Is Mitt Romney a closet environmentalist? Now that he is among the front-runners for the GOP nomination for President, I thought it might be interesting for everyone to learn a little about what he did on environmental issues while he was Governor of Massachusetts. I suspect that some (on both sides of the aisle) will be quite surprised or even shocked, as I was when I learned this. I want to acknowledge and thank my (anonymous) source who provided me with the information for this post.
As is typical, Romney’s appointments to environmental leadership roles gave the first inkling of where he stood on environmental protection. We have seen often enough from recent history that many Republicans appoint those who seem more likely to undermine or thwart environmental protection than to advance it. Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, was an early example of this phenomenon. Since then, it has become common to appoint anti-environmentalists to key roles, both at the state and federal level. Gale Norton is another good example, and the incompetent Bureau of Minerals Management under G.W. Bush, which helped pave the way for the Gulf Oil Spill last year, showed the cost we all pay when key environmental protections are weakened. This has been all-too-common under Republican leadership, in my opinion.
That is not what happened in Massachusetts under Romney’s Administration. Instead, he appointed some of the foremost environmentalists in Massachusetts to top posts in the environmental agencies. His was the best environmental team of any administration in the past two decades, including the current administration of Democratic Governor Deval Patrick. Romney appointed Douglas Foy, a tireless and effective environmental advocate who headed up the Conservation Law Foundation for 25 years, as the head of a new Office of Commonwealth Development (OCD). This was a unique office formed to bring together the often-warring factions of environment and development. Among other things, the office developed a system to rank projects according to their environmental impacts, and tied state approvals and funding to this scoring system. The Romney Administration also advanced “low-impact development,” which as the name implies, preserves natural features of a property and uses a range of techniques to reduce damage to the environment.
Romney’s other appointments included Robert Golledge as the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (and later as Secretary of Environmental Affairs). Golledge was one of the strongest environmentalists ever to hold either of those positions, and initiated several long-overdue reforms. Romney also appointed Stephen Burridge, another environmental advocate from the Conservation Law Foundation, and Katherine Abbott, a leader in land conservation, to other leadership roles in the environmental agencies. This was a strong leadership team.
In addition to forming the innovative OCD, Romney’s Administration took on several key issues that had long languished. For example, his Administration pulled together a diverse stakeholder group that developed the Massachusetts Water Policy. This was done very effectively with a minimum of politics, while adhering to a very tight timeline; it was one of the best examples of Romney’s no nonsense goals-timelines-get-things-done managerial style in action. His Administration also took on the update of the Massachusetts Water Conservation Standards, which were at that point very out-of-date, and developed a policy and guidelines to manage large water withdrawals that had been improperly managed by the state for decades, leading to a number of Massachusetts rivers being pumped dry on a regular basis. I’m sure these issues seem a little mundane, but this is the nitty-gritty of environmental management, and Romney’s team had some excellent early successes.
Of course, not all was positive. Facing a budget crisis early in his tenure, he cut important environmental programs, including at least one that was considered a national model, and eliminated most discretionary environmental funding. He cut staff in several agencies and tried to eliminate programs that were only saved due to public outcry. Later in his one-term Governorship, as it became increasingly apparent that Romney had his sights on the Presidency, his tone on the environment (as on many other issues) began to shift toward a much more conservative approach. One of the first victims of this was Commissioner Kathy Abbott, who was forced to resign after Romney blamed her for a freak plowing accident that occurred during a snowstorm in Boston; many thought that the real reason she was ousted was because she was planning to marry her long-time female partner, which would be embarrassing for Romney among the conservatives he was trying to court. Even some of his Administration’s signature accomplishments in protecting the environment were weakened in the last two years of his term, as he began catering to more conservative voices. Given his recent pronouncements on other issues, it seems that he might even deny or disavow his Massachusetts record; after all, you can’t have a Republican candidate for President being a closet environmentalist, now can you?
Here is a link to the excellent (but long) Boston Globe profile on Romney, which begins with the infamous “dog on the roof” episode that he is now trying to repackage by claiming the dog loved to ride on the roof. Sure he did.