In response to a question about equal pay for women during the presidential debate Tuesday night, Republican nominee Mitt Romney boasted that as governor of Massachusetts, he was so frustrated by the lack of qualified female candidates for positions in his cabinet that he sent women’s groups out to actively recruit them.
“I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' and they brought us whole binders full of women,” he said.
Romney’s account of that story is false, according to two women who led an effort in 2002 to recruit female candidates to high-level appointed positions in Massachusetts. MassGAP, a bipartisan coalition of women’s groups dedicated to increasing the number of women appointed to top government jobs, approached Romney and his Democratic challenger Shannon O’Brien before the 2002 gubernatorial election and pressured them to sign a pledge to appoint more women if elected.
“It was an initiative of women’s organizations, not to force [Romney’s] hand, but to make it be something he had to follow through on,” Carol Hardy-Fanta, former co-chair of MassGAP’s higher education subcommittee, told The Huffington Post the morning following the debate. "He didn't go out looking for these binders.”
Liz Levin, who was the chairwoman of MassGAP at the time, told HuffPost that during the 2002 governor's race, the group spent months identifying, vetting and collecting resumes of qualified women for the high-level appointments.
"They told us ... that they were going to send [the binders] to us,” O’Brien recalled in a Wednesday interview with The Huffington Post. “Whoever won was going to get this."
Levin said Romney had little personal involvement with MassGAP. His campaign had tasked his nominee for lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, to work with the organization on recruiting women. Healey helped secure Romney's pledge to appoint women, and MassGAP presented the binders and highlighted especially qualified applicants to Healey after Romney was elected.
"We gave them names of people and there was a time that -- I think it was after they had the binder -- we set up a time to talk to them about the people in the binder," Levin recalled.
Not once did Romney meet with MassGAP, Levin said. "I personally thought he was busy," she explained.
While Romney did initially follow through on his promise to appoint more women to top positions-- 14 out of 33 of his appointments during his first two years in office were women-- O'Brien asserted that many of the most important jobs still went to men. For example, Romney tapped his former Bain Capital partner Eric Kriss as his secretary of administration and finance. O'Brien said that Romney's female appointments weren't "anything that was remarkable."
Hardy-Fanta challenges the validity of the 2004 SUNY Albany survey Romney cited on Tuesday, which he said, “concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.” She explained that the results were likely skewed because each governor was allowed to decide how far down the employment ranks they could count female hires. “For instance, [Romney] included the assistant to deputy press secretary as a position in his inner circle,” she said. “Because they didn't specify what types of positions were uniform across states, it was pretty easy to move pretty far down the rank and find more women at the lower levels.”
Moreover, Romney’s appointments of women to top-level positions began to taper off after his first two years in office. "Prior to the 2002 election, women comprised approximately 30 percent of appointed senior-level positions in Massachusetts government," MassGAP said in a statement on Wednesday. "By 2004, 42 percent of the new appointments made by the Romney administration were women. Subsequently, however, from 2004-2006 the percentage of newly-appointed women in these senior appointed positions dropped to 25 percent."
“Our conclusion was, you have hold his feet to the fire year after year,” she said. “He can’t just do it during election season when he’s going to get a lot of press for it.”
UPDATE: 1:30 p.m. EDT -- Jesse Mermell, who was also involved in the Massachusetts effort to recruit female candidates to high-level appointments, said during a press call Wednesday afternoon that she didn't understand why Romney had such a hard time finding good candidates given his background.
"It's shocking to me that after 25 years of experience at the very highest levels of corporate America, Mitt Romney needed our help," said Mermell, who was executive director of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus at the time. "Why didn't they come in with women in mind?"
Mermell also slammed Romney's "condescending" comments in Tuesday's debate about a Romney administration creating a stronger economy and therefore better job opportunities for women.
"He actually said that under him … only when the economy is booming will companies hire women out of desperation or as a last resort," she said. "[It's] as if it's some new concept that Mitt Romney has got to warm up to with his 1950s 'Mad Men' attitude."
Asked if she was suggesting that Romney has a problem with women in the workforce, Mermell hedged.
"All I know is that when he was elected governor, he made a promise to make his best efforts that women [in his administration] would be proportionate to the percentage of women in Massachusetts. By the time he left office, it was 25 percent. To me, that doesn't speak to a great commitment to women in the workplace," she said.
UPDATE: 3:10 p.m. -- Amanda Henneberg, a spokesperson for the Romney campaign, said the details of who initiated the appointing of more women are less pertinent than the end result. “The incoming Romney administration worked with MassGAP to find the best qualified women for top positions in Massachusetts government," she said in an email to The Huffington Post. "The efforts resulted in Massachusetts having the most women in top positions in the entire country."
It’s odd sometimes how the things you think are going to end up being a big deal aren’t, and the things that end up being a big deal are the ones you wouldn’t have suspected.
This was recently illustrated in the aftermath of the latest debate between President Barack Obama and Lord Mitt Romney, the Earl of Etch A Sketchington, and how a comment by His Lordship made “binders full of women” an Internet sensation.
When asked by a member of the audience how the candidates would deal with the issue of gender inequality in the workplace, in particular pay inequality between men and women, Obama noted that the first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which increases the ability of women to seek recourse against discriminatory pay practices.
He mentioned education, particularly Pell grants, which allow both men and women better access to education. He promised enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.
When it was Lord Mitt’s turn, he began with a recollection of how he’d hired a bunch of women for Cabinet positions when he became governor of Massachusetts:
“Well, gosh,” he said, “can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified?” He went on to relate: “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Now, I confess, I didn’t pay much attention to that phrase when Romney said it. It went right by me, probably because I was too busy griping that Romney hadn’t done squat to answer the actual question. But hoo-boy, did some people, mainly women, notice it.
“Minutes after” the fateful phrase was uttered, it was “lighting up Twitter and had already spawned a new website,” according to The L.A. Times. The
website (http://bindersfullof women.tumblr.com/) mocked Romney’s phrasing in typical online fashion, with references to various other Internet memes and sarcastic pictures.
It didn’t end there. Someone created a Facebook page that immediately garnered more than 200,000 positive votes (“Likes,” in Facebook parlance). USA Today dubbed “binders” its “Obama-Romney Word of the Day.” It seems a lot of people found the image of Mittens paging through “binders full of women” more than a little creepy.
You knew the phrase was really taking hold when conservative pundits started whining that the Obama campaign was “trivializing” the issue by bringing up the words their candidate actually used. Pro tip: When they’re whining, you’re winning.
Then people who were actually around in Massachusetts at the time Romney took office began to speak up, and — surprise! — it turns out that he was playing fast and loose with the truth. Again.
Romney’s former lieutenant governor noted that the “binders” were prepared by a group called the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, through a program they called MassGAP. In a statement from that group released Wednesday, spokesman Liz Levin noted that Romney hadn’t come to them after the election; they’d come to both him and his opponent, Shannon O’Brien, before the election even took place, and that “both campaigns made a commitment” to work with them on hiring more women.
And while they applauded Romney’s initial commitment, which resulted in women filling “42 percent of the new appointments made by the Romney administration,” they noted that “from 2004-2006 the percentage of newly appointed women in these senior appointed positions dropped to 25 percent.”
But the initial question, and the big issue, wasn’t about whether Romney’s a good guy for perusing “binders full of women” to find candidates for Cabinet posts. It was about gender inequality in the workplace. So what did Lord Romney or his campaign have to say about the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which, as noted above, increases the ability of women to seek redress for income discrimination in the workplace?
Well, according to Romney spokesman Ed Gillespie, Romney opposed the passage of the bill, but would not repeal it.
Then, the very next day, Gillespie performed one of the flip-flops that have become such a regular part of the Romney campaign that no one in the mainstream media even seems to comment on them anymore: Romney, Gillespie told the political blog Talking Points Memo, “never weighed in on [the Act]. As president, he would not seek to repeal it.”
Once again, Mittens displays the breathtaking ability to take up to three positions on a single issue within the space of 24 hours: He doesn’t support it, takes no position on it, but won’t repeal it.
Awkward, out-of-touch, and condescending remarks, lies and shameless flip-flops, followed by whining about what people are quoting what the candidate actually said. Just another day on the campaign trail for His Lordship.
Dusty Rhoades lives, writes and practices law in Carthage. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.