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Activists Remember a Different Romney

Advocates for gay and abortion rights and the environment say the GOP candidate misled them on his positions.

by Peter Wallsten

BOSTON — As an abortion-rights advocate, Deborah Allen did not think she would find much in common with Mitt Romney. Then she heard his pitch.

If elected Massachusetts governor, Romney said in an endorsement meeting, he would "preserve and protect" legal abortion. The judges he picked would probably do the same. And then he said something so unexpected that Allen began to see Romney, a Republican whom she had considered an uncertain ally, as sincere in his search for common ground.

"You need someone like me in Washington," he said, according to Allen and two other abortion-rights activists, whose group was deciding whether to endorse Romney in the 2002 race for governor. Though running for state office, Romney hinted at national ambitions and said he would soften the GOP's position on abortion. The Republians' hard-line stance, he said, was "killing them."

Today, Romney is running for president and promising to pull the Republican Party in the opposite direction, returning it to the conservative principles of Ronald Reagan. He has renounced his support for abortion rights and has shifted his language on gay rights, campaign finance and other issues, bringing him more in step with Republican voters. He mocks Massachusetts, the state he led until January, as "sort of San Francisco East, Nancy Pelosi-style."

Though Romney's policy shifts have become widely known, his meetings with activists for abortion rights and other causes — which have received far less attention — show he put much work into winning support from Massachusetts' liberal establishment only a few years ago.

Making personal appeals on the state's liberal touchstones — gay rights, abortion rights and the environment — Romney developed a persuasive style, convincing audiences that his passion matched theirs and that he was committed to their causes.

He impressed environmentalists by using rhetoric sharper than theirs. He met gay-rights activists on their turf, in a restaurant attached to a popular gay bar, and told skeptics he would be a "good voice" and a moderating force within his party.

And in many cases, he said his commitment had been cemented by watching the suffering of someone dear to him: a grandchild whose asthma left him worried about air pollution; his wife's multiple sclerosis, which had him placing hope in embryonic stem cell research; the death of a distant relative in an illegal abortion, convincing him that the procedure needed to remain legal.

In discussing the need to combat global warming, he said he worried about his family's favorite vacation spot.

"He talked a lot about his kids and his family and the place they go to in New Hampshire on vacation," said Cindy Luppi, an official from the group Clean Water Action, who was impressed by Romney's concern about global warming in a 2003 meeting — and later disappointed when he unexpectedly pulled the state out of a regional compact on greenhouse gases.

"We really see these as promises that were made and broken, and an ethical breach for a person of faith who had worked really hard to create this public image as an upright kind of a family guy."

The Romney campaign said that Romney never broke a promise he made to activists, and that any discrepancies stemmed from interest groups' mistakes or agendas.

"People's memories change with time, and change depending on which way the political winds are blowing," said Eric Fehrnstrom, an advisor to Romney both when he was governor and now that he's a presidential candidate.

Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney ran for governor "as someone interested in fixing a broken state with what then was a languishing economy … making the case that he was someone with the energy and the resume and the experience to get things done."

Abortion reversal

When Romney tried to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994, he was accused of wavering on abortion rights. In one stinging exchange that echoed through the campaign, Kennedy said: "I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple-choice."

Running for governor, Romney told Allen and other officers of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts that he would steadfastly support abortion rights.

"There's a benefit to simplicity. I'm a strong believer in stating your position and not wavering," he said at the 2002 meeting with the group, according to notes taken by then-NARAL officer Nicole Roos that were private until being shared with the Los Angeles Times.

According to her notes, Romney insisted that only a "crisis" would cause him to change his mind on abortion. When the activists asked for an example of a crisis, he drew a puzzling parallel, noting that a Soviet attack on the U.S. might prompt an anti-tax president to raise taxes.

"I want to be really careful about not changing my position," Romney said, according to the notes. "I will do what I say I'll do."

Romney also argued that his judicial picks would be more likely to protect abortion rights than would those of a Democratic governor, according to notes of the meeting. After all, he reasoned, Massachusetts Republicans tended to favor abortion rights.

Romney promised to fight efforts by some conservatives to require abstinence-only sex education in schools, rather than courses that mention condoms and other forms of contraception. And he presented himself as a future ally.

"He said, 'I will be a voice of reason' " within the GOP, recalled Allen. "He said, 'That makes me useful to you, because people will note that a more moderate position succeeded.' " The group ultimately endorsed Romney's Democratic opponent.

Romney reversed his stance on abortion in 2005 and now calls himself "firmly pro-life." He attributed his change of heart to insights about early human life that he gained during the debate over embryonic stem cell research.

Fehrnstrom, who attended the NARAL meeting, said Romney's promise during the session was to avoid pushing for changes to the state's abortion laws if elected governor — a commitment Romney kept. He said Romney was clear about his opinions in the meeting, saying, for example, that he should not be called "pro-choice."

Fehrnstrom said he did not remember any discussion of judges or Romney saying he would moderate the GOP position on abortion, despite those topics appearing in the NARAL officers' notes.

Change on gay issues?

When Romney huddled with dozens of gay activists for an endorsement meeting in 2002, at the restaurant attached to the gay bar, some of his appeals were similar to those he had made on abortion.

As with the abortion-rights activists, Romney promised the Log Cabin Republicans he would push against social conservatives on such issues as domestic partnerships for gays.

And, as with the NARAL meeting, some activists left the room thinking that Romney was closer to their position on key issues than he now says he was.

Romney was quoted in the media that year opposing same-sex marriage and same-sex civil unions. Still, after talking to Romney, some at the Log Cabin meeting thought he was sympathetic to their views on that issue, though clearly trying to navigate its touchy semantics.

"He said, 'Call it whatever you want. Just don't use the M-word,' " recalled businessman Richard Babson.

Babson also recalls Romney being asked at the meeting about a newly adopted Vermont law permitting civil unions. "It seemed to me that he was sympathetic on civil unions, that he was not quite there on marriage, but that he was also sympathetic on same-sex adoption and on gays and lesbians having families," Babson said.

Patrick Guerriero, a prominent Log Cabin member, told the Bay Windows newspaper immediately after the meeting that Romney showed he was in agreement with the community on every major issue. "If you go down his list, it's pretty much a check-off of the real hot-button concerns for gays and lesbians," Guerriero said. "I do believe that, and as you know I'm a supporter of gay marriage."

Romney won the Log Cabin endorsement.

In seeking the Republican nomination for president, Romney strikes a different posture on issues important to gays.

When addressing social conservatives, Romney makes fighting same-sex marriage and the 2003 Massachusetts court ruling that legalized it a cornerstone of his appeals. And on the campaign trail, he has portrayed same-sex parenthood as a danger to children, saying that "every child deserves a mother and a father."

Madden, the Romney campaign spokesman, said Romney had consistently opposed same-sex marriage and civil unions. Madden said the campaign did not want to comment on why anyone in the meeting would have thought otherwise.

Romney, he added, has always "opposed discrimination based on sexual orientation."

Environmental surprise

After he won the 2002 election, Romney continued his courtship of the state's liberal interest groups. For example, he directed his staff to draw up an aggressive plan to combat climate change, pleasing environmentalists.

Weeks after taking office, the new governor led an army of staffers and activists to Salem, north of Boston, for a news conference outside a coal-fired power plant. He was there to demand that the plant draft a cleanup plan by the next year.

The new governor said something that struck the environmental activists as remarkable. "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people," Romney said in a heated exchange. "And that plant — that plant kills people."

"I thought, 'Whoa, I wouldn't even say that,' " recalled Lori Ehrlich, a local activist who wanted the plant cleanup.

Several months afterward, Romney again displayed a commitment to environmental causes when he met with religious leaders to discuss his forthcoming plan to combat climate change, a 50-page document that Romney himself had edited, making line-by-line changes.

Sister Tess Browne, a Roman Catholic nun, said she was particularly moved during the meeting when Romney spoke of his concerns that global warming would jeopardize not just U.S. coastal cities but those in poorer countries, such as Bangladesh.

Romney told the group he was "terrified" about global warming, a phenomenon he described as "quite alarming," according to notes taken by one of the participants, Nancy Davidge of the Episcopal Divinity School at Harvard University.

Then, in December 2005, Romney surprised even his own staff by pulling the plug on a key element of his environmental agenda. Romney withdrew Massachusetts from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative agreement with other Northeastern states. Though Romney's team had taken a lead role in crafting it, the plan could prove too costly to power-plant owners and consumers, the governor said.

In its place, Romney revised state regulations on gas emissions, but added protections against rising costs.

Campaign aides say the state law fulfilled Romney's commitment to fight global warming.

"There will always be differences in how people on the far left of the environmental lobby view how the governor approaches these issues," Madden said.

Some activists say they were misled. "I thought we had sat down with him in good faith," said Browne. "It seemed as though he was making a commitment."

Romney's pullout from the regional deal was welcomed by business leaders, and it came at a politically sensitive time. The same day of his decision, Romney announced that he was not running for reelection as governor, a suggestion that he would soon focus on the White House.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

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