LA JOLLA -- David and Cristina Sear were walking their Doberman pinschers in this seaside neighborhood when a big U-Haul truck pulled up around the corner from the $12-million beachfront home Mitt and Ann Romney had just bought.
The driver could not negotiate the steep turn onto Dunemere Drive, a narrow cul-de-sac with no sidewalks.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if Mitt Romney jumped out?” they joked, moments before Romney jumped out of the driver’s side of the cab.
“We probably talked for 15 or 20 minutes,” David Sear, a financial advisor, recalled recently. “We welcomed him and cautioned him that it was a blue neighborhood. He introduced me to his son Matt, and told me that he had quite a bit of fine art that he was uncomfortable having shipped, so he thought he and his son would spend some father-son time and go on a road trip from Utah to La Jolla.”
Since that day a few years ago, the Romneys have become intermittently familiar sights around La Jolla. They have been spotted in shops along Girard Avenue in the Village shopping area; at the Jewel Salon, where Mitt got a $25 haircut in near anonymity; in local restaurants; and at Vons, where real estate agent Sue Nystrom Walsh bumped into Mitt a couple of times.
“He was very nice,” she said. “It wasn’t any big deal.”
Though the Romneys are associated with several states -- Michigan, where they grew up; Massachusetts, where he was governor; New Hampshire, where they own a magnificent lakeside retreat; and Utah, where he led the 2002 Winter Olympics -- the family has multigenerational, if less well known, connections to California.
The presumed Republican presidential nominee spent his freshman year at Stanford, where in 1966 he picketed against a sit-in by demonstrators who opposed the draft.
His mother, the former Lenore LaFount, appeared as a bit player in several Hollywood films and nearly signed an MGM contract that could have paid $50,000 before she was wooed into domesticity by future Michigan Gov. George Romney, whom she met in high school.
In her brief Hollywood career, she was a stand-in for Lily Damita in 1931’s “Fifty Million Frenchmen” and played a “chic French girl” in a Greta Garbo film and an “ingenue” in another 1931 film, “A Tailor Made Man,” George Romney biographer T. George Harris wrote.
Stung at the thought of losing her, the elder Romney asked his employer, Alcoa, to transfer him to Los Angeles, where he also took night classes at USC, according to Harris, and picked her up at the studio each night.
She didn’t like the seedy side of Hollywood and didn’t want to have to pose for the cheesecake shots the studio required. But mostly, she fretted for George’s male ego. “He’d come out there and didn’t want to be known as my date,” she told Harris. “In an acting career, I would have been upstaging him, and he couldn’t stand that.”
One of Mitt’s older sisters, Jane Romney, 74, who lives in Beverly Hills and has earned modest success as an actress, said her mother was “unprepared for Hollywood. She was young and raised in a very moral family, and Hollywood was pretty dicey in those days.”
In a brief interview, she recalled seeing her mother’s screen test when she was a teenager. “She was so very kind of dreamy and wonderful,” Jane said.
According to family lore, Jane said, George Romney “followed her out from the East Coast on his white horse and talked her into not signing the contract.” She added: “He tried to save me from Hollywood, too, but he wasn’t successful.” (Jane Romney, who donated $250 to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California in 1997, has supported her Republican brother’s presidential campaign, giving $2,500 in 2011 and $2,100 in 2008.)
George Romney told The Times in 1964 when he was governor of Michigan that he felt at home in Los Angeles because he attended kindergarten there and “had started housekeeping with his wife in Santa Monica.” Harris, the biographer, wrote that the Romneys rented a house in downtown Los Angeles, at 21st and Main streets.
The family’s more contemporary California connections include a stint by Mitt Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, as chief marketing officer for the Dodgers. He left after a season to work on his father’s first presidential campaign in 2007.
Two other sons, Matt and Craig, live 20 minutes inland from La Jolla near Rancho Bernardo, where their million-dollar-plus homes are nestled on private streets with heavy wooden gates that bar outsiders. Matt is an executive with Excel Trust, a publicly traded real estate investment trust in San Diego that focuses on retail centers, according to its website. Craig once worked as music producer for a New York ad agency but is now in real estate.
The Romney campaign did not allow any of the Romneys or their associates to speak to The Times about any aspect of the family’s life in California. A Romney spokeswoman had asked for a list of questions, and then sent back a statement: “Gov. and Mrs. Romney enjoy the time they are able to spend in California and enjoy spending time with family and friends there. When they are in California, Mrs. Romney takes the opportunity to ride horses as much as possible.”
Their home is in the Barber Tract, developed in the 1930s and known for its “storybook” cottages that sit “cheek-by-jowl,” as local historian Carol Olten put it. “It’s one of our more ideal neighborhoods.”
Along Monte Vista Avenue, one block from the Romneys, residents gather evenings with their dogs for “Yappy Hour.”
Many locals are thrilled to have a potential president and first lady nearby; others are not so happy at the prospect of restricted beach access, or that the Romneys plan to tear down their 3,000-square-foot Spanish-style home and replace it with an 8,000-square-foot tile-roof house with 3,000 more square feet of basement space. The basement will include a garage and a gym, according to plans filed with the city, requiring the removal of 1,500 cubic yards of soil.
It will also feature a mechanical car “elevator” to allow a two-tiered garage for four cars. The Romneys, according to required disclosures, have paid thousands of dollars to a lobbyist who helped them navigate the arduous permit process, which involves numerous city agencies and the California Coastal Commission.
The house plans and lobbyist reports -- publicly available documents -- were disseminated by a rival campaign, which also provided them to The Times. The project has been approved by the city, said a San Diego planner, but is on hold at the Romneys’ request.
“Emotions are highly charged on the subject,” said Romney neighbor Sear, who said he was approached recently at a funeral by a another neighbor who was incensed that a Romney victory would result in restricted beach access. “He started screeching at me to the point that his daughter had to say, ‘Dad, stop it,’” Sear said.
Other neighbors are philosophical.
“I’m sad, yes, but things change,” said Susanna Lipe Aalbers, 63, who grew up in the house the Romneys bought. Aalbers’ parents purchased the house in 1956 for $48,000 and sold it in 1976 for $350,000 because, Aalbers said, her physician father was tired of picking up beer cans on the popular beach below.
In 2008, when she learned the Romneys had bought it, she wrote Ann to share some childhood memories. “She wrote a very nice note back,” Aalbers said.
At least one neighbor thought having the Romneys nearby was good for property values.
Jeff Lepore, a Poway real estate investor, said “the possibility of living next door to a potential president” factored into his decision to buy the beachfront house next to the Romneys.
Lepore’s house cost $2.4 million in 2010, according to assessor records. Once owned by former San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor, it is a modest four-bedroom cottage, but the living room has floor-to-ceiling windows and a breathtaking ocean view.
It goes for $7,500 a week in the high season, Lepore said, with the U.S. Secret Service now conducting background checks on his renters. He’s planning a major remodeling starting in September, and he may sell the house after that.
Lepore said he had bumped into Romney washing and waxing his car on the cul-de-sac. They share a gated path between the homes that leads to the beach, one of La Jolla’s nicest. When Lepore had to replace a lock because of damage from the corrosive salt air, the Romneys promptly sent him a check for their share -- $150.
These days, when the Romneys arrive, their block is transformed from a sleepy seaside enclave into a security outpost, with unmarked SUVs at either end of the street, armed Secret Service agents posted on the seaside exposure and a mobile command center parked on the narrow street.
When they are away, though, photos of Ann on her beloved dressage horses are visible on the inside wall to anyone walking past. The home’s name, in tile next to the front door, is “Fin de la Senda,” or “end of the path” in Spanish.
The house on the other side of the Romneys’ is a historic Mediterranean mansion on more than an acre. Once owned by the late actor Cliff Robertson, it was purchased in 2005 by John Miller, a Kansas City meatpacking baron, who also was a neighbor of the Romneys in Utah, and served as national finance co-chairman of Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. Miller is an operating partner in Solamere Capital, Tagg Romney’s Boston-based private equity firm.
Over the Easter holiday, the candidate was spotted running around the Millers’ huge lawn, which slopes down to the beach, with many small children in his orbit. This holiday weekend, the Romneys will gather again on Dunemere Drive. Monday at 10 a.m., Mitt Romney is scheduled celebrate Memorial Day with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in San Diego’s Balboa Park.
La Jolla has already become a touchstone for the family. Shortly after moving there, Ann Romney commissioned Alycia Quackenbush, a local artist known for stylized beach scenes, to paint the Romneys and 15 of their grandchildren frolicking on sand. They made a lasting impression.
“She came to my studio several times to OK the drawings,” Quackenbush said.
“They’re a lovely family. He would call her and they were very loving over the phone. I could see they were a genuine couple.”