Romney Was Attacked on Bain 18 Years Ago: Why Isn't He Ready for It Now?

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The Republican nominee's corporate past continues to haunt him, even though it's been part of his political baggage since 1994.

Mitt Romney in front of banner - AP Photo:Steve Pope - banner.jpg
Associated Press

Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital has been dragged back into the spotlight this week with the news that he remained legally in charge of the company for several years past the 1999 retirement date he's long claimed. And once again, he's been caught flat-footed.

One of the major mysteries of the whole Bain conversation continues to be why Romney seems to keep getting blindsided by it. This stuff isn't new. Since his first run for office -- his 1994 Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy -- Romney has run on his business record, and Democrats have responded by calling that record into question. Take this passage from a 2002 profile of Romney, then a gubernatorial candidate, in the Boston Globe (emphasis added):

Romney's business background became a liability in his unsuccessful 1994 challenge to US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, when he was panned as a cold-hearted capitalist whose venture firm routinely put profits over people, especially lower-paid workers. Romney failed to quickly grasp the impact of the accusations, or address them, a dynamic he later said led to his defeat.

The issue erupted over Ampad Corp., a paper company Bain Capital controlled.

In July 1994, Ampad bought an Indiana paper plant, fired the existing workers, and gave most employees their jobs back at reduced wages and benefits. Even though Romney was on leave from Bain for the campaign, the workers came to Massachusetts and dogged his campaign. Romney initially tried to justify the layoffs, defending them as necessary in corporate restructuring. Prodded by the workers to meet with them in Boston, Romney eventually did so, but even then, he further distanced himself, showing a diagram of Bain Capital's corporate structure, claiming he was not to blame.

Sound familiar? Romney's campaign denies the new reports, which rest on securities filings showing that Romney retained nominal control of the company as late as 2002. The upshot appears to be that Romney left his day-to-day post abruptly in 1999 in order to go to work rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, but didn't relinquish his legal title as CEO and continued to receive a six-figure salary.

Politically, the whole dispute has served as an opportunity for the Obama campaign to re-air its many attacks on Bain, including charges that the private equity firm's deals resulted in laid-off workers and outsourced jobs. Previously, Romney's principal response to attempts to pin these deals on him had been that he wasn't at Bain at the time; now, that defense has been significantly complicated.

Eighteen years after his first campaign, Romney has again failed to quickly grasp the impact of Bain-based accusations painting him as a cold-hearted capitalist. And once again, to defend himself, he's trying to hide behind an organizational chart when the company's activities are traced back to him.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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