George Romney: Businessman in a Political Jungle (Fortune, 1964)

March 4, 2012, 7:00 PM UTC

Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week we turn to a story from 1964, which takes a look at the political journey of the late George Romney, father of Mitt Romney, who’s seeking the GOP nomination for the 2012 U.S. presidential race. Similar to his father, Mitt Romney was known for his business acumen before jumping into politics. George Romney might have lost the 1964 GOP presidential nomination, but he nevertheless went on to become a popular Michigan politico. As the pivotal Super Tuesday approaches this week, might Mitt Romney pick up any pointers from dad? 

George Romney may have lost his way in the quest for the Republican nomination for President in 1964. But he can still be re-elected governor-if he can handle attacks from labor, some businessmen, Democrats, and some Republicans.

by Harold B. Meyers

A chill January wind blustered snow around the Michigan capitol’s slender white dome at Lansing. In the cavernous House chamber within, below partially filled public galleries, Republican Governor George Wilcken Romney, fifty-six, addressed the Republican-controlled state legislature. On the dais behind him the Lieutenant Governor–astute, globular Democrat T. John Lesinski—sprawled in a chair marked “Speaker” and yawned widely and often. T. John had opened the joint session as presiding officer of the Senate, but his demeanor assured all who viewed him that his interest in the proceedings was irretrievably fled. On the floor of the House a few representatives and senators followed the text as the Governor spoke. Others read newspapers, worked on their mail, trimmed their nails, or leaned together in earnest conference. Only the Governor’s vivacious wife, Lenore, seemed raptly attentive; she lent a kind of body English to his words by nodding at important passages. Meager applause came three times, twice from Detroit Democrats saluting welfare proposals helpful to their constituents. Small wonder that Romney, his silvered temples glistening in the spotlights, skipped his usual oratorical flourishes and droned with increasing rapidity through his report on “the state of the state.”

After one year as governor, Romney was able to report that the state of the state was remarkably good. “During 1963,” he proudly declared, “Michigan did more to put its house in order and prepare for the future than in any [other] single year in this century.” A new state constitution was adopted, replacing an antiquated document that had been tortured out of shape by a century’s piecemeal amendments. Congressional districts were reapportioned to end a bitter wrangle of many years’ duration. Unemployment-compensation laws were tightened and benefits increased. Best of all, Michigan’s economy, spurred by the national appetite for new automobiles, reached an all-time high, new business investment was rising, and unemployment was at its lowest level in eight years. Tax receipts increased so steeply that the $85-million deficit Romney inherited from his Democratic predecessor had turned into a surplus that should reach $38 million or more by the end of the current fiscal year. This treasury overflow, in turn, made it possible for Romney to offer proposals for Michigan’s further betterment that would require a $622-million general-fund budget in fiscal 1965, highest in the state’s history, but no new taxes. “It will be a tight budget,” the Governor promised, and the state would “spend less than we will have available.”

But the indifference of the legislators to George Romney’s good news about the restoration of Michigan’s fiscal and economic well-being was a measure of the recent decline in his political stature. Another measure is the fading of Romney-for-President talk. This talk had budded while Romney was still St. George of the Compacts leading an assault, as president and chairman of American Motors, against “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” in the nation’s garages. It had reached full flower when Romney defeated a handsome young war-hero incumbent, John B. Swainson, to give Michigan its first Republican governor in fourteen years. Now such talk is little ,more than a mumble. Romney, who never openly acknowledged any presidential aspirations in the first place, has become one of the darkest of the dark horses in the Republican party’s overcrowded stable. There is nothing overt that he can do to revive national interest; even the mild admission that “like any red-blooded American” he would accept a draft sent his most ardent Michigan supporters into such an uproar that Romney, with realism as evident as his good health, reassured them: “I’m more likely to die before November than I am to be drafted for the presidential nomination.” He has philosophically turned to a more reachable goal-election to another two-year term as governor of Michigan.

He can regulate the hairdressers

But a nominee or not, George Romney will seek to influence the course of the Republican party in this election year by speaking out on national issues. He can hope to make his influence felt because he is governor of a major industrial state with twenty-one electoral votes, and because he is George Romney, a unique figure on the U.S. political scene. By turning to public service, Romney is living the ambition of more than one energetic American businessman who has reached the top and made a comfortable fortune at a relatively early age. For Romney–able, earnest, well meaning though he is–the experience has had a sometimes nightmare quality.

Michigan seems on the surface the ideal state for business leadership; it is, after all, the center of one of the nation’s biggest industries. But the onetime head of American Motors has had to face hostility on all sides–from labor, which in Michigan is often indistinguishable from the Democratic party; and from important parts of the business community, which has never felt entirely comfortable with him. Sustained by his Mormon faith, Romney has borne frustration cheerfully for the most part, although his occasional displays of temper please his enemies. There are indications that he is becoming more at home in the political jungles of Michigan. Serious problems lie ahead, however, including the possibility of a United Auto Workers strike. A long work stoppage in the auto industry could seriously hurt the entire national economy. Romney would find himself in the middle of a crisis–but, as in so many other situations in which he has been trapped, with powers to act severely limited.

“Being governor of Michigan,” the ex-businessman says, “is like being the quarterback of a team chosen by your opponents.” Michigan’s new constitution will remove or reduce many of the handicaps under which Romney and previous governors have suffered, but it has not yet taken full effect and the state’s government will remain sadly diffused for some time to come. The Governor is far from having a corporation president’s clear-cut powers. He has had to work with a legislature dominated, through gross malapportionment, by diehard conservatives from sparsely populated rural areas “out state.” Even within the executive branch the Governor’s power has been limited and divided. Seven elective officials have shared administrative duties with him. None of them is responsible to him–and all of them are Democrats. Much of the state government’s business has been conducted through 120 independent boards, commissions, and agencies run by functionaries whose appointive terms in most cases are longer than the Governor’s. Romney has obtained control of only a handful of these bodies, including the Board of Cosmetology, which regulates hairdressers.

It would tax the powers of a consummate politician to govern effectively under such conditions. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, smart as he was, served six terms and still wound up with a deadlock. George Romney has accomplished much for Michigan though he was ill prepared by temperament and experience for the rough-and-tumble realities of political life. As a businessman he was used to putting all his cards on the table, and he had come to expect the same open dealing from those he faced. As the highly effective leader of nonpartisan civic movements, Romney associated with fellow citizens who shared his single-minded devotion to the public weal. But as governor he finds himself dependent on politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, who are naturally concerned with their own political fortunes.

The worst blow he has taken was the failure of his fiscal-reform program last November. For years Michigan has operated with a patched-up, blowout-prone tax structure, which discouraged business expansion while sometimes leaving the state in near bankruptcy. Governors Williams and Swainson both proposed basic overhauls of the fiscal setup; the Republican legislators balked their plans for a state income tax time after time. Romney, too, campaigned on a promise of fiscal reform. For him, as for his Democratic predecessors, “reform” meant an income tax, but one based on a flat rate “like tithing;” and chances for getting it passed looked better than ever before. As a Republican governor working with a Republican majority in the legislature, Romney got G.O.P. votes that Swainson and Williams had never received. But the Democrats callously deserted “reform” to join with conservative Republicans in killing Romney’s proposals.

A steppingstone to higher office

George Romney remains an attractive human being, and a formidable political campaigner. He won only a narrow victory in 1962, his first time out, but a recent Detroit News poll showed him leading his most likely Democratic opponent, able Congressman Neil Staebler, by a commanding three-to-two margin. Square-jawed, cool-eyed, ruggedly handsome, Romney has the physical presence to dominate any group. His voice is deep and resonant, his manner friendly but reserved. He comes across on the television screen as a forceful performer and he delights in the lapel-grabbing, hand-pumping rigors of personal campaigning.

His is a model family life. He and Lenore have two sons, two married daughters, and six grandchildren, and each Sunday as many of them as can make it gather at the $150,000 Romney home in suburban Bloomfield Hills for a day of church and family activities into which no political or other business intrudes. The Governor starts most days at 5:30 A.M. with a brisk run or a game of “compact golf” (three balls for six holes) regardless of weather or temperature; he generally is in bed by 10:00 P.M., and following his Mormon upbringing he does not smoke and does not drink wine, hard liquor, coffee, or tea.

The list of people to whom Romney is often compared is impressive. It includes Warren G. Harding, because like Harding he looks like a President; Charles de Gaulle, because of his mystical sense of leadership and righteousness; Billy Graham, because of his evangelical fervor; Dwight D. Eisenhower, because of the charisma that crowds sense and the occasional vagueness of his pronouncements (“They both talk a lot and you’re not always sure what they’re saying,” explains a friendly critic).

His opponents in the legislature and in the executive branch fancy that he tries to run the government of Michigan as he used to run American Motors. They complain that he is more inclined to tell everybody what he is going to do than to listen to their opinions. “He’s not the kind of guy who’ll sit and chin things out with you,” T. John Lesinski says. Even a loyal aide admits: “There’s no dialogue.” He has been reluctant to compromise on some issues, and too quick to give up the fight on others. Many Republican hearts still rankle with resentments left over from the days when Romney organized the nonpartisan Citizens for Michigan movement; in those days Romney openly and frequently criticized both political parties.

Some opposition springs from the bafflement a hard-bitten secular world feels in the presence of a genuinely religious man who keeps the Sabbath holy, gives more than a tenth part of his income to his church, and then tops all that by fasting and praying before making a difficult decision. Some of his close friends speculate that what Romney would really like is membership in the Council of the Twelve Apostles, who with the First Presidency are responsible for running the Mormon Church and its tremendous business affairs. “Romney might make a pretty good President,” goes a current Detroit joke, “but I hate to have anyone use the White House as a steppingstone to higher office.”

He has stated some general views on national issues. On Negroes, Romney says: “My attitude is that a Negro is a child of God just like I am and my attitude is that the Negro under the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States is entitled to every right and every opportunity that I am entitled to as a citizen.” He believes in pay-as-you-go government. He is worried by the growth of federal power, and blames it in part on the failure of the states adequately to meet the needs of their citizens. “I don’t talk about states’ rights,” says Romney. “I talk about state responsibilities.” For Michigan he has put forward programs in education, mental health, and welfare that might well have sprung from Democratic pens. He engaged in a bitter wrangle for months with the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare over its effort to dictate the way Michigan organized an aid-to-dependent-children program.

Romney’s best-known economic views concern what he calls the “excess concentration of power.” He has long argued that big unions and great corporations have grown so powerful that only the federal government can regulate them, with the rights of individual citizens being endangered in the clash of giants. He would curb the power of both unions and corporations through new antitrust laws–e.g., to force corporations that reach a certain market dominance to breed new and separate corporations, thus increasing competition and strengthening the economy. Underlying all this is Romney’s allegiance to the Mormon tenet of individual responsibility, as well as his deeply held belief that man is on this earth to serve God.

Up from Mexico

Religion and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have molded the Romney family history for generations. The Governor’s great-grandfather, converted by one of the first Mormon missionaries to reach England, brought his family to America in 1841 and joined the persecuted Mormon hegira to Utah. After the U.S. began prosecutions for polygamy, Romney’s grandfather, who had taken four wives and fathered thirty children, fled in the mid-1880’s with his numerous family to a Mormon enclave in Chihuahua, Mexico. The family prospered in Mexico for a generation, and there George Romney was born in 1907, the son of monogamous Gaskell and Anna Pratt Romney, both of them U.S. citizens. When George was five, Mexican revolutionaries drove the family back to the U.S., and they went to Los Angeles after a brief period as refugees living on Army rations in EI Paso. For the next decade Gaskell Romney moved frequently and failed in business and farming five times before settling down to a modestly prosperous career as a builder in Salt Lake City. In 1926, George left school to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather as an unpaid missionary. He worked as a lather to earn $700-$630 after tithing—toward his expenses and was sent to Great Britain for two years to carry the Mormon doctrine door to door through Scotland and preach it from soapboxes in Hyde Park.

Romney returned to the U.S. to resume his education and his pursuit of Lenore LaFount. He had courted her assiduously for years–even sitting behind her when she went to movies with other boys–and now he enrolled at George Washington University because Lenore was living in Washington while her father served on the Federal Radio Commission. Romney attended classes at night and worked during the day for Democratic Senator David I. Walsh of Massachusetts, first as secretary and later as legislative aide, dealing primarily with the Hawley-Smoot tariff bill.

Young man in a hurry

In 1930, Romney left Walsh and college, still two years short of a degree, and went to work for the Aluminum Co. of America. During a year’s apprenticeship he was sent to sell Alcoa products in Los Angeles, where Lenore by now was filling bit parts in the movies. On July 2, 1931, culminating what Romney calls “the best selling job of my life,” he and Lenore were married in the Salt Lake City Mormon Temple “for time and all eternity.” Soon afterward Alcoa assigned Romney to Washington to keep abreast of developments affecting its interests. This meant knowing people, and the Romneys entertained a great deal, serving liquor but not touching it, at the home they built–much of it out of aluminum–in fashionable northwest Washington.

When he was passed over as too young for the top Alcoa job in Washington, Romney began to look for a spot where youth would not be a handicap to his ambitions. He took a job in 1939 as manager of the Automobile Manufacturers Association’s Detroit office at $12,000 a year. He moved up in 1942 to head the A.M.A. and also the Automotive Council for War Production, which helped the government make full use of the facilities of the council’s 645 member companies; he was kept out of the Army by family responsibilities and essential classification.

When the war ended Romney joined Nash-Kelvinator as assistant to President George Mason at $36,000 a year. By 1953 he was executive vice president, helping Mason put together the merger with Hudson that created American Motors. When Mason died suddenly in 1954, Romney was his logical successor. American Motors was deeply in the red and threatened by corporate raider Louis Wolfson. Romney charmed Wolfson into suspending his raid, put his chips on the compact Rambler, closed down inefficient Michigan plants to concentrate production in Wisconsin, and pulled American Motors solidly into the black in just three years (see “Will Success Spoil American Motors?” FORTUNE, January, 1959).

The man who scorned politics

Romney, in those days, was a devoted nonpartisan, concerned with getting things done for citizens by citizens. He talked of “voluntary cooperation” and “practical consensus,” and he was scornful of both political parties. “We have a Democratic party that is increasingly dominated by union leaders and a Republican party that is still largely dominated by big business leaders,” he said in one 1959 speech. He saw no “basic differences” between the parties.

His views grew as naturally from Michigan soil as is huge annual crop of sour cherries. The state, rich in agriculture and industry, has had more than its share of problems; those not created by bitter factionalism were compounded by it. Even its geography invites division. Michigan comes in two parts: the Lower Peninsula shaped like a mitten with the thumb jutting into Lake Huron, the Upper Peninsula shaped like a battered cap and wholly separated from the Lower by the Straits of Mackinac.

The geographical fissure is as nothing beside the state’s urban-rural estrangement. For eighty years after the Republican party was formed in 1854, Michigan was a one-party state. Not one Democrat was elected to the state Senate between 1918 and 1930 and in four of those years there was none in the House either. Two-party government arrive with the New Deal and the subsequent unionization of the auto industry. The U.A.W. formed an alliance with the Democrats to dominate the polls in Detroit and other populous manufacturing cities of the state. The “outstate” counties remained staunchly Republican, and the wedding of rural voters and business interests–notably those of the auto manufacturers–produced an ultraconservative political force bitterly opposed to the welfare-oriented Democrats.

All this potential for strife was realized in the state government. Michigan’s constitution, dating from 1850, gave Republicans control of the state legislature, but superior numbers statewide gave the Democrats the governor’s chair from 1948 to 1962. Stalemate and irresponsibility resulted. In 1959, “Soapy” Williams, who wanted an income tax, and the Republican legislature, which refused to countenance one, deadlocked so thoroughly that for a time the state could not pay its employees. Williams ended the “pay less paydays” only by fiscal legerdemain.

“Con-Con” for Michigan

During Michigan’s cash crisis Romney decided it was time to apply a nonpartisan approach to the state’s problems. He formed a “Citizens for Michigan” movement in which he was joined by five thousand of his fellow Michigan citizens–Republicans, Democrats, auto executives, labor leaders, farmers, union members, housewives. They quickly concluded that Michigan’s problems were too many and too interrelated to attack piecemeal. What was needed was a thorough overhaul of the state constitution–a complex course of action often attempted, never successfully, since the last constitutional convention in 1908.

Before getting his nonpartisan crusade well started, Romney nearly succumbed to partisan temptation. Michigan Republicans recognized him as a hot political property, and they suggested that he run for the Senate in 1960. Early readings were that Romney could almost certainly win, and he considered making the race. But first he consulted his Citizens for Michigan associates and decided not to run. “I reached the conclusion,” said Romney, “that dealing with basic issues was more important than running for office.”

Romney continued selling Ramblers–American Motors achieved a record 6.4 percent penetration of the auto market in 1960–and pushing for Michigan’s reform. The first step was a constitutional amendment to allow the calling of a constitutional convention–“Con-Con”–by simple majority vote. Both old-guard Republicans and the U.A.W. opposed the change, but Romney stumped the state and organized the members of Citizens for Michigan in a rousing get-out-the-vote campaign. The amendment passed in November, 1960, by 353,000 votes. The next step was to call the constitutional convention. Again Romney led his C.F.M. legions into battle. Against strong opposition–this time mainly from the rural and entrenched-interest forces, which had dominated the state legislature for so long–the calling of a convention was approved on April 1, 1961, by only 23,000 votes.

The difficult art of compromise

Again partisan politics intruded. Delegates to Con-Con were elected by parties on the same unfairly apportioned basis as the state legislature. The Republicans put up good candidates–including George Romney–and worked hard to elect their delegates. The Democrats, who settled for party hacks in too many instances, carelessly failed to get excited. The constitutional convention became a lopsided affair: ninety-nine Republicans to forty-five Democrats.

Romney himself was the first victim of partisanship. He wanted to be named president of Con-Con when it opened at Lansing in November, 1961. But ultraconservative Republicans–known in Michigan as the “Neanderthals” or “button-shoe Republicans”–were determined to name one of their own. The Republican caucus deadlocked into Romney and anti-Romney factions. His supporters got together with the button-shoe forces and agreed on a compromise president. Romney, a Democrat, and a conservative were to be vice presidents. In this trying period Romney grew incensed at what he regarded as a broken agreement. Accounts of his “demonstration” vary, but some of those present recall that he got red in the face–“You could see the veins pop out”–and stamped his feet. (Friends admit: “He got intense.”) He first declared he would accept no office at all, but later was prevailed on to take the lesser post.

For months Romney spent his mornings at his American Motors desk, ate a box lunch (favorite sandwich: peanut butter and jelly) on the eighty-four-mile drive to Lansing, spent the afternoon at Con-Con, and was driven home in the late evening; he usually changed into pajamas for the ride and slept on the reclining seat of his Rambler Ambassador. It was a killing schedule, made no easier by the partisan flurries that swirled around him as Republicans talked more and more openly of nominating him for governor in 1962.

After two months of open interest and twenty-four hours of fasting and prayer, Romney resigned as chairman and president of American Motors in February, 1962 (but remained a vice chairman on leave until after the election), and announced that he would run for governor. “Our state today finds itself in a sorry and tangled mess,” Romney said. “And the responsibility for that must be laid, in part at least, at the doors of too many partisan politicians of both parties acting like narrow partisans first and Michigan citizens last.”

By this time the polarization of Con-Con was complete, but not along party lines. Democrats and button-shoe Republicans formed a coalition–the Democrats unhappy that the convention was not going further in its reforms, the Republicans convinced it was going too far. Aware that Con-Con’s work was jeopardized, Romney moved to break up the coalition and form one of his own. The Democrats seemed unapproachable; they were unwilling to do anything that might enhance the prestige of an avowed Republican candidate. He therefore turned to the conservatives. He agreed to give sparsely settled rural areas an edge in the Senate by accepting an apportionment formula that makes nineteen acres equal to one citizen. In a series of secret meetings with D. Hale Brake, the most influential of the conservatives, he threshed out compromises on a variety of other disputed points, including House apportionment, earmarking of funds, and election of state officers. Romney had to trade off a number of cherished reforms, but he preserved others. And he achieved a coalition capable of agreeing on a constitution that, while far from perfect, is superior to the old one. Inevitably, Romney was accused of capitulation to the old guard. Snarled one Democrat: “If Romney bought this deal he’ll have to wear his pajamas all the time because D. Hale Brake and the farmers have traded him out of his pants.”

“This is what’s wrong with Michigan”

The vote on the new constitution was not scheduled until April 1, 1963, and Romney meantime plunged into his campaign for governor. He drove 37,000 miles in a blue-and-white Ambassador, flew 13,000 miles in chartered planes. Lenore turned out to be just as good a campaigner as her husband; she visited every one of Michigan’s eighty-three counties and gave more than 200 speeches. “I’m a citizen who is a Republican, not a Republican who is incidentally a citizen,” Romney argued. The word “Republican” did not appear on his literature or billboards. What did appear was Romney’s handsome face–and he was recognized wherever he went. “Hello, I’m George Romney, I’d like your support,” he said hundreds of times a day in shopping centers, at street corners, at labor meetings–which he often invaded uninvited–and anywhere else that he could seize a voter’s hand. When someone refused to shake hands with him, Romney angrily shouted: “See what I mean about partisanship? This man won’t even shake hands with me! This is what’s wrong with Michigan!”

Romney coolly modified John Kennedy’s slogan–as did William Scranton in Pennsylvania–and cried that it was time to “get this state rolling again.” He called for disinterested citizens to end the “monopoly” of power groups, whether of the left, center, or right. He promised an end to “executive-legislative stalemate” and thoroughgoing fiscal reform. Said Romney, “I believe in the deathless freedom of the individual, and the sacred right of individual choice.”

His efforts to disengage himself from the Republican label did not endear him to the Republican professionals. But his troubles did not compare with those afflicting Governor Swainson. “Romney didn’t win the election. Swainson lost it,” says a Democratic strategist. Swainson had inherited twelve years of Democratic rule, and had to defend it all. He was hampered by the charge that he was the tool of the U.A.W. and by his veto of two bills important to suburban areas. Romney was elected by 81,000 votes, the only Republican running statewide who won.

“A creature first of God”

On January 1, 1963, George Romney was sworn in as governor at the capitol in Lansing. His inaugural message drew on his spiritual heritage and looked to a future of great temporal achievement. “Successful conduct of the people’s government must be based on a deep belief in a Divine Creator, and the strong conviction that there is nothing equal to spiritual faith in the day-to-day conduct of either personal or governmental affairs,” the new governor declared. “Man is a creature first of God and then of society.”

On this lofty plane Romney went to work. The first job was to win acceptance for the new state constitution at the April 1 election. He darted all over the state drumming up support for it. Lenore also took to the trail again and spoke at 137 meetings. Citizens for Michigan had fallen apart and the constitution had become a bitter partisan issue. The Democrats and the U.A.W. launched an all-out attack on the document. They argued that more meaningful reform could be had simply by doctoring the old constitution with a few amendments. Within the Republican party there was also dissent because the outstate counties opposed any weakening of their power. But Romney did a masterful job of selling, and the new constitution was adopted by 7,500 votes.

And some ride in Imperial comfort

Meanwhile Romney had a state government to run–or thought he had. Soon after his inauguration he complained that the governor had less power to “get this state rolling” than he had supposed. He had no real control over any office but his own. As an example of executive frugality he gave up the traditional governor’s limousine and rode in a black Chevrolet sedan (fitted with a reclining seat like a Rambler’s), but the attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, and other Democratic members of the administrative board continued to enjoy solid Imperial comfort. Other efforts to shake the Democratic officeholders out of familiar ways were rebuffed with partisan ferocity. On several occasions he engaged in angry debates with board members; each time his display of “intensity” was reported to the press.

In the midst of such frustrations, Romney looked for support to his legislature. Both houses were controlled by Republicans–twenty-three to eleven in the Senate, fifty-eight to fifty-two in the House–but many of them were not necessarily his kind of Republican. Fortunately, Romney’s demands were modest–having emphasized frugality so much in his campaign, he offered few new programs–and the legislature in its first session carried out his wishes fairly well. Some proposals it trimmed and some–such as a minimum-wage bill–it turned down, but Romney was later able to claim that 80 percent of his program had got through. Part of it—e.g., congressional redistricting, which is again under attack in the federal courts–may not stick, but his was a better legislative record than any other recent governor had been able to achieve with the Michigan legislature.

The end of fiscal reform

Romney did not attempt to put his fiscal-reform program through in the regular session but decided to call a special session at which the legislators could concentrate exclusively on tax bills. When the legislature met in September, Romney unveiled a proposal that reduced revenues by $306 million and restored exactly $306 million by new taxes. Under his plan, food and prescription drugs were exempted from the sales tax at a loss in revenues of $92 million; the industry-discouraging “business activities tax” on gross revenues was repealed with a loss to the state of $78 million; and general property taxes were reduced by $93 million. These and other reductions were to’ be offset by a flat-rate 2 percent income tax, which would raise $216 million, a 3 ½ per cent corporate-income tax on profits ($81 million), and a 5 ½ percent tax on the income of banks and other financial institutions ($9 million). “This, as is plainly evident,” said Romney, “is tax reform without tax increase.”

Former Governor John Swainson hailed the program and called for its passage. Other Democratic leaders and moderate Republicans also saluted it. The old guard was not impressed. Said Senator Lloyd Stephens: “If a man’s got principles he’s got to have the guts to stand up for them. I’m not going to go for any income tax just because a Republican proposed it.”

It seemed clear to Romney that the Democrats would come along. If he could tailor his program to win a few more Republican votes, his program would pass. But the chairman of the Senate tax committee was Republican Senator Clyde H. Geerlings, who boasts that he has never introduced a bill calling for an appropriation for his southwest Michigan district. Geerlings became the leader of an opposing faction of button-shoe Republicans and Democrats similar to the one that had plagued Romney at Con-Con. The Democrats, besides disliking some specifics in Romney’s package, were not reluctant to forsake long-held positions in favor of reform if their defection meant dimming the Governor’s luster. Romney, it turned out, had not taken all the pains needed to retain Democratic support. When loyal Senate Majority Leader Stanley Thayer conferred with Swainson on ways to recapture Democratic support, Romney publicly stepped away from his efforts, thus embarrassing his own forces while solidifying the opposition. Romney finally sought a detente with the Democrats in a stormy three-and-a-half-hour meeting in his office, but it was too late.

The legislature ended its special session in mid-November–meeting its self-imposed deadline of adjournment in time for the deer-hunting season–with Romney’s tax program dead, killed by the coalition of Democrats and Republicans. In the Senate his bills got out of the tax committee over Geerlings’ strenuous objections, but were promptly shunted aside with just one Democrat supporting Romney. In the House the program did not get to a direct vote. The closest it came was on a resolution to “tie” each of its sections to every other section; the resolution failed by twelve votes to get the majority needed to pass it. Only seven Democrats voted with Romney.

The chanciness of partisanship

Romney has lately given evidence of growing political sophistication. He has retained former Congressman Robert J. McIntosh, a most knowledgeable and attractive professional, as his legislative counselor, and he is holding regular breakfast meetings with leaders of the House and Senate–not, as formerly, in the impersonal meeting rooms of the Jack Tar Hotel, but at the home he rents (Michigan has no governor’s mansion at Lansing), where Lenore can add her charm to his. He is, furthermore, taking a more active interest in the problems and fortunes of the Republican organization in Michigan, and newcomers to party work are finding a welcome they’ve not had before. His growing partisanship, while good for the party, may make his reelection more chancy in a state where over-all numbers favor the Democrats.

But if he can win a second term in November and continue to sharpen his political skills, he will have an unprecedented opportunity really to govern Michigan, Reapportionment under the new constitution will eventually give the legislature a more representative cast (which may, of course, turn out to be Democratic); the 120 independent executive agencies will be reduced to no more than twenty and will be made more responsive to the governor; the lieutenant governor will be of his own party; and instead of seven other elective officers sharing his executive power, there will be only two. By the time he has served another term as governor of Michigan, George Romney may have had a chance to prove what his first term is leaving inconclusive-that he is both a good governor and a good politician.