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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Las Vegas.

Mary Altaffer, Associated Press - Ap

As governor, Romney faced civil rights question

  • Article by: ANDREW MIGA
  • Associated Press
  • June 2, 2012 - 7:14 PM

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 trumpeted Romney's executive order on June 17, 2003, in the deserted Statehouse. But when civil rights leaders, black lawmakers and other minority groups learned of the 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 minority members, women, disabled people and veterans of equal access protections for state government jobs. They complained Romney hadn't consulted them before making the changes, snubbing the very kind of inclusion he professed to support.

'This is the canary in the coal mine'

"It was done under the radar and there was a big backlash," said Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. "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, 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 President Obama in the fall election.

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 relatives 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 and school admissions.

"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."

'The progress that we're making'

Responding to the uproar in 2003, Romney insisted he was committed to workforce diversity and had simply wanted to update the old policies. "I'm actually very proud of the progress that we're making in the area of affirmative action," he said then.

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 minority members, women and people with disabilities. A state diversity office was created, but civil rights groups said Romney removed penalties for agencies not complying with the state's diversity efforts.

To quell such criticism, Romney appointed a special advisory panel to recommend changes. Eventually, he essentially walked away from the fight, ignoring his own advisory panel. 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.

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