Boston's Big Dig Project Could Impact Gov. Romney's Political Future

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As a venture capitalist, Mitt Romney turned around companies and made himself a multimillionaire. At Salt Lake City, he turned around the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics, then went on to get elected governor of Massachusetts.

The question these days is whether Romney can take a page from his autobiography, "Turnaround," get the nation's most expensive highway project back on track — and perhaps make himself the next president of the United States.

In the days since 12 tons of concrete ceiling panels fell in one of the Big Dig tunnels, killing a woman in her car, Romney has put himself at the forefront of the crisis.

The Republican governor has seized control over inspections of the tunnels, roads and bridges that make up the Big Dig and vowed not to reopen the closed passages until he is assured they are safe.

"Here's someone whose reputation for the Olympics was a fixer. Now he's got the Big Dig," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "That plays well for an aspiring governor who doesn't have as much national experience as a John McCain."

Construction of the $14.6 billion Big Dig began 15 years ago, well before Romney took office in 2003. The project buried the old Central Artery that used to slice through the city. But the Big Dig has been plagued by leaks, falling debris, delays, cost overruns and allegations of shoddy workmanship and inferior materials.

Then, last week, 38-year-old Milena Del Valle was killed when ceiling panels came loose and flattened the car she was riding in.

Romney returned to Massachusetts from his vacation home in New Hampshire and went to work, donning jeans, a hard hat and orange vest to inspect the tunnel, mobilizing his Cabinet and almost immediately renewing his call for the ouster of the Massachusetts Turnpike chief, who oversees the Big Dig.

He persuaded the Legislature — long dominated by Democrats and accustomed to overriding the Republican governor's vetoes — to give him the power to oversee the inspections and ultimate authority on when to reopen the tunnels.

If Romney restores public confidence in the project, it could bolster his expected bid for the 2008 nomination for president. Should he fail, it could be a blot on his record.

Asked about suggestions that the Democrats in the Legislature were setting him up for a fall, Romney said last week: "I'm happy to take blame, if I have responsibility."

Romney's roll-up-your-sleeves style has been on display, such as when he got up on scaffolding to look under the ceiling panels like a mechanic inspecting a car's transmission.

Other times, he has shown off his business executive background, conducting news conferences like corporate board meetings and drawing diagrams and charts that show off his knowledge of bolt assemblies, ceiling panels and ventilation.

In "Turnaround," his 2004 book, Romney wrote about the importance of such moments.

"It is during the first few days that people form their impression of a new leader," he said. "There's no time for strategizing; what you do right away speaks volumes. What you do later isn't being watched as intensely."

Romney, 59, the son of the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, has spent his life on turnaround projects. After graduating from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School, he joined Bain & Co., a Boston-based consulting firm. In 1984, he founded Bain Capital, which specialized in buying troubled companies, making management changes and then selling them after they had turned a profit.

In 1999, he was named chairman of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee following a bid-rigging scandal. Three years later, he staged the first Olympics after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They were widely declared a commercial and athletic success.

This latest crisis "puts Romney in the great position to address a problem that he's not responsible for," Franklin said. "No politician could love a problem more. ... He doesn't have to fix the problem, but he has to oversee the process that leads to the fixing of the problem."