Friday, April 13, 2007

Mitt Romney: Good to go with the Illinois GOP Base, or is there a Kjellander issue?

In his first press conference with the Chicago media [held yesterday afternoon at the Hilton Suites Chicago in the Loop], Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney seemed at ease, disciplined and well spoken-- and he displayed a good sense of humor—an often undervalued virtue in politics. Romney is a Harvard MBA and Harvard Law School Graduate [cum laude, but unlike Barack Obama, not President of the Harvard Law Review]. He was a private sector entrepreneur, venture capitalist and turnaround artist who fixed the 2002 Olympics. After losing to Senator Teddy Kennedy in 1994, Romney found that the second time was the charm when he became Governor of Massachusetts in 2002, winning over the State Treasurer-- who Romney argued was somewhat responsible for the state's financial mess-- sound familiar?

Romney's short stint in Chicago included a late morning meeting with Mayor Daley on Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics and the problems of cities; a meeting with a half dozen or so potential donors followed by a 1:30 pm presser with about a half dozen cameras and a dozen members of the media; and then a 2:00 pm meeting with some "Republican Party activists." Then the Governor was on to St. Louis, Mo. Such is the life of a Presidential candidate. Fun, huh?

Mitt Romney began the presser with a three minute statement and then answered questions for about thirteen minutes on a wide range of topics. The questions related, but were not limited to, the Massachusetts universal healthcare insurance program that Romney promoted and passed [with some modifications by the legislature] during his 2002-06 gubernatorial tenure, the Iraq War and the emerging war funding impasse between the President and Congress, Romney’s reversal [or evolution] of positions on (a) abortion and (b) “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell,” the state of the Republican Party in Illinois and Romney’s leadership team in the Land of Lincoln. See generally here and here.

Toward the end of the presser, Mitt Romney’s traveling press secretary, Eric Fehrnstrom, gave the usual press conference version of a two minute warning, i.e., “One more question.” This was just after the Governor had said, “I don’t know if we have announced our [Leadership] team here [in Illinois]…”which kind of implied he had a team in place.

Since we had already covered some of the basic national issues with Massachusetts’ former Governor, this reporter’s last wish- or question—was to ask about Bob Kjellander, aka long-time friend of Karl Rove, being resurrected, so to speak, as Romney’s guy, as has been rumored. Kjellander, the arch-enemy of most of the base of the Illinois Republican Party and especially the Party’s activists, rejected a request from the Republican Party State Central Committee earlier this year to step down, due to some ethical [or worse] issues, as one of Illinois’ two Republican National Committeemen. [See here].

It is at times like this that the media can take the measure of a Presidential candidate. That is, faced with a bit of controversy, will the candidate punt? Should he punt? Is it a sloppy or well-executed punt? Did the candidate mean to say “we don’t have our Illinois leadership team chosen yet,” when he said “we have not announced our Illinois leadership team yet.” Does the candidate know much, if anything, about the controversy involving Kjellander? [See here for more about KJ] Should the candidate know about this stuff? Would Obama know about Texas Democratic Politics?

Alternatively, do Romney’s staffers know about Kjellander’s heavy baggage and have they briefed him? At least one staffer in the Romney campaign has indicated unfamiliarity on the staffer’s part with Kjellander. That is not terribly surprising . The campaign, although raising 21 million dollars in the first quarter, has officially been going for only two months. Thus, lack of knowledge of every state’s internal Republican Party politics is not too surprising or damning.

On the other hand, Romney should get some sense, soon, of what is happening with Kjellander and his critics. This is because it is not simply a matter of say, one ethical issue, with Committeeman Kjellander. The Party activists view KJ as the Republican Poster boy for “Pay to Play.” Pay to play denotes a bi-partisan requirement of many Illinois pols to require campaign contributions for the privilege of doing business with the state, or sometimes, for doing business at all.

Republican Party activists argue, as Republican Primary gubernatorial candidate Pat O'Malley first did in 2002, that the real schism in the Illinois Republican Party is not between social moderates and social conservatives, but between Reformers, who want to abolish Pay to Play, and non-reformers, who want to institutionalize, or already have institutionalized, Pay to Play.

Thus, a Romney association with Mr. Kjellander would almost surely be a deal breaker for the State GOP activists. That raises the ante a bit for the answer to Berkowitz’s question. What did presidential candidate Romney do with Berkowitz’s question and was Romney’s response, all things considered, the best decision? We discuss, you decide.
Another reporter: Governor, do you have a chairman for your campaign, here, in Illinois or are you shopping around for one and how can you or any Republican really hope to win Illinois based on the last couple of Presidential elections?

Mitt Romney: …I don’t know that we have announced our team here in Chicago…or in Illinois, so I am not going to announce that right now. I just don’t know whether we have put that out yet, but we will, at some stage—

Another reporter: Do you have a high-profile Republican who--

Mitt Romney: I do have some very significant leaders in the community here who are supporting my effort and have been helpful to me in my fundraising effort. Illinois is one of my most important fundraising states and I anticipate doing well here in the primaries.

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s traveling press secretary: One more question. One more question.

Jeff Berkowitz [] There are rumors—there are rumors that it could be Bob Kjellander [Controversial Republican National committeeman from Illinois]. Is Bob Kjellander involved in your Illinois campaign?

Mitt Romney: [Romney pauses and then looks away from Berkowitz—not the first pol to do that-- and Governor Romney, to his credit, had answered, earlier in the presser, two other questions, with follow-ups from Berkowitz]

Jack Conaty [Fox News Chicago, WFLD, Chief Political Correspondent]: Governor, how important is a candidate’s personal life. Much has been made about the fact that other candidates in the Republican field have been divorced. Is that really a factor in this race. Is divorce in a candidate’s background a factor?

Mitt Romney: Well, it is up to the American people to determine what are the factors in the race. I am not going to suggest to people what they look at and what they don’t look at. They look at me-- they’ll get a full sense of who I am and some people have concerns with some parts of my history or my views and that’s their right to express their own views and make their own decision and so I am not going to tell people what they look at, what they don’t look at. Ultimately, I think what is going to determine this race is the fact that there is one candidate in this race who has a life-long experience in the private sector and a demonstrated record of executing change and making change for the good and the better in the private sector—then in the Olympics and then in a state—like Massachusetts. The Presidency of the United States is a responsibility for leadership and management of the greatest enterprise and the largest enterprise in the World. The government of the U. S. is perhaps the largest enterprise in the World, with trillions of dollars in the budget, millions of employees and frankly, the Presidency of the United States is not an internship job. This is a position which is designed for somebody who has experience in leading and in managing and in making things better. And if there has ever been a place that needs change, its Washington, DC.—and I look forward to--

Deanna Bellandi [AP]: Do you think CBS should fire Don Imus?

Mitt Romney: And, I look forward to being able to bring that kind of change to Washington, DC.

Deanna Bellandi [AP]: Do you think CBS should fire Don Imus?

Mike Flannery [Senior political correspondent, CBS-2 News]: As a Republican who got elected Governor in Massachusetts, can I ask you about Illinois. Not a single Republican statewide officeholder here. Even Illinois Republicans joke that if it were a stock, trading would be suspended in the Illinois Republican Party [See This stock analogy comes from Dan Proft, Republican campaign consultant, a partner in Urquhart Media and WLS 890 AM Radio weekly opinion contributor on Don and Roma]. It is just bankrupt of—it seems unable to win a thing here. As a Republican who got elected in Massachusetts, where the Party also has some problems, what advice would you give.

[Ed. Note:] Governor Romney concluded the press conference by answering Flannery’s question-- giving the Chicago media one more answer than his press secretary promised, but not an answer on Mr. Kjellander.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at