Obviously, this incident highlighted Fehrnstrom’s temper. But it also showed just how highly Romney values his aide. Even after the incident became news, and the state mayoral association demanded that Fehrnstrom be reprimanded, Romney refused to sanction him; Fehrnstrom’s written apology to Barrett settled matters, Romney insisted.
A controversy toward the close of Romney’s gubernatorial term made much the same point. In November 2006, the Globe reported that Romney had appointed Fehrnstrom to the Brookline Housing Authority. The posting itself wasn’t lucrative (it paid only $5000 annually), but it would have made Fehrnstrom eligible for a state pension when he reached retirement age. And given his salary history — at the time, Fehrnstrom reportedly was making $160,000 — that pension would have been a whopper. (In Massachusetts, pensions are set by the recipients’ three highest earning years.)
Given Romney’s carefully cultivated image as a Beacon Hill reformer, the story was catnip to the press. Romney defended the appointment, saying that Fehrnstrom’s future pension gains were a nonissue. But Fehrnstrom gave it up two days later, saying he wanted to protect Romney from “unwarranted political attacks.” Still, the fact remains: by giving Fehrnstrom such a high-profile role in his presidential campaign, Romney is practically goading his rivals — and the press — to subject his “reformer” persona to further scrutiny.
Why is Romney so loyal? First, consider the situation he faced when he returned from Utah, where he’d helped salvage the Salt Lake City Olympics, to run for governor. His unsuccessful 1994 run against Ted Kennedy notwithstanding, Romney had precious little experience navigating Beacon Hill and working the Boston media. Fehrnstrom was the opposite. After covering the State House for the Herald, and then working as a spokesman for Republican state treasurer Joe Malone, Fehrnstrom was intimately acquainted with both sides of the press-politics equation.
“Romney hadn’t really been in the trenches of Massachusetts politics — and there you have Fehrnstrom,” says another journalist who asked not to be named. “He knows all the players, he’s savvy about how it all works, and he’s willing to get in the trenches and deflect a lot of the crossfire. I would guess that Romney found him invaluable in those years.”
But the tie between the two men runs deeper. Romney was averse to the sort of casual, unscripted encounters that career politicians take for granted and often enjoy. (He’d also seen his own father’s presidential campaign implode due to an inopportune off-the-cuff comment.)
For his part, Fehrnstrom had private-sector experience of his own: when Romney came back from Utah, he was a spokesman for Hill, Holliday, the high-powered Boston advertising firm. And along with Beth Myers — who’d been Malone’s chief of staff before taking the same post with Romney — he proved adept at running the new governor’s communications operation in a suitably cautious and corporate manner. (Myers is now running Romney’s presidential campaign.) The governor’s shabby press room got a fancy makeover. Democratic operatives were barred from press conferences. And Fehrnstrom became the conduit through whom any and all requests for comment had to pass. As governor, Romney couldn’t stay quite as insulated as he’d been during his Bain Capital days. But he came close.