HE’S BUSY, CAN I TAKE A MESSAGE? Eric Fehrnstrom (right) and Mitt Romney
Flackdom rarely leads to fame. But Eric Fehrnstrom, the traveling press secretary for Mitt Romney, has already joined the pop-culture firmament, thanks to a testy exchange between Romney and Associated Press reporter Glen Johnson this past month. In that encounter — which was caught on video and posted multiple times on YouTube — Johnson interrupts Romney in the middle of a press conference to challenge the candidate’s claim that no lobbyists run his campaign, pointedly noting that registered lobbyist Ron Kaufman is a senior Romney advisor.
Fehrnstrom’s star turn comes toward the end. The press conference is over, and Romney has approached Johnson to continue the argument. Fehrnstrom advances from the background, boasting stylish specs and hair that’s almost as well-coiffed as his boss’s. He waits a moment. And then, discreetly, he reins in the agitated Romney — by telling Johnson to stop talking (“Hey, Glen, save the arguments for the plane”).
Then, after the ex–Massachusetts governor walks away, Fehrnstrom moves closer to Johnson and gives him a muted but very intense tongue-lashing. “Glen, you should act a little bit more professionally instead of being argumentative with the candidate, all right? It’s out of line. You’re out of line.” Johnson tries to protest, but Fehrnstrom won’t have it; instead, he talks over him, accusing the reporter of journalistic malpractice four times before reiterating his initial warning. “Save your opinions — save your opinions — save your opinions — save your opinions and act professionally. Act professionally. Don’t be argumentative with the candidate.”
The sight of a spokesman scolding a reporter like a naughty child might have struck some people as bizarre — especially since, whether or not you liked his delivery, the reporter happened to be right. But to Massachusetts reporters who worked with Fehrnstrom when he was communications director during Romney’s governorship, this wasn’t a surprise. “There were many exchanges with me where he’d end by making it personal,” says a reporter who requested anonymity, “and the exchange with Glen was a perfect example of that.”
“He will get in your face and say that ‘You’re not being professional’ — that ‘You’re expressing your opinion’ — when in fact, you’re confronting Mitt Romney with facts that undercut what he’s saying,” adds Globe reporter Frank Phillips. “Fehrnstrom does a very good job for Romney. But sometimes it can be very obnoxious.”
Stands by his man
Fehrnstrom’s reputation as a tough guy goes back to his years as a reporter for the Boston Herald, where he covered cops and then the Massachusetts State House. (“He was incredibly hard-nosed,” says Herald editor Kevin Convey. “My father used to talk about ‘pig-headed Swedes.’ Eric was a pig-headed Swede in the best sense of the term.”) But his reputation as a tough flack was cemented early in Romney’s term as governor, when he nearly brawled with North Adams mayor John Barrett after an appearance on New England Cable News.
The exact details of the incident remain murky. According to Barrett, Fehrnstrom accused him of sexism after Barrett suggested that Romney meet with the state’s mayors instead of using Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey as his surrogate. Barrett acknowledges calling Fehrnstrom a “wuss,” but claims Fehrnstrom called him a “classless piece of shit” first. He also says he shoved Fehrnstrom, but only after Fehrnstrom shoved him; Fehrnstrom has said he never touched Barrett. Whatever actually happened, things might have gotten even uglier if a station producer hadn’t helped break things up.
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.