Friends see a warm, charitable man with a sense of duty rooted in his Mormon faith. So why is so much of his past kept under wraps?
By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times This post has been corrected. Please see note below. August 25, 2012, 6:37 p.m.
BOSTON — Edward Albertian had been working for only a few weeks at his new job, managing the first two Boston-area Staples stores, when he got an unnerving call from his wife. As Staples staffed up, Albertian had been poaching talent from his old company, and his former boss was piqued.
That morning, a courier had delivered papers to Albertian’s wife threatening them with eviction unless they immediately repaid the $250,000 loan from Albertian’s former company that they had used to buy their home.
A few days later the couple, with their newborn son and 2-year-old daughter in tow, were invited to Staples’ Watertown headquarters and found themselves sitting across from Mitt Romney, whose company, Bain Capital, had invested money in Staples. He had heard about their predicament from the chain’s co-founder, Tom Stemberg.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mitt Romney: A Page 1 article on Aug. 26 about Mitt Romney’s public image and his lesser-known acts of generosity said he helped arrange a multi-day search for the missing daughter of one of his partners at Bain Capital who was later found in a New Jersey basement. The article said she was tied up; she was not. —
They talked for less than half an hour about the young store manager’s goals and his role in the company. Then, “Mitt opened his checkbook and wrote a check for $250,000,” Albertian, who is now chief operating officer of the Massachusetts-based Transnational Group, said of the 1987 encounter.”He said, ‘You’re going to be great. As soon as you sell the house, then you can pay me back, but I want you to focus on Staples and building this into a great company,'” Albertian said. (Stemberg later assumed the loan, and Albertian paid it back over a number of years).
That was the Mitt Romney known to friends and business associates: a man generous to those in need, whose charitable acts stemmed from a deeply rooted sense of duty to help his neighbors.
That is not the Mitt Romney that America has seen in the six years he has been running for the nation’s highest office. That man was typified by Romney’s response little more than a year ago when he was asked by the Las Vegas Review-Journal about another housing issue: What he would do about the foreclosure crisis that was costing thousands of Nevadans their homes?
“Let it run its course and hit the bottom,” Romney said. “Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up, and let it turn around and come back up.”
The dissonance between Romney’s expansive private generosity and the way he came across in Nevada reflects a conflict at the heart of his second bid for the presidency. Much of what America knows about Romney personally is one-dimensional and politically troublesome — his wealth, his low tax rate, a tenure at Bain Capital that created jobs but also layoffs. The result: In almost every poll, more voters than not see him in a negative light.
If the country knows little about what makes Mitt Romney tick, that is in large part because the campaign has walled off large swaths of his background, including some of the most humanizing components, to public discussion.
George W. Bush connected with voters by revealing his struggle with alcoholism and his path to redemption through his faith. President Obama shared stories about growing up with a single mother. Romney has forgone those sorts of personal anecdotes; instead, his narrative has focused on others — like his father’s path from being a carpenter who sold paint cans from the trunk of his car to becoming the head of American Motors.
For more than a year, Romney relentlessly hammered at President Obama on economic and budgetary matters, only recently switching to attacks centered on welfare. That strategy left largely unspoken by the candidate three of the most important elements of his life: his Mormon faith and related acts of charity; his time at Bain Capital; and his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts, the state’s healthcare plan — all matters deemed politically problematic.
As a result, 10 weeks before the election Romney remains an enigma to many Americans.
Democrats have done their best to fill in the blanks, pairing stories about Bain deals that led to layoffs with Romney’s plans to shrink federal programs for the poor or shift them to the states. The result: Some of his closest friends and former colleagues say the portrait of Romney as a cold, calculating businessman bears little resemblance to the man they know.
Romney’s advisors have long shrugged off his likability problem, arguing that voters care most about competence and insisting that Obama’s middling job approval rating is a far more important number.
But in recent days advisors have signaled an intent to fill in the portrait of Romney. Last Sunday, for the first time, his campaign invited reporters to watch Romney attend church, one of its first formal recognitions of his faith. This week’s Republican National Convention looms as their biggest opportunity to flesh Romney out with testimonials from people he has helped throughout his business career and through his church.
While some might see a contradiction between Romney’s private acts of generosity and his plans to shrink government programs that help the poor or college students, those close to him say there is none. It stems from his belief in individual responsibility and self-reliance, and the view that every American has a duty to help others either through their community or through their church.