Shannon O’Brien reflects on facing 'different' Mitt Romney
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney steps off his campaign plane in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Purchase photo reprints »
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lifts bottles of water to load into a truck as he participates in a campaign event collecting supplies from residents and local relief organizations for victims of superstorm Sandy,Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, at the James S. Trent Arena in Kettering, Ohio. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Purchase photo reprints »
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is introduced by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as he campaigns at Seven Cities Sod in Davenport, Iowa, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Purchase photo reprints »
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cheer as he arrives during a campaign rally at the Shelby County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 in Sidney, Ohio. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) Purchase photo reprints »
In this photo taken Oct. 12, 2012, Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., campaigns in Lancaster, Ohio. It's either candidate's race to win as Obama and Romney prepare to dig in for their second debate Tuesday night, Oct. 16, 2012, with just three weeks to go until the election and voting already well under way in many states. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Purchase photo reprints »
4-23-12 orginally shot 11-5-02
O'Brien thanks her voters after her concession speech Tuesday night in Boston. Purchase photo reprints »
rescan from 11-5-02
O'Brien during her concession speech Tuesday night in Boston. Purchase photo reprints »
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney receives bags of food as he participates in a campaign event collecting supplies from residents local relief organizations for victims of superstorm Sandy at the James S. Trent Arena in Kettering, Ohio, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Purchase photo reprints »
One might think that former Democratic state treasurer Shannon O’Brien would be feeling a sense of deja vu while watching Mitt Romney campaign. A decade ago, she faced off with Romney in the 2002 governor’s race that put him in office.
But O’Brien says her former opponent is unrecognizable.
“It’s certainly interesting to watch Mitt Romney run in this campaign,” she said. “He was a different candidate back then.”
Although O’Brien, an Easthampton native who now lives in Whitman, is no longer working in government, she still walks the party line when it comes to what she thinks about Romney. In a telephone interview with the Gazette last week, she reflected on her experience running against Romney and made a few predictions about “which Mitt” Americans would get if they elect him Nov. 6.
She said that although Romney’s platform has changed significantly since he defeated her in 2002, one thing that has stayed consistent is his strategy.
“He will say or promote anything to achieve his goal,” she said.
When running in progressive Massachusetts a decade ago, he tried to play the moderate candidate, she said.
“Ten years ago, almost this week, when he and I sat across the table from each other, he declared he was pro-choice, he was in favor of gun control, he said he was a man of his word and he was not using the governorship as a stepping stone for higher office,” she said.
Now, Romney has proclaimed he is pro-life and “flipped” most other progressive stances, she said. “And within two years of when he was elected, he was basically starting his national campaign for higher office,” she said. “He was out of the office 25 percent of the time, traveling around linking up with political support in anticipation of running for president in 2008.”
O’Brien, 53, now works as a consultant to information technology businesses in health care, financial services and clean energy. While growing up in Easthampton, O’Brien learned the political ropes from her father, the late Democrat Edward O’Brien, who served on the Governor’s Council for 30 years until his death in 2004. Her brother, Michael O’Brien, runs the family business, O’Brien Funeral Home on Clark Street.
Shannon O’Brien served as a state representative from 1987 to 1993, then as a senator until 1995. She was elected state treasurer in 1999 and held the position until leaving office in 2003, after losing the governor’s race to Romney. She has worked in the private sector ever since, and told the Gazette she has no plans to run for elected office in the near future.
Her involvement in politics these days includes campaigning for local politicians in Whitman and for President Barack Obama in New Hampshire, as well as working to “get out the vote” for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
State Sen. Michael R. Knapik, R-Westfield, who took over the Senate seat O’Brien vacated, has put his support behind Romney. He defended his candidate against accusations that he has changed his position on many issues.
“I would give him credit and praise him for that evolution of thought, because you can change your mind,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. “I think that is a good thing in politics.”
Knapik, who is pro-life, said he especially supports Romney’s switch on the topic because Romney has said it was considering the issue of stem-cell research in 2004 that caused him to change his feelings on abortion.
“When we dealt with embryonic stem cell research, that was not a part of the reality in 2002 discussions,” Knapik said. “That was the point where I think the governor clearly had an evolution of his thought process about creating life to destroy life.”
O’Brien said more proof that Romney has a tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear strategy is his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for president.
“He was severely conservative Mitt then. He went as far to the right as he could. He even said he would support the repeal of Roe v. Wade,” she said. “Now he’s back to moderate Mitt, because he’s campaigning for swing voters.”
That moderate makeover means he is mentioning his term in Massachusetts much more than he did to his conservative base, she said.
“Any resident of Massachusetts who paid attention to his campaign and record in office must think it’s ironic that he’s touting his record in Massachusetts,” she said. “He tries to sound like a progressive guy, but that’s not our experience in this state.”
His advertising strategy is also the same that he used against her, she said. “You saw it in the primaries — his strategy was running attack ads to get favorability for the other candidates as low a possible,” she said. “That’s a tactic he learned early and has perfected.”
She said Romney’s current efforts to ditch his elitist image also ring a bell. “It takes me back to the 2002 campaign, when he would do things and dress up to convince people he could empathize with common people,” she said, recalling that he went out in a fishing boat and donned jeans to ride around on a garbage truck. “It’s just putting on a costume and pretending.”
O’Brien said she thinks Massachusetts voters will remember that, and Romney’s record as governor, when they go to the polls.
“I think here in Massachusetts, where we know him the best, he’s probably going to suffer one of his worst defeats,” she said. She predicted he would also lose Michigan, his home state, as well as Salt Lake City, where he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics, judging by the Salt Lake Tribune’s endorsement of Obama.
“He’s going to lose the places where they know him the best,” she said.
She said it is a tight race and there is certainly the potential that her former opponent could be in the White House next year, but Massachusetts voters won’t recognize him as the Romney who was governor of Massachusetts.
“If he gets elected, I think the person we’ll see in office will be severely conservative Mitt,” she said. “I think he owes too much to the Republican base, which has moved further to the right. It will be difficult for him to abandon those promises he made earlier in the primaries.”
Knapik said he does not think there is “anything sinister” about Romney’s change from a moderate candidate to a more conservative one. “Massachusetts is a different part of the country than the rest of the nation,” he said, explaining that a candidate has to be “very liberal in terms of your perspective” to get elected here.
“In national Republican politics, there is certainly a conservative bent different from a New England Republican like myself. Then you shift toward the center. That’s just politics,” he said.
“I think where we run into trouble is that we live in this ‘gotcha’ world where candidates can’t evolve on a position,” he said. “They are immediately labeled flip-floppers.”
But O’Brien said Romney’s changing positions are more than just evolution. “I’ve had people come up to me who voted for Romney in 2002 and they apologize, because they realized he’s not the guy they voted for,” she said. “I think what is really disheartening is he doesn’t think the rules of integrity apply to him.”
Staff Writer Ben Storrow contributed to this story.