WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney scuttled the Massachusetts government's long-standing affirmative action policies with a few strokes of his pen on a sleepy holiday six months after he became governor.
No news conference or news release trumpeted Romney's executive order on Bunker Hill Day, June 17, 2003, in the deserted Statehouse. But when civil rights leaders, black lawmakers and other minority groups learned of Romney's move two months later, it sparked a public furor.
Romney drew criticism for cutting the enforcement teeth out of the law and rolling back more than two decades of affirmative action advances.
Civil rights leaders said his order stripped minorities, women, disabled people and veterans of equal access protections for state government jobs and replaced them with broad guidelines. They complained Romney hadn't consulted them before making the changes, snubbing the very kind of inclusion he professed to support.
"It was done under the radar and there was a big backlash," said Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It was clear Romney really did not have an appreciation for the affirmative action policies long in place."
Romney responded by creating an advisory panel to recommend changes. But he eventually retreated completely, leaving the state's old policies in place.
His handling of affirmative action may offer insights into how he would deal with civil rights issues if he were to defeat Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, in the fall election. The Republican challenger hasn't talked much about affirmative action during the campaign.
Romney's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
"This is the canary in the coal mine on how he feels about civil rights issues," said Julie Patino, who was deputy director of the state's affirmative action office from 1995 to 1999. "It was a cloaked and unilateral move that eradicated years and years of civil rights advances and history. It was an astonishing act."
Patino said the state's long, tortured history of race relations, including the violence over school busing that tore apart Boston in the 1970s, made Massachusetts' affirmative action laws especially critical.
The state government for decades has been a patronage haven for well-connected family members and friends of state lawmakers. The informal system of doling out state job spoils was known as "Irish affirmative action" in a nod to the powerful sway Irish-American politicians in particular have enjoyed on Beacon Hill.
Romney has said he supports workplace diversity but opposes quotas in hiring, government contracting, school admissions and the like.
"I believe our nation is at its best when people are evaluated as individuals," he said in a 2008 Washington Post issues survey. "I do support encouraging inclusiveness and diversity, and I encourage the disclosure of the numbers of women and minorities in top positions of companies and government — not to impose a quota but to shine light on the situation."
Responding to the uproar in 2003, Romney insisted he wasn't trying to undercut the state's affirmative action policies. He stressed his commitment to workforce diversity, saying he had simply wanted to broaden, streamline and update the old policies.
"I'm actually very proud of the progress that we're making in the area of affirmative action," he said in August 2003. "We're making a very aggressive effort to change our culture to be more inclusive."
Romney's executive order eliminated the state's Office of Affirmative Action, which required executive agencies to have civil rights officers in charge of monitoring the hiring of minorities, women and people with disabilities. A state diversity office was created, along with broad goals and guidelines.
Black leaders and civil rights groups said Romney's order lacked enforcement mechanisms and removed penalties for agencies not complying with the state's diversity efforts.
The Boston Globe scolded him in an editorial, saying that he "sent exactly the wrong message in signing an executive order to revamp the state's affirmative action program, consigning to the trash heap 33 years of guarantees that minorities and women would have equal access to state jobs."
To quell such criticism, Romney appointed a special advisory panel that included minority and civil rights leaders to recommend changes.
"The changes the panel wanted became too hot for the administration to deal with," said Leonard Alkins, who was head of the NAACP's Boston branch during the controversy and was a member of Romney's advisory panel. Alkins said many of the panel's recommendations were aimed at bolstering the policies Romney had abolished.
Romney essentially walked away from the fight, ignoring his own advisory panel. Instead, he had state officials effectively follow the old affirmative action policies he had formally revoked with his executive order.
It wasn't until Deval Patrick, a Democrat who was the state's first black governor, took office in 2007 that the old policies formally were reinstated.
Alkins said Romney never seemed to grasp that the aim of the state's affirmative action policies was to protect people who were wrongfully denied equal rights in the workplace.
"I felt that the governor was out of touch," said Alkins. "He was very uncomfortable with the issue of race and how you would address issues such as affirmative action."
The policies Romney erased were started three decades earlier by Republican Gov. Frank Sargent and substantially expanded by Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1983. Three Republican governors who directly preceded Romney had left the policies in place.