In 2002, Salt Lake Organizing Committee chief Mitt Romney, left, visits… (George Frey, Agence France-Presse )
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney wanted to send a message when he took over as chief executive of the Salt Lake Olympic Games. So he moved the organization's Washington office from a well-appointed K Street law firm to a barren third-floor walk-up, wedged between a burrito shop and hair salon near the U.S. Capitol.
It was furnished with broken desks cast off by federal agencies. Its stairs were so steep that Cindy Gillespie, the head of federal relations for the Olympic committee, refused to have guests visit.
"It was a nightmare — I couldn't stand it," Gillespie recalled. "But Mitt just adored it. He thought it was totally appropriate."
The message, of course, was that frugality was the new watchword of the organization, which had been battered by revelations that Salt Lake officials had showered more than $1 million in gifts on International Olympic Committee members in their effort to land the 2002 Winter Games.
Scaling down the Washington office was one of the many moves that Romney made to wipe out the scars of profligate spending. Recruited in February 1999 to take over the beleaguered Olympic committee, Romney deferred his $280,000-a-year salary until the Games were over and its finances secure, then donated it to charity. (He had taken a leave from Bain Capital, but was still receiving substantial payments from it.) He got rid of catered food for board meetings and instead offered pizza at $1 a slice.
Romney frequently touts his success running the Olympics as an example of his strength as a chief executive. The experience also demonstrated his skills as an agile politician — one who touted the committee's new frugality and deftly parried questions about the role the Mormon Church would play in putting on the Games.
For some of those who worked with him then, it is an image at odds with what they've seen emerging from the 2012 campaign.
"The Mitt on the campaign trail is not the Mitt I knew as the leader of the Olympics," said Randy Dryer, a Democratic lawyer who served on the 53-member Salt Lake Olympic Committee board of trustees. "I chuckle when I hear news reports about Mitt being stiff and standoffish and having handlers who insulate him. He was accessible, he was personable, he was inclusive."
Former Democratic Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, who is now running his own independent presidential bid, agreed: "It surprised me that during the course of this campaign that he's come off so out-of-touch and rather aloof; that's not the guy I ever dealt with."
The contrast speaks to how much in his element Romney felt as he worked to right the Games — an experience that propelled him into a successful run for governor of Massachusetts and his bids for the presidency — and to the inevitable constraints on a candidate waging a hard-fought national campaign.
"The difference is between someone who is day-to-day running something and someone who is out literally campaigning for a job," Gillespie said. "He's not one of those slap-you-on-the-back politicians. What he is is a leader."
Others argue that the path was smoothed for Romney's success at the Games.
"The Olympics was a controlled environment," said Ken Bullock, a member of the board who was one of Romney's few vocal critics. "Everyone wanted the Games to be successful. No one really challenged him."
From the start, Romney was cast by Salt Lake leaders as the "white knight" who would put the Olympics back on track. The scandal had deeply demoralized the local staff and threatened to sour sponsors as the committee sought to raise the final $400 million needed to meet its original $1.45 billion budget.
Romney demonstrated a canny understanding of how to maximize his role as Mr. Fix-It.
"One of the masterful things Mitt did early on was that he lowered everyone's expectations," Dryer said, noting that Romney regularly joked that Salt Lake's Olympic caldron was on track to be a Weber grill.
When it came to sorting out the organization's complex finances, he did it "the Bain way," said Fraser Bullock, a former Bain Capital partner whom Romney persuaded to come aboard as chief operating officer. "He went through the budget, line by line."
Once fully versed in the committee's finances, Romney sought to win over wary public officials with a barrage of information. Washington lawmakers he met with were subjected to "a 40-page PowerPoint," Gillespie recalled. "He was treating them like executives."
The tactic worked, she said: "They respected him and knew he wasn't hiding anything."
Romney frequently cited the committee's transparency in an effort to bolster its image. As part of a reform effort that began before his hiring, board meetings were opened to the public and a reading room was created where lists of vendor contracts and top donors could be perused.
The organization's commitment to openness was questioned by some critics and media organizations, who sought greater details about the budget and legal payments related to the bribery allegations.