It’s also worth noting that, like Fehrnstrom, Romney reportedly has a temper of his own — though it’s rarely been seen in public. “He has a short fuse — he’s yelled and screamed at me,” another reporter says of Romney. “My theory is, Eric’s there to make sure he doesn’t get in a situation where some wacko in the crowd or some anti-Romney person baits him and gets his gloves up.”
The run-in with Johnson was a case in point: just when Romney looked like he might lose control, Fehrnstrom sidled up and took over. He got mad so Romney could walk away.
Despite Fehrnstrom’s rough edges, many Boston journalists hold him in high regard. “He sticks to his message fiercely, in a really annoying Republican way, but he’s actually a pretty professional guy, by Massachusetts standards,” yet another says anonymously. “He always gets back to you. He was willing to go off the record on things that would benefit him, which was helpful. And, on occasion, he’d get you documents, or access to Romney. I had no problems working with him.”
“He’s been nothing but professional with me,” adds Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, who dealt regularly with Fehrnstrom during Romney’s governorship. “You could argue that he had reason to just ignore me” — Vennochi often criticized the governor — “but I never had a problem with him. I’d send him an e-mail; he’d e-mail me back. I think he’s done a good job for Romney, I really do.”
One more distinguishing Fehrnstrom characteristic worth mentioning: he knows how to protect his turf. In April 2005, Romney hired Julie Teer — a young, up-and-coming Republican operative who’d run New Hampshire for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 — as his spokesperson. At the time, the widespread assumption was that Teer was being groomed for an equivalent role in Romney’s upcoming presidential campaign. In March 2006, though, Teer left her new job to become political director for Commonwealth PAC, Romney’s political-action committee. In Romney-watching circles, word was that she’d lost a behind-the-scenes battle with Fehrnstrom — who, of course, is now doing the very job many thought would be Teer’s.
Fehrnstrom isn’t the top communications official in Romney’s campaign. Both communications director Matt Rhoades and national press secretary Kevin Madden rank above him. But as the campaign has progressed, his role seems to have grown substantially. “Here’s a local boy who’s only in his position because he’s so thoroughly trusted by Mitt,” says a reporter who’s covered Romney’s presidential bid. “This is very easily a position he could be Bigfooted out of. But now he is, for lack of a better term, the first official campaign responder to breaking stories with Romney.
“My sense is that this happened in late summer or early fall,” this reporter adds. “I think it’s a matter of Madden and Rhoades starting to trust him more.”
Add it all up, and the national media will probably be dealing with Fehrnstrom in some capacity if Romney wins the presidency. If this happens, they’ll be working with someone who — in theory, at least — recognizes that the press plays a vital role. “I respect that reporters have a difficult job,” Fehrnstrom tells the Phoenix via e-mail. “I used to do it myself. Reporters keep us all honest, and they’re some of the smartest people I know. I enjoy being in their company.