Romney's Diversity Record Could Prove Awkward

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It's not just that "Who let the dogs out" video. When it comes to race, Romney's background in Massachusetts that could prove just as uncomfortable.

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As the four Republican presidential contenders fight on from Michigan, the question of what the next culture-war skirmish in the campaign will be looms. One possibility is affirmative action and racial preferences, long a hot-button issue for the conservative base and once again on the national radar with the U.S. Supreme Court preparing to re-examine the last major affirmative action ruling in higher education.

Here, as with so much about the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney's record on diversity and affirmative action could bolster his conservative bona fides in the GOP primaries -- now likely to continue for months -- but also put him on the defensive in a general election contest, especially against the nation's first black president.

Conservatives might cheer the fact that Romney nixed a statewide affirmative action policy created by in the early 1980s by Michael Dukakis, and later sought to initiate, for the first time, a steep fee to file complaints with the agency that handles discrimination charges against businesses. But Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he created, hired few African Americans for professional posts, and Romney was criticized as governor for his lackluster promotion of women and minorities to the judiciary.

Weeks after taking office in 2003, Romney quickly and quietly eliminated the state's 20-year-old Office of Affirmative Action -- and with it all diversity-hiring guidelines -- by signing an executive order on Bunker Hill Day, a holiday when prying Beacon Hill lawmakers and media were off work. Romney replaced the hiring guidelines with streamlined policies of his own that critics charged effectively undid the intent of the initiative entirely.

Leonard Alkins, who at the time was president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, still thinks the way Romney dismantled the office under the radar says a lot about him. "He was very disingenuous. It was clear he was patronizing to a lot of people when it came to civil-rights issues," Alkins said.

Outrage ensued. Romney, who created a task force as part of his executive order but had not included the NAACP, added Alkins and other civil-rights advocates. The task force made recommendations, but Romney never implemented them, Alkins said, instead going forward with his earlier streamlined plan.

Romney's record extended beyond terminating the office that enforced affirmative action to imposing what many called a new financial barrier to seeking racial justice.

As part of his 2003 budget plan, Romney proposed a $125 fee to file complaints at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination -- the first in the agency's history. The Democrat-controlled Legislature rejected the fee. Today, there is no fee to file complaints with the agency, according to a spokeswoman.

The governor was also slow to appoint African Americans and women to the bench.

Two years into his term, Romney came under fire for the lack of diversity among his judicial nominees -- of the 19 put up for the bench, just two were black and 17 were men. A year later, there was an uptick in women and black appointments. Romney claimed that qualified judicial nominees weren't getting to his desk, and blamed the board he appointed to screen candidates for the bench for not sending on qualified minorities and women. So he overhauled the board. Critics questioned the governor's motives and commitment to diversity, and pointed to the composition of the nearly all-white panel he'd put in place to vet nominees.

Perhaps not coincidentally, one report noted, Romney's reaction was timed to put safely conservative picks on the courts at the same time that he weighed a presidential bid.

However, even before becoming governor in 2002, Romney combated public concerns about his feelings about equality.

As a candidate for U.S. Senate, Romney was walloped in 1994 for running a "white boy's club" at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he founded, because none of its 40 employees were black.

At the time, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II was acting as a campaign "attack dog" for his embattled uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was in the tightest contest of his life. Joseph Kennedy just a day earlier had whacked Romney's Mormon faith, saying it made blacks and women "second-class citizens," and now was bashing Romney's firm's hiring practices.

In response, Romney slammed the younger Kennedy for "outrageous" attacks on his faith, and added he personally chose a woman to take over as chief executive officer at Bain.

Yet Romney was forced to concede Bain didn't have any blacks working for it, though it did have some minorities in mid-level positions. A Boston Globe story later put the count at two Asians in unidentified posts.

Today, Bain Capital has some 400 employees. It's public website shows there are more that two dozen senior professionals with Indian and Asian surnames, and two who appear to be African American.

A spokeswoman declined to comment on the firm's hiring practices, but Bain said in a statement: "We are proud that we have a talented and global workforce that is diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic."

Romney was also forced in the Senate campaign to defend an old Mormon doctrine, reversed in 1978, forbidding black priests. Romney claimed to have cried joyfully when learning the ban was reversed.

In 2007, Romney also got himself in hot water when he said his late father, former Michigan governor and vocal civil-rights advocate George Romney, had marched in Detroit in 1963 with Martin Luther King Jr. Media reports showed that was untrue.

Alkins believes that story, along with the others, illustrates a larger problem Romney had as governor: changing his views and recollections as convenient.

"People of color are not amused with the answers he gives to questions about race," Alkins said. "He's continuously insulting people with his responses. Why would you bring up your deceased father when it's not true?"

It's not just African Americans who may find Romney's record troubling. Even some Republicans, like Boston-area strategist Todd Domke, said Romney will look out of touch in a general election because of his background.

"The danger is not just that the African American vote will be just as high for President Obama in 2008, the danger is so many young people will not accept anything less than absolute fairness in civil rights," Domke said. "A lot of white voters supported Obama because they thought as a society we'd moved past the old racial divides. It's an issue he can't ignore."

Image: YouTube

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Edward Mason is former statehouse bureau chief for The Eagle-Tribune. He has written for Salon, the Boston Herald, and the Boston Globe

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