Artifact 14: A Governor’s Legacy

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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. For the last three weeks, we’ve been publishing new artifacts about each candidate. Check back tomorrow for a discussion about this week’s artifacts.

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artifact fourteen

Governor Mitt Romney, oil portrait by Richard Whitney, 2009
Courtesy Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Art Commission

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Mitt Romney’s official gubernatorial portrait, unveiled in the Massachusetts State House following his failed 2008 presidential bid, depicts him casually perched on a desk next to two objects: a photo of his beloved wife Ann and a bound copy of the 2006 health care reform law that was his crowning policy achievement while in office.

The first lady’s presence in the portrait was unprecedented, but Romney insisted that his favorite photo of Ann be included, according to artist Richard Whitney, who painted the portrait. ”He basically told them he was paying for the portrait, and that’s what he wanted,” Whitney told the Associated Press. ”I gather that he credits her for much of his success.”

Ann and Mitt’s union was very much a storybook romance. The two met in high school in Michigan; she was a sophomore and he was senior. “We went to a party together, and we just saw each other, and it was sort of sparks flew,” Ann told FRONTLINE. “It really was love at first sight.”

The two dated for years, even while Mitt was away. While a student at Stanford, he would sneak back to Michigan to see Ann. While he was serving as a missionary in France, she decided to convert. Three months after Mitt returned, the two were married, and they would go on to raise five boys together.

As Mitt contemplated entering political life, it was Ann who gave him the extra push of encouragement. ”I finally said, ‘Why don’t you just run?’” she told FRONTLINE about his decision to take on Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994. Though he didn’t win that race, Mitt would go on to run successfully for governor of Massachusetts in 2003.

As governor, Romney knew he needed what political pros called a “legacy issue” if he wanted to run for president one day. He devoted his energy towards reforming health care, an issue that Democrats had been grappling with and a problem that cost the state dearly as taxpayers bore the brunt of covering the uninsured.

Romney’s solution was to require that all individuals obtain health insurance, a concept known as the “individual mandate,” based on a sliding scale of affordability. Over the long term, he calculated, the plan would help reduce costs.

His first challenge was to get the state legislature’s Democrats on board, a task he accomplished by reaching out across the aisle for cooperation.

Robert Travaglini, then the Democratic president of the state Senate, recalls being surprised to find Romney on his East Boston doorstep one morning to make the case for the individual mandate. “That was a pretty profound moment for me,” he told FRONTLINE. “It isn’t everyday you get the governor to come to your house and give you the up-up and try to encourage you to put aside your differences.”

The next test was to get federal money, a job Romney partnered with his former rival Kennedy to accomplish. Together, they secured $385 million from the Bush administration.

“Romneycare,” as the plan became known, passed with much fanfare in April 2006. Romney signed the bill with 14 different pens. Massachusetts had become the first state to offer near-universal health care.

Though threatened by problems of affordability and rising medical costs, the achievement — permanently captured in his official portrait — gave Romney the legacy issue he needed to pursue the presidency.

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