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Eric Fehrnstrom

Eric Fehrnstrom has worked for Romney for a decade, first as his press secretary in Romney’s 2002 run for governor of Massachusetts. Prior to his work in politics, Fehrnstrom worked in public relations and as a reporter for the Boston Herald. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Gabrielle Tenenbaum on Aug. 21, 2012. (34:17)

Eric Fehrnstrom has worked for Romney for a decade, first as his press secretary in Romney’s 2002 run for governor of Massachusetts. Prior to his work in politics, Fehrnstrom worked in public relations and as a reporter for the Boston Herald. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Gabrielle Tenenbaum on Aug. 21, 2012.

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    Romney as Governor

    Let's go back to 2002. He had just come off an incredibly successful Olympics. He very easily could have gone back to re-entering the business world and been successful there. You have your first meetings with him. Why does he tell you he wants to run for governor?

    Well, I think Mitt made the decision in 1999 when he departed Bain Capital for the Olympics that after that point he was going to devote himself to public service. And having finished with the Olympics and having staged one of the most successful Games ever, he had a choice to make about his future. And there were people back here in Massachusetts who were encouraging him to run for office.

    And you have to transport yourself back in time to 2002, and the situation here was not unlike the situation the country faces nationally. We had a state that was in recession. We were losing thousands of jobs every month. The budget was seriously out of balance by about $3 billion. And the voters were looking for someone who could come in with a strong set of management skills and turn things around.

    Massachusetts is not a place that is hospitable to Republicans, and the political culture here is not a place that is hospitable to outsiders, which makes Mitt Romney's election in 2002 that much more remarkable, because it not only represented a success for a Republican Party that represents 11 percent of the voters here, but it also brought into office a person who came from outside the political culture. He did not come up from the normal ladders of success in politics; he came in from the private sector. And it was exactly what the state needed at that moment in its history.

    And from his side, when he's talking to you, what does he tell you? Why does he think he's the right person to come in and fix it? What are those conversations about?

    Well, you know, after his election, he gathered his senior team, his Cabinet, the people he had selected to serve with him at the Parker House in Boston. And I remember, it was a snowy morning in December, and the governor said that: "Look, I don't do this because I'm interested in achieving power for myself. Power is not an end to me; it is simply a means to do good things for people." And the way the governor defines success for himself is helping other people to be successful.

    And he knew at that time that we were at the high water mark: We had just won a statewide election in an overwhelmingly Democratic place. And he knew that over time as tough decisions were made, it would be down hill for us, but that eventually, with the passage of time, people would look back and recognize the wisdom of the course that we pursued. I think that is the case today.

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    Romney as Governor

    You get Boston politics. You understand the partisanship and the sparring. He'd run a pretty tough campaign against the "Gang of Three" [then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, ex-Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and his Democratic opponent, former Treasurer Shannon O’Brien] he had sort of painted... How do you guide him in terms of how he should deal with the other side?

    Well, the governor is very skillful at dividing campaigning from governing. And of course, in a campaign, it is partisan by its very nature. But governing is different.

    And the governor came to me very early in his term -- I was his communications director -- and he told me that he did not want to engage in any demonizing of the opposite political party. He put a high premium on working across the aisle with Democrats; after all, they controlled 85 percent of the legislature and virtually every statewide office. And the governor knew that if he was going to get anything done, it was going to be done in cooperation with the Democrats in the legislature.

    And one of the practices that he engaged in was to meet on a weekly basis with the Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate. Now, they may not have always had an agenda, but he thought it was important that they get together, even if it was just to eat popcorn and talk about the latest movie that they saw. He put a premium on keeping the doors of communication open, because, as I said, he knew that nothing got done in Massachusetts without the cooperation of the Democrats.

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    Romney as Governor
    ‘The governor came in as an outsider. Four years later he left as an outsider.’

    In terms of the higher levels, in terms of those dealings and meeting with them, that's one thing. What about in terms of dealing with the other legislature? How did that work? He hasn't been described as kind of a backslapper or an arm-twister. How did he interact, or did he have trouble interacting with those people?

    Well, the governor understood that in order to get legislation through the House and the Senate, you needed the support of four key people: the speaker, the Senate president and the chairmen of the Ways and Means Committees, so that's where he concentrated his relationship building. Of course, he was friendly with everybody he met. Those who know the governor know that he's always a gentleman.

    But he knew that the path to passage for any bill was through the speaker's office and the Senate president's office, and of course the Ways and Means Committee. So that's where he concentrated his relationship building.

    But look, the governor came in as an outsider. Four years later he left as an outsider. He was solely interested in getting an agenda passed. He knew that he wasn't going to make a lifetime or a career out of being governor. He came in at a period of time when the state was desperate for strong leadership. He balanced the budget all four years that he was in office, and he turned the economy around. And he also did some good things on the education front, on the infrastructure front that he's proud of.

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    Romney as Governor

    Take me to the midterm election. He had worked hard to recruit a number of Republicans to challenge the incumbents. Take me to the moment when it becomes clear that most of them are going to lose. What's that conversation that he has with you?

    Well, the governor undertook an effort two years into his administration to elect more Republicans. If you know Massachusetts, then you know that the game is a little bit lopsided here. This is, after all, the home of [Sen. Ted] Kennedy and [Sen. John] Kerry and [former Gov. Michael] Dukakis. It's practically the capital of the Democratic Party. And the governor is a big believer in achieving a healthy two-party balance, because he believes that competition of ideas and policies is what produces good outcomes.

    So he went to work. He recruited a first-class team of candidates, a lot of them first-time candidates. And just about every one of them lost, not because the governor's argument was weak, I don't think. I think it just goes to show you how infertile the ground here is for the Republican Party -- which makes the governor's election in 2002 that much more remarkable.

    And I think what is interesting about the national ticket this year with Gov. Romney and [Rep.] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] on it is that you have two people who have represented Democratic constituencies, who have run and won in areas with large numbers of Democratic voters. And that's something rare on a national Republican ticket.

    How pivotal a moment is that when he realizes that this is just how Massachusetts politics is and that he's lost? And how does he take that, especially the personal side of it?

    Well, I think there's no question he ruffled a lot of feathers. But he didn't come into government to be a go-along, get-along person. He believes deeply that a strong two-party balance is what produces the best policy outcomes. So he went to work to level the playing field.

    The fact that we were not successful has less to do with Mitt Romney than it does with the fact that Massachusetts is really infertile ground for the Republican Party.

    Is that a pivotal moment in terms of his decision to put his focus toward the White House? I mean, was that a moment when he realized this is just how it's going to go here, and it's time to move on to something else? Or do you see it differently?

    No, I think he set a political objective that he wanted to achieve. It didn't happen the way we would have liked, but we didn't dwell on it; we just moved ahead.

    By this time, we were beginning to emerge from the recession. We were on a glide path toward fiscal balance and solvency. We had received around this time an upgrade from Standard & Poor's because of our strong fiscal practices. So we were pleased that these things were moving forward. And the governor began to concentrate more on building a healthy condition for the state budget going forward.

    It became very important to him that we put as much money aside in a rainy day fund so that we could protect against a future downturn. That became one of his principal financial objectives. And by the time he left office in 2007, January of that year, the rainy day fund had been built up to over $2 billion.

    And if it were not for the governor's diligence in putting aside that money, things would have been much tougher for Massachusetts over the past four years during this most recent economic downturn.

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    Romney as GovernorRomneycare

    I want to talk about health care. ... By all accounts, Gov. Romney receives the data and the analysis and he looks at all of it and he decides that the individual mandate is critical. ... Take me into those meetings and help me understand how he came to those decisions.

    Well, I think the governor decided to turn his attention to health care following a conversation he had with a friend and supporter, Tom Stemberg, from the Staples company. And Tom told him in a private meeting, "Mitt, if you really want to help people, you'll find a way to get more of them covered by insurance." So the governor took that as a challenge and decided to dive into the issue of health care.

    In Massachusetts, we're fortunate in that most of our residents already have insurance through their employer, but there was still that stubborn 7 or 8 percent of the population that was uninsured, some by choice. So the governor began to consider how can we, using existing resources, not by raising taxes or by imposing a mandate on employers to cover people, how can we find a way to bridge that gap and finally get everybody covered by health insurance, again, using money that is already in the system?

    So he came up with his health care reform. It worked for Massachusetts. Certainly wasn't designed to be a national plan. In fact, the governor said very early on in this debate that what we did here in Massachusetts works for the people of Massachusetts, but our insurance market is different than Texas, Oklahoma, California. And each state under our federalist system should be free to pursue their own solutions.

    But he's proud of what he got done in Massachusetts. The people of Massachusetts like what we did here. And unlike the federal plan that Barack Obama put in place, it did not require a tax increase, and it did not require us to cut care to seniors.

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    Romney '08
    Turning around economies

    Tell me the conversation when he first discusses with you that he wants to run for president in 2008. Tell me why he wants to run and what you discuss there.

    Well, first the governor had to make a decision about whether or not he wanted to run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts, and that was a process in itself. And it wasn't until December of 2005 that the governor made a public announcement that he did not intend to seek re-election.

    And it was after that point that he turned his attention to national politics. In 2006, of course, he was the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. That got him more deeply involved in national political affairs. He did more traveling outside of the state in support of Republican candidates running for governor around the country.

    So, over that year of 2006, he spent more time thinking about what he wanted to do next. And he decided that he would run for president.

    Why?

    Because the governor has a set of skills that were acquired over a long career in the private sector that he put to use in the volunteer area as the head of the Salt Lake Winter Games, that he put to use in Massachusetts. And he believed that he could bring that same skill set to the White House.

    And as I said, he's always measured his own personal success as how much has he helped other people to be successful themselves. And he has that unique set of skills that would allow him to govern effectively as president.

    Going back to 2008, it was before the economy had crashed. In terms of that field, in terms of sort of that period in time, if we go back there, what did he see as the opportunity there? What did he think he could fix?

    Well, look, the interesting thing about the 2008 campaign is that the issue environment was completely different. The number one issue back in 2008, early on anyway, during the primaries that Mitt Romney was participating in, was Iraq and the war there. So it's not surprising that Republicans would have nominated their national security candidate, who was [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.]Here we are four years later and the number one issue is not the war in Iraq, or even the war in Afghanistan; the number one issue, by far, is the bad economy.

    So I think in the same way that the issue environment benefited John McCain in 2008, it benefits Mitt Romney in 2012, because people recognize that he does have experience turning around economies, whether it was here in Massachusetts or whether it was turning around businesses that Bain Capital would come in and fix, or whether it was the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, which was a basket case before Mitt Romney arrived and balanced that budget and staged one of the most successful Olympic Games ever held on U.S. soil.

    So there is a big difference between 2008 and 2012, given the different issue environments.

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    Romney as GovernorHis Change of Heart on Abortion
    Romney’s change of heart on abortion

    There's also a big difference between running as a Republican in Massachusetts and running for the Republican nomination on a national stage. ... As his adviser, what were you counseling, and how did those conversations take place?

    Well, look, you talk about his position. Really, [there was] one significant issue that Mitt had a change of heart on, and that was abortion. And when he ran in 2002 for governor, he told the people of Massachusetts that he was personally pro-life, but he wanted to make a deal with them, and the deal was that he would not make any changes to the abortion laws of the commonwealth. And that's a pledge that he kept all four years of his term.

    But he also had to confront issues, like the stem cell debate and the subject of cloning human life. And confronted with these issues, Mitt Romney wrote an editorial for The Boston Globe back in 2007, and he laid out what his views were on the subject of life, and he concluded that he was firmly pro-life. Now, that happened some years ago now, but that was the one significant issue that he had a change of heart on.

    But Mitt Romney was running based on his professional résumé, as a person who could fix things that were broken. He did it in private business; he did it at the Olympics; he did it for the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

    And I think what's interesting about Mitt is that in every enterprise that he's been involved in, the stakeholders have benefited from his leadership. The stakeholders at Bain, of course, would have been the investors who saw high rates of return from the investments that Mitt Romney led. The stakeholders at the Olympics would be, well, all the members of the Olympic movement who had a stake in seeing those Games turned around and staged successfully, and they were. And then, of course, the stakeholders in his governorship were the people of Massachusetts, who saw him turn around a bad state economy.

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    Mormonism

    ... In 2007, he decides ultimately to give his speech on faith. Talk to me about the origins of that conversation, why he decided it was something that he needed to address.

    Well, yeah. Initially, those of us around Mitt Romney were not anxious about giving a speech on faith. We thought that the focus and the discussion on his religion would eventually fade with time. But it did not. And Mitt felt strongly that he needed to go out and make a declaration about his faith, and what it means to him, and how it affects the way he would govern.

    So that led to the speech in 2007 at Texas A&M, which I think was very well received. People compared it to the JFK speech, but it was different in an important respect. Like JFK, Gov. Romney said that the highest obligation that he has as an elected official is to the oath that he swore to the Constitution.

    But where he differed from JFK is that he talked openly about how his faith imbued him with values and how those values helped him govern, and would help him govern as a president. So that was what was different about the Mitt Romney speech compared to JFK.

    And I think what we learned in Massachusetts on the issue of religion is that when Mitt Romney first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, the subject of Mormonism loomed large in that campaign. It was something that was being introduced to the voters here for the first time, such that when he ran again in 2002, there was a been-there, done-that quality to the news coverage about his faith. And it faded in importance, particularly because the state was in a recession, the budget was unbalanced, and they were looking for someone who had a résumé like Mitt Romney's.

    I think you're seeing that same dynamic play out on the national stage. When Mitt Romney first ran in 2008, religion was a big issue because for all intents and purposes, it was being introduced to voters nationally for the first time, such that when he ran and made his decision to run in 2012, it had faded as an issue, particularly because the economy is so bad, and that has come to the forefront as the dominant issue of this election cycle.

    Again, sort of trying to learn more about him, in a situation like that, did he push back and say, "This is important to address"? And does he write those speeches himself? Were those his words?

    Those were his words. I mean, there are people who make contributions and ideas and have suggestions, but every speech that the governor gives flows from his mind and from his pen, even though he may incorporate suggestions from other folks.

    But yeah, he took that speech very seriously. There were those of us on the team who were concerned going into the Iowa vote that raising the issue of the governor's faith so dramatically might affect the outcome in Iowa. But as I said, the governor wasn't thinking so much about the political considerations; he was thinking about what he felt was the necessity of putting this issue to rest once and for all.

    You were thinking about the political side. So what were your concerns?

    Well, of course, I mean, his entire team was thinking about the political consequences. I think that the concern was that by raising the issue so dramatically in the form of a big speech, that you would enflame the evangelical community, which had some suspicions about the governor's faith. So we were cognizant of that.

    But again, the governor had pretty much set his course, that this was an undertaking he wanted to move forward with. And he wrote that speech, for the most part, by himself. He had some contributions from other people, but it really flowed from his own pen and from his heart.

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    Romney's Ambition and Motivation

    2008 was a tough campaign and a tough loss, as we understand it. So tell me about his decision then to come back around in 2012. How difficult a decision was that? And again, if you could help bring me into your conversations with him.

    Sure. Well, I remember the day he withdrew from the race in 2008. He did it at the Conservative Political Action Conference down in Washington, D.C. And on the plane back to Boston following his announcement, he turned to me and he said: "Eric, what are you going to do? We've got to figure out what our people are going to do. They're going to be moving on into other jobs."

    This was not a person who was thinking of running again for president. I think he felt he had his opportunity, and the door had closed to him.

    But then, over a period of time, he began to get more involved in politics again. He restarted his political action committee, renamed it, and went to work to help Republican candidates and conservative causes around the country. He spent a good deal of time thinking about his vision for the future. He organized his thoughts around the publication and the writing of a book called No Apology, which is really a Romney manifesto for America's place in the world and how we can become stronger on a number of different fronts, including foreign policy and in the area of the economy.

    And I think this four-year period, this interregnum between two campaigns really helped to sharpen the governor's thinking about what he felt he could accomplish for the nation. And then, of course, with the economic collapse and the very weak recovery, the governor felt that he had a unique set of skills that could help turn around this bad situation that we're in.

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    Stick with that, because it's the question ultimately that everyone's asking. Why does he really want to be president? In his heart, what is it? Is it that he really thinks he can fix it, or is there something more than that?

    As I told you earlier in the interview, the governor doesn't measure success by what he achieves for himself; he measures success by how many people has he helped to become successful. And I think he looks at the state of the country right now. He sees the bad economy and what that means for families and for people who are out of work, and he believes he can do a better job.

    Why does he believe he can do a better job? Because he has acquired skills and knowledge over a long career in business and in the volunteer sector running the Olympics and as the governor of a state, and that he has practical solutions that will help turn around this bad situation that we're in.

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    Coming out of 2008 going into this campaign, what did you learn from that campaign? And how did strategy or teambuilding change going into this one?

    Well, we learned a couple of things. In 2008, we didn't know much about running for president; we'd never done it before. So we went out and we acquired a lot of consultant talent, both in Washington, D.C., and in the states. All good people. But when you create an organization and a strategy team that is large as the one we had in 2008, you get a lot of conflict and divided opinion, which was not helpful.

    So this time around we decided to be more efficient, more streamlined in the way we built our organization and in the way we structured our strategy team. In 2008, we were more like IBM; we were just big. This time around, we're more like JetBlue; we're more streamlined, more efficient, sharper in our thinking, and I think more competitive as a result.

    And where is he in all of that? I mean, in terms of his leadership, where does he fit into that team?

    Well, I think the governor believed, as his senior strategist believed, that we need to be more nimble. The governor sunk a lot of his own money into the 2008 campaign. He didn't want to go through that again. So in 2008, we got involved in a high-priced bidding war with John McCain to hire consultants in Washington, D.C., and in the states, and it bankrupted John McCain, and it created a real financial burden for us. So we wanted to avoid that mistake.

    So we kept the organization small throughout the entire primary process in 2012. And it was only after securing the nomination that we began to add staff.

    And even now, we're vastly outnumbered by the president's campaign team in Chicago, but it doesn't trouble us because we believe that what counts this year is the message and not how many full-time employees you have.

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    Mitt and Ann

    I want to talk about Ann. ... I think for this campaign she was really the one who said, "You have to do this."

    Right.

    Talk to me about the role that she plays for him. And are there examples of situations where you have advised one way and she has pushed him in another direction?

    Well, we call Ann the "Mitt stabilizer." She has a way of calming Mitt. And when the governor is on the road for long stretches of time, where he doesn't get to see his wife, we get a little frantic back at the headquarters because we try to arrange for them to meet up on the trail, because it really does stabilize the governor and clarify his thinking.

    As far as the counsel that she provides to the governor, that's done in private. She is one of his number one advisers. And I think the governor takes very seriously what he hears from his wife. But ultimately she knows that Mitt's going to make the final decision. But she contributes as she sees fit.

    And as that stabilizer -- you've been with him now for almost a decade. What do you observe in terms of what she brings to him and how that relationship works?

    Well, if you've ever seen Mitt talk about Ann, or Ann talk about Mitt, you know that this is a couple that is deeply in love after 40 years of marriage. They have a wonderful family. For them, family centers their life. The governor's happiest moments are not spent on the campaign trail or at a town hall meeting, as important as those are. His happiest moments are spent with his grandchildren and his five sons and his wife.

    They have every year an annual get-together up at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire that lasts a week or two. And I've heard Mitt describe that as the happiest occasion of the year for him because he's together with his entire family, and he's proud of every one of them. And there's a lot to be proud of.

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    Romney as a Leader
    'If someone’s going to write a memo, it should be one page, single-spaced.'

    ... You've been a close adviser for 10 years. Just in terms of understanding, again in terms of his leadership, in terms of how he takes counsel, especially on the campaign trail, which can be grueling, how does that dynamic work between the two of you? And how has it worked in this campaign in terms of, you advise, does he accept? I mean, how do those conversations work?

    Well, look, politically, I think the governor feels that the most important thing he can do is fulfill the campaign promises he's made. He also looks to assemble a group of people who are the smartest, brightest, most capable folks, and he asks them to bring forward initiatives from their areas of responsibility.

    In terms of the governor's style of governance, he welcomes vigorous internal debate. All points of view are encouraged. But when a decision is made, and he may sleep on a decision for a night or two, but after he makes a decision, he expects his entire team to speak with a single voice and unify around that decision.

    He likes data. He prefers PowerPoint. I think that is a remnant from his days in business. If someone's going to write a memo, it should be one page, single-spaced. And sometimes he plays the devil's advocate. People might interpret that as the governor being argumentative, but he's actually just trying to test the strength of your argument. And if no one else will speak out against it, then he feels an obligation to play the devil's advocate.

    But he is someone who is interested in all points of view, and he goes where the data leads him. He has political beliefs and convictions, but he's also someone who is susceptible to a good argument that's backed up with data.

    And tireless, I hear.

    Yeah, he is tireless. You know, he lives clean. He's in good shape. He eats right. And I think that gives him a stamina that is remarkable to behold. ...

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