Edward Albertian had been working for only a few weeks at his new job, managing the first two Boston-area Staples stores, when he got an unnerving call from his wife. As Staples staffed up, Albertian had been poaching talent from his old company, and his former boss was piqued.
That morning, a courier had delivered papers to Albertian’s wife threatening them with eviction unless they immediately repaid the $250,000 loan from Albertian’s former company that they had used to buy their home.
A few days later the couple, with their newborn son and 2-year-old daughter in tow, were invited to Staples’ Watertown headquarters and found themselves sitting across from Mitt Romney, whose company, Bain Capital, had invested money in Staples. He had heard about their predicament from the chain’s co-founder, Tom Stemberg.
They talked for less than half an hour about the young store manager’s goals and his role in the company. Then, “Mitt opened his checkbook and wrote a check for $250,000,” Albertian, who is now chief operating officer of the Massachusetts-based Transnational Group, said of the 1987 encounter.
“He said, ‘You’re going to be great. As soon as you sell the house, then you can pay me back, but I want you to focus on Staples and building this into a great company,’ ” Albertian said. (Stemberg later assumed the loan, and Albertian paid it back over a number of years).
That was the Mitt Romney known to friends and business associates: a man generous to those in need, whose charitable acts stemmed from a deeply rooted sense of duty to help his neighbors.
That is not the Mitt Romney that America has seen in the six years he has been running for the nation’s highest office. That man was typified by Romney’s response little more than a year ago when he was asked by the Las Vegas Review-Journal about another housing issue: What he would do about the foreclosure crisis that was costing thousands of Nevadans their homes?
“Let it run its course and hit the bottom,” Romney said. “Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up, and let it turn around and come back up.”
The dissonance between Romney’s expansive private generosity and the way he came across in Nevada reflects a conflict at the heart of his second bid for the presidency. Much of what America knows about Romney personally is one-dimensional and politically troublesome -- his wealth, his low tax rate, a tenure at Bain Capital that created jobs but also layoffs. The result: In almost every poll, more voters than not see him in a negative light.
If the country knows little about what makes Mitt Romney tick, that is in large part because the campaign has walled off large swaths of his background, including some of the most humanizing components, to public discussion.
George W. Bush connected with voters by revealing his struggle with alcoholism and his path to redemption through his faith. President Obama shared stories about growing up with a single mother. Romney has forgone those sorts of personal anecdotes; instead, his narrative has focused on others -- like his father’s path from being a carpenter who sold paint cans from the trunk of his car to becoming the head of American Motors.
For more than a year, Romney relentlessly hammered at President Obama on economic and budgetary matters, only recently switching to attacks centered on welfare. That strategy left largely unspoken by the candidate three of the most important elements of his life: his Mormon faith and related acts of charity; his time at Bain Capital; and his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts, the state’s healthcare plan -- all matters deemed politically problematic.
As a result, 10 weeks before the election Romney remains an enigma to many Americans.
Filling in the blanks
Democrats have done their best to fill in the blanks, pairing stories about Bain deals that led to layoffs with Romney’s plans to shrink federal programs for the poor or shift them to the states. The result: Some of his closest friends and former colleagues say the portrait of Romney as a cold, calculating businessman bears little resemblance to the man they know.
Romney’s advisors have long shrugged off his likability problem, arguing that voters care most about competence and insisting that Obama’s middling job approval rating is a far more important number.
But in recent days advisors have signaled an intent to fill in the portrait of Romney. Last Sunday, for the first time, his campaign invited reporters to watch Romney attend church, one of its first formal recognitions of his faith. This week’s Republican National Convention looms as their biggest opportunity to flesh Romney out with testimonials from people he has helped throughout his business career and through his church.
While some might see a contradiction between Romney’s private acts of generosity and his plans to shrink government programs that help the poor or college students, those close to him say there is none. It stems from his belief in individual responsibility and self-reliance, and the view that every American has a duty to help others either through their community or through their church.
“He believes government has a certain role as far as helping people, or helping provide an infrastructure in areas where you can help create opportunities,” Romney advisor Kevin Madden said. But his guiding principle is a belief in “putting our faith in individuals and free markets and free enterprise” rather than “government being the only engine.”
In the case of healthcare, for example, Obama cast access to it as a civil right. By contrast, a number of Romney aides and advisors say the main motivating factor for Romney in extending universal healthcare in Massachusetts was that he was looking to limit the state’s burgeoning costs for covering the uninsured, who were showing up for care at the state’s hospitals.
Running at problems
To date, many of the stories friends and advisors tell of Romney emphasize his tendency, as one put it, to personally “run at problems and fix them.”
One often-cited episode was his decision to shut down Bain Capital and organize a multiday search party to find a partner’s teenage daughter, who had vanished after a party. After he recruited Bain’s lawyers, accountants and other business associates to walk the streets of Manhattan showing her picture, authorities found the girl tied up in a New Jersey basement. (Notably, the story was used by Romney in advertising for an earlier campaign, before Bain became the focus of months of Democratic gibes.)
Cindy Gillespie, who worked closely with Romney when he ran the Salt Lake City Olympics and then moved to Massachusetts to work with him, recalled a less dramatic illustration of Romney’s approach. When movers left her bedroom set stranded in the driveway of her new town house after failing to maneuver it up a narrow staircase, Romney -- then the governor -- arrived with three of his sons and they worked together late into the evening to hoist the furniture over the second floor balcony.
Romney’s friends and family say his instincts are rooted in his Mormon faith and sharpened over his years as a lay leader in the church. For years, Romney’s church work amounted to a half-time job, as he counseled members of his congregation who were dealing with marital problems, substance abuse and financial difficulties related to lost jobs or health issues.
While his efforts to persuade a young woman to forgo an abortion have gained the most attention, some of his confidants note that he spent many more hours dealing with more everyday matters. Often Romney would sit down with a pad and help a couple scratch out their budget -- urging them to differentiate between wants and needs. In a privileged life, those experiences had a lasting effect.
“It allowed him to see so many different people and so many different problems that people are facing -- to really have empathy for people who are struggling, and to recognize that almost everybody in every walk of life has one sort or another of struggle,” his son Josh said in an interview. “There are so many people out there in need of help or support -- he learned a lot of that through those experiences.”
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who heads a faith-based gang intervention group in Roxbury, Mass., and spoke frequently to Romney during his governorship, saw two facets of the man -- the executive and the spiritual counselor -- come together after Hurricane Katrina when the Massachusetts Legislature provided shelter on Cape Cod for evacuees. Romney wanted members of the black clergy to attend to the arrivals -- because he said some would rather talk to pastors than mental health professionals -- and asked Brown to lead the effort.
Romney arrived a few days later, telling Brown he wanted to hear the stories directly from the victims, many of whom were from New Orleans’ hard-hit Lower 9th Ward.
“He wanted to make sure that their needs were being met,” Brown said. “He brought 50 state agencies down there, and everybody’s needs were attended to. I’m talking about people who left their houses in such a rush that they forgot their teeth. He had dentists down there to get them their dentures.... He was on it.”
But Brown was most surprised watching Romney interact with victims -- praying with them, sitting with them on park benches asking about their families, scooping up children and asking for hugs.
“He was pastoral,” Brown said. “He was that person with those people.”
One of the stories friends are now telling about Romney -- to get across their view of him -- details the medical school loan he gave to the daughter of a deceased Bain colleague. Romney met with her every semester, according to his son Tagg, to discuss her grades and expenses. After she graduated, he sent her a Christmas card, forgiving the loan.
Yet that Romney has rarely appeared in public. Asked repeatedly by students how they can afford the escalating cost of college -- under his proposals, student loans would be cut -- Romney offers not empathy but advice: to borrow from their parents, to find a cheaper college, to “shop around.”
Last week, Democrats crafted a Web video to the tune of the Smokey Robinson song by that name, and Obama weighed in with criticism of Romney’s remarks, happy to fill in any gaps in voters’ minds.
Coming next Sunday
How Barack Obama’s collision with rising partisanship shaped his presidency and his image among American voters. On the eve of his nominating convention, a president once seen as a possible healer of partisan divides faces an electorate deeply divided over him.