BOSTON – Mitt Romney is remembered by some in Massachusetts’ Jewish community as a distant figure on a grassroots level, a governor with whom their main interaction came during the effort to pass a groundbreaking healthcare reform providing near-universal coverage for state residents.
Today it’s the very subject that the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president wishes would disappear.
“He was an absolutely key visionary player in the reform that was passed,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who in 2006, when the legislation was approved, was co-chair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, an interfaith group that helped push the bi-partisan effort for healthcare reform in Massachusetts as part of a broader coalition advocating for change.
“I give him enormous credit. He was willing to see the moral case that every member of the commonwealth was insured,” said Pesner. “He is a deeply religious person and when we, the Jewish and Christian communities, made a moral case, it resonated.”
But in the many meetings Pesner attended with Romney at the time, he found a governor who did not appear to relish getting to know people on a personal or communal level, rarely remembering names or affiliations.
“He was distant and aloof and it was very frustrating, although on the one hand he did do the right thing,” said Pesner, now senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “He is not a grassroots person. He does not connect. He could have really connected with the Jewish community in a deeper way.”
Most recently Romney, the presidential candidate has been reaching out to the national Jewish community in taking a strong line on Israel and speaking on the bonds of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
It is that commitment to Israel that Jewish Republicans in Massachusetts point to when describing why Romney is close to the Jewish community in the state and nationwide.
One of them is Ted Cutler, a prominent Boston businessman who has been close with Romney since his failed 1994 run for senate against the late Ted Kennedy. A former business partner of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who is a prominent donor to Israeli and Republican causes, Cutler insists those that describe Romney as detached just don’t understand his nature.
“That is Mitt, he’s not aloof. That’s just his personality. He’s a listener, not a talker,” Cutler said. “He is very close to the Jewish community. Those Jewish supporters who supported him during his time as governor are still supporting him now.”
He said Romney has a personal warmth shown in deeds. He told of a surprise visit Romney and his wife Ann paid him at his synagogue on Rosh Hashanah after hearing that Cutler’s wife had just died. The Romneys had been in California. “They flew back all night long to there,” he said.
Cutler accompanied Romney on three trips to Israel, the first of which took place towards the end of his term as governor. He said Romney received a standing ovation when he spoke about Iran at the Hertzliya Conference. Cutler also noted Romney’s close friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which dates back many years, he said.
Nancy Kaufman, who was director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston during Romney’s 2003-2007 term, remembers Romney as more of a policy-focused governor, than one focused on grassroots outreach. The council advocates for social justice causes on behalf of the Jewish community.
But, she said, “It was a very close working relationship. He has a profound appreciation of faith-based groups.”
“In terms of respect for religion he was very careful to bring around table the Muslims, Jews and Christian communities. I don’t think his Mormon faith entered into politics. The only time I even remembered (that he was Mormon) was when there was no wine at functions at the statehouse,” joked Kaufman, currently the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Romney, whose Mormon faith has made him somewhat suspect among some in the Republicans’ evangelical base, has, some would argue, given him something in common with Jews who are also sensitive to a status of “outsiders” when it comes to religion in America.
Kaufman said that although the governor and the Jewish community “parted company” on policy issues American Jews tend to be more liberal about, like gay marriage and access to college for illegal immigrants, they did come together on not only healthcare reform but also efforts to find house refugees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Larry Lowenthal, who during Romney’s administration was director of the American Jewish Committee, noted that healthcare reform was important to the Jewish community both as a Jewish value and as a real problem within the community where young people especially were graduating from college without health coverage.
“It was a moment in time when a number of key players made the political judgment that there was a unique opportunity to pass healthcare reform,” he said. But Lowenthal said that there is a measure of frustration in the Jewish community and beyond that Romney, who began his 2008 campaign for president two years into his term, did not invest deeply enough in the state not to mention the Jewish community.
“On the state level, he just had a kind of bland, tenuous, uninvolved presence in the Jewish community. That was my overall impression,” said Lowenthal.
Massachusetts is a solidly Democrat state as is the state’s Jewish population. Romney ran for governor as a liberal Republican, supporting issues like healthcare reform and abortion rights that he has since shifted in running for president.
The current governor, Deval Patrick , by contrast is seen as a more hands-on presence in the community, seen dining at a well-known diner in Newton, a Boston suburb with a large Jewish population, and often in attendance at Jewish communal meetings.
For Ruth Balser, a Democrat in the Massachusetts state legislature who is Jewish, the one issue of contention that stood out between the governor and local Jews was Romney’s 2003 decision to veto financial support for the Kosher kitchens at Jewish old age homes as part of a broader attempt to cut a tight budget.
It’s an issue that was resurrected in the presidential campaign by Newt Gingrich who brought it up in Florida while courting Jewish voters.
Some in Massachusetts’ Jewish communal leadership circles claim the issue was exaggerated at the time and once again by Gingrich.
The legislature ultimately overturned Romney’s veto.
“His behavior, which he thought of as a legitimate cost-cutting measure, I experienced as insensitive,” said Balser.
As for Romney’s attempts to distance himself from his healthcare record in Massachusetts, Pesner, the rabbi who watched the process from up close, is disappointed.
“I think he’s making a huge mistake,” Pesner said. “I wish he could say it’s not about Democrats or Republicans but say it’s a moral issue. “