney General said it wasn't. No answers were forthcoming from Romney.

Finally, Romney reluctantly surrendered. He would, he announced, move for a new ADC-U bill that would fully comply with federal standards. He told newsmen the real trouble was that the federal law had been changed, presumably clandestinely, before the Michigan bill was passed – a statement which was patently untrue. “Everyone knew it wasn’t true,” said one reporter. “It made you wonder how far this guy would go to protect his ego.”

The matter was not yet closed. After his surrender, Romney was urged to speed up ADC-U payments by including the bill in a special session of the legislature, which was to convene in two weeks and that would be limited to an agenda prescribed by the Governor. He refused – yet he later asked the special session to act on a $35 million appropriation to build a complex of state office buildings.

The episode left a disturbing trail of unanswered questions. Why were the discriminatory provisions written into the bill in the first place? Why did Romney short-circuit his own Attorney General? Why did he withhold pertinent public information, and issue statements of doubtful veracity? If he was convinced of the bill’s legality, why didn't he seek a court test, as he indicated he would? And did his action in giving the building program precedence over ADC-U reflect his own values?

Two years ago, Romney soared on to the Michigan political scene, promising deliverance from partisan stalemate, and a millennium of “citizens’ participation.” The image was of a handsome, virtuous, dynamic corporation executive, the man who had shaped up American Motors, a go-getter.

He rapidly outlined a “blueprint for action” that called for two “action-packed” legislative sessions, and he began work on a “jobs and justice” tax program, announced appointments based on “character, competence and capacity,” and inaugurated “citizens’ Thursdays” to listen to the plight of the Common Man (provided his plight could be stated in five minutes).

Eleven months later, the glamor had faded and the slogans rang hollow. “We have seen a great deal of showmanship but precious little statesmanship,"” concluded a Lansing observer.

Governor Romney, keeping a time-honored Michigan tradition, points an accusing finger at the “blind, narrow partisanship” of the legislature. Over the years, the malapportioned, Republican-controlled legislature has been the graveyard of progressive legislation. The Republicans locked horns with Democratic governors and were chiefly responsible for a crippling partisan stalemate which blackened Michigan as a state of financial instability and political schizophrenia. But this is precisely the situation which Romney insisted that he would cure. Besides, since 1958 a Republican moderate movement (with no help from Romney) has gradually altered the character of the legislature. Many of the old guard have been dumped and replaced by forward-looking young attorneys and businessmen. So far as state legislatures go, which admittedly isn't very far, Michigan’s probably ranks with the best.

Governor Romney, therefore, inherited a legislature which was both favorably disposed toward his program and to an important extent controlled by his own supporters – particularly in the Senate, where Republican moderates dethroned the old guard and took decisive command of key leadership posts. Despite this good fortune, Romney failed to muster even the degree of bipartisan support enjoyed by the Democratic Governor he replaced.

Associates complain that the Governor is a self-righteous, fiercely ambitious man with a bad temper and a messianic sense of destiny. Taken separately, none of these traits is especially uncommon in political figures; it is the combination that appears to cause difficulty. Also, he has an oversimplified, horse-opera sense of morality, which neatly divides the world into good guys and bad guys; and an unshakeable conviction of the rightness of anything he undertakes, which permits him to rationalize personal inconsistency and contradiction.

When something goes wrong, Romney tends to look around irritably for a a scapegoat. This has led one critic to remark that he is like a little boy who has dropped an egg; it isn’t his fault, it’s the egg’s. “Lies and distortions” has become the Romney rallying cry. To the bewilderment of the people, his handling of every key issue has involved a conflict over basic facts that is somehow never resolved. “Romney says one thing, then somebody else says the opposite. I can’t figure out what the hell’s going on,” said a Michigan factory worker.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Romney first got the notion that he might some day be President of the United States. Perhaps it grew out of his work in Washington in the Thirties as an assistant to Massachusetts Senator David Walsh, a Democrat, and as lobbyist for the aluminum industry. The official Romney biography, a remarkable document that reads like a cross between Horatio Alger and the Book of Revelations, makes pointed reference to the office of the Presidency.

Since President Kennedy’s assassination, Romney has been working hard to offset the damage of his legislative failures. His new strategy is to keep his hopes alive through a periphery action to influence the GOP platform, a tactic successfully employed by Rockefeller in 1960. But it is difficult to see how Romney would be able to influence much of anything at the convention. In a situation where power is the only coin of the realm, he possesses precious little of it. Finally, it is not clear whether Romney, who was born in Mexico whither his grandfather had fled in 1885 to avoid prosecution for alleged polygamy, would be eligible for the Presidency.

No one is ever likely to find out, for, in view of the Governor’s troubled relationship with Michigan Republicans, his prospects of capturing the nomination seem reasonably remote. Months ago, the conservatives said, “We accept Governor Romney’s statement that he is not a candidate for the Presidential nomination,” and, to Romney’s dismay, proceeded to organize the state for Goldwater. Rockefeller supporters have done the same for their candidate.

In the gubernatorial race this year Romney probably will face Congressman-at-large Neil Staebler, who during his 10 years as Democratic state chairman masterminded the victories of six-term G. Mennen Williams, and Governor Swainson. Romney has lost the slight Negro support he enjoyed in 1962. Organized labor, which granted him a small measure of support in 1962, is unlikely to do so this year. His battles with Mayor Cavanagh have damaged his standing in Detroit. A strong Johnson vote could destroy him, as could a slump in auto sales or a revival of the deadly Detroit income-tax bill. Conceivably, he could score important gains in the 1964 legislative session, but even Romney considers this doubtful: 1964 promises to be even more turbulent than 1963.

As public relations director of the Oakland County Republican organization and public information officer for the Michigan constitutional convention, Charles A. Ferry was a close observer of the series of events that led to Mr. Romney's election.

This article originally ran in the January 25, 1964 issue of the magazine.