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Mitt Romney low-key on civil rights, in contrast to his father

As governor of Michigan, George Romney pressed an aggressive agenda on the issue, putting himself at odds with Republican Party leaders. His son presents a different figure.

July 08, 2012|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Mitt Romney usually campaigns before white audiences, but made an exception in May with a visit to a Philadelphia school in a mostly black area.
Mitt Romney usually campaigns before white audiences, but made an exception… (Mary Altaffer, Associated…)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In 1963, an explosive year in the quest for civil rights, George Romney appeared unannounced in the mostly white suburb of Grosse Pointe and marched to the front of an anti-segregation demonstration to stand beside black leaders.

Letters from startled constituents poured into the office of the first-term Michigan governor, whose son Mitt was then 16. Supporters who had helped the elder Romney win his narrow victory the previous November said his actions made him "a double-crosser" and a "Judas" to the people who voted for him. Their diatribes were sprinkled with warnings that they would work against him: "You are a 'dead duck' for 1964," one detractor typed above a newspaper photograph of a shirt-sleeved Romney walking shoulder to shoulder with civil rights activists.

Romney pressed ahead with an aggressive civil rights agenda that ultimately put him at odds with the leaders of his party. He refused to back Barry Goldwater as the 1964 Republican presidential nominee because, he told Goldwater in a letter, he was alarmed by indications that Goldwater's strategists "proposed to make an all-out push for the Southern white segregationist vote" and "exploit the so-called 'white backlash' in the North."

George Romney began pushing reforms to end discrimination toward minorities in housing soon after taking office in 1963 — work that would lead to his highly controversial effort to integrate the nation's white suburbs as President Nixon's secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He launched his own 1968 presidential run after a 19-day tour of the ghettos of 17 cities, turning a spotlight on the decay and overcrowding that had contributed to riots in Detroit and elsewhere.

His son, running against the nation's first black president 44 years later, leaves a very different impression. Mitt Romney rarely mentions his father's efforts on civil rights and declined an interview request to discuss how that work influenced his own agenda on those issues, which have not figured prominently in his own career or presidential campaigns. (The only memorable time it has come up publicly was in 2007, when he mistakenly said he had seen his father march with the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr.He later said he meant the word "saw" in a "figurative sense.")

Although he will address the NAACP's annual convention on Wednesday, Romney has campaigned over the last year in front of predominantly white audiences. A rare exception to that pattern was his May visit to a charter school in a mostly black area of west Philadelphia, where he promoted his plans to push for more school choice. There he called the education achievement gap between minority and nonminority students "the civil rights issue of our time" for "people of color in this society."

When Romney took over as governor of Massachusetts in 2003, the state still bore the tensions of wrenching battles over school busing and other race-inflected disputes. He assembled a group of black leaders that served as an informal "kitchen Cabinet" and met with him quarterly throughout his administration.

But he got off to a rocky start with other civil rights activists when he issued an executive order that eliminated the Office of Affirmative Action and replaced it with a new Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity. Opponents argued that by eliminating previous executive orders, he had taken the teeth out of the state's enforcement of affirmative action.

Romney said he was merely trying to streamline outdated executive orders. At a heated town-hall-style meeting at a black church, he said he was not looking to change any provisions that ensured "diversity in our commonwealth," the Boston Globe reported.

Romney said he would suspend his changes and wait for recommendations from an appointed panel, but he never took action on its suggestions. Critics were not impressed.

"He has no record on civil rights," Leonard C. Alkins, a panel member and then-president of the Boston chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said in an interview.

The Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown, one of the black pastors who met quarterly with Romney, had a different take. "It showed me that he was a guy who listened; that he wasn't rigid," said Brown, whom Romney later asked to oversee care for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Romney and his defenders noted that 37% of state hires during his term were minorities. Though he was criticized for a lack of diversity in his judicial appointments, half of his top advisors were women, ranking Massachusetts ahead of the other 49 states, according to a 2004 study by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at the University at Albany.

Part of the shift in emphasis between father and son stems from demographics; in the decades since George Romney ran for office, the nation's racial discussions have expanded from black and white to encompass Latinos and others.

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