Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses the media and a… (MICHAEL KUBEL, THE MORNING…)
Reporting from Washington — Mitt Romney stood before a shuttered steel factory in Pennsylvania the other day, using the iconic backdrop to underscore what has become the most forceful theme of his presidential campaign: the need for more jobs.
"He has done everything wrong," Romney said of President Obama as a breeze tousled overgrown weeds around the locked main gate of Allentown Metal Works. Then, as the Republican has done time and again, he touted himself as the chief executive America needs to get the country back to work.
But Romney's tenure as a government CEO — the four years he served as governor of Massachusetts — may not buttress his claim to be the candidate who, as he put it recently, "has what it takes to create and grow jobs."
During the years he was governor, the state ranked among the last in the nation in job creation. The percentage increase in jobs — about 1% — was lower than in all but three states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In worse straits were Ohio, suffering the ongoing deterioration of its manufacturing infrastructure; Michigan, beset then by the decline of the auto industry; and Louisiana, devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Many factors contribute to the economics of any given state, and a governor can sometimes have only limited influence. But Romney's performance in the job represents his argument for election. He and his backers say he is responsible for demonstrable progress for the state, which faced a series of economic challenges, including a fiscal crisis that mushroomed shortly after Romney's election.
"I'm very pleased that Massachusetts had a lower unemployment rate than the nation for three of the four years I was governor," he told reporters last week, citing another way to measure a state's employment record. "The governor before me lost jobs; the governor after me has lost jobs; we actually created jobs."
Leading economists and business advocates in Massachusetts say Romney is correct — but only to a point.
"Romney's record of economic stewardship fell short of expectations," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed group that provides research on fiscal and economic matters. In remarks echoed by others, Widmer said Romney fell particularly short in his promise to recruit employers to the state.
The top finance advisor to two prior Republican governors said Romney was distracted by political ambition in the final years of his term.
"The real tragedy of Romney's governorship is that he did not utilize his full capacity as governor," said Stephen P. Crosby, who served in the Cabinet of two previous Republican governors and advised the transition of Romney's Democratic successor. Crosby, dean of the University of Massachusetts' McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, praised Romney's leadership and business acumen but said he never delivered on promises to lure jobs to the state.
"He took his eye off the ball," Crosby said.
Romney and his backers make the case that he instituted historic bureaucratic reforms, promoted business development and expanded jobs even though he inherited a dire situation from his Republican predecessor, Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift.
Romney came into office after the state's once-vital technology sector had cratered, reducing both jobs and state revenue. Between 2001 and December 2003, the end of Romney's first year in office, the state lost 205,100 jobs, or about 6% of its workforce, according to the Boston Globe.
His supporters, and even some of his detractors, credit Romney for handling a $2-billion-plus budget shortfall the year he came into office. They applaud efforts he led to streamline government, save money and find new revenue sources. And they applaud some systematic changes including elimination of hurdles in processing permits for new and expanding businesses. But even some of Romney's most loyal supporters frown when the subject of job creation comes up.
In December 2002, as Romney prepared for his swearing in, the unemployment rate was 5.6%. When he left office it was 4.7%. But a team at Boston's Northeastern University found that the unemployment rate was influenced by a steady out-migration of working-age adults during the Romney years.
Between July 2002 and July 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 222,000 more residents left Massachusetts than arrived in the state, one of the highest population losses in the country. The out-migration was a significant contributor to the state's declining unemployment rate, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
Ranch C. Kimball, who became Romney's point man on jobs issues, described the governor as "determined to make businesses feel more comfortable in Massachusetts," instructing Kimball to meet with executives to find out what they needed to expand in the state.