BOSTON — The Republican gubernatorial candidate strolls through a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes. His neighborhood, he stresses. His hometown.
"This is Belmont, where I've lived, voted, raised a family and paid taxes for 30 years," says Mitt Romney, wearing shirt-sleeves and gazing straight into the camera.
In a blitz targeting every major television station in the state, Romney's 30-second spot debuts today, one day before the state's Ballot Law Commission takes up a Democratic challenge to his status as a Massachusetts resident.
Romney's opponents say property tax records from Utah show that while he was running the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee from 1999 to 2001, the 55-year-old venture capitalist declared his $3.8-million home in Park City as his primary residence. The move saved Romney $54,000 in nonresident Utah property tax, according to a story first reported in the Boston Globe.
At the same time that he was living in Utah, Democrats charge, Romney filed nonresident and part-year resident tax returns in Massachusetts. A statute dating from Colonial times requires Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates to have lived in the state for at least seven consecutive years before seeking office.
"The framers of our constitution, the oldest constitution in the world, debated this at length and felt strongly that a governor in particular had to be familiar with the needs and concerns of the people. Seven years was the period they thought was the minimum indication of that," said James R. Roosevelt Jr., legal counsel to the Democratic Party of Massachusetts.
"Mr. Romney, in his first press conference after he announced he was running for governor, didn't know what the MCAT was," Roosevelt said, referring to the state's standard public education test.
Romney maintains that he has always considered Massachusetts his home, and that a simple clerical error misclassified his Utah residence. He said he failed to notice the mistake because, for two years, the bills went to his wife. At a press conference last week, he said he welcomes the Democratic challenge, flinging down his own gauntlet with the familiar refrain: "Go ahead. Make my day."
In a transcript released Wednesday of Romney's first TV ad, the candidate uses the dispute to take aim at two of the Democrats running for governor.
"Shannon O'Brien and Tom Birmingham's allies are suing to push me off the ballot because I spent three years in Utah working on the Olympics," Romney says. "It's ridiculous, dirty politics, and we all know what it's really about. I want to change Beacon Hill. They don't."
A spokesman for O'Brien, the state treasurer, said Wednesday that where Romney lived was only part of the question. The Republican candidate, said Adrian Durbin, offered too many conflicting explanations when the matter was first raised.
"This isn't about Mitt Romney's residency, it's about his honesty," Durbin said. "He is continuing to fail to tell the truth, and he is trying to control the damage by running attack ads against Shannon O'Brien and the Democrats."
Noting that Romney continues to claim he did not know about his $54,000 Utah tax break, Durbin said: "Why did the Deseret News of Utah report that more than two years ago, Mitt Romney personally told them that he declared Utah as his primary residence for tax purposes?"
A poll released last week by Boston's Suffolk University showed 41% of state voters supporting O'Brien and 32% backing Romney. In the same poll, O'Brien received 37% of Democratic votes, while 19% supported Birmingham, head of the state Senate. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich came in second among Democrats polled, with a 22% rating.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's deputy campaign manager, dismissed the idea Democrats were worried about Romney's integrity.
"I just don't buy it," he said Wednesday. "Mitt is the one who disclosed all the information regarding his tax filing status while he was in Utah. Mitt is the one who put forth all of the other relevant information that showed he continued to vote here, register cars here, pay taxes on his home here, pay utilities here."
Romney, a Harvard Business School graduate, has run for office in Massachusetts before, losing to incumbent Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in a 1994 bid for the lawmaker's seat. Fehrnstrom brushed off suggestions Romney also entertained thoughts of seeking office in Utah.
"The only time he has spent in Utah was the three years he was out there running the Olympic Games," Fehrnstrom said.
With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Massachusetts by more than 3 to 1, state GOP spokesman Nathan Little said his party is determined to retain its grip on the coveted corner office on Beacon Hill.
"We've had the governor's office for 12 years," Little said. "We plan to hold onto it for another four."
So along with promoting Romney's image as a longtime state resident, the party is trying to tone down the perception that he is a wealthy and ambitious businessman who waltzed back to Massachusetts and promptly steamrolled Acting Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican, out of a job. To show that Romney is actually a man of the people, the candidate cleaned fish in New Bedford last week and this week sold sausages outside Fenway Park while the Red Sox were playing.
"I think that 'common man' act is really silly," Roosevelt said. "Anybody who doesn't notice that they got a $54,000 tax break has plenty of money."