If you think Mitt Romney is too mild, too "golly gee," too Mormon, to survive the shark tank of a modern presidential campaign, his answer is Eric Fehrnstrom. He's Mitt's most trusted adviser and the guy whom Romney turns to when someone's leg needs breaking. (Figuratively, of course.) If Karl Rove was Bush's brain, then Fehrnstrom gives his boss what he most dearly needs—a backbone
Mitt Romney likes to describe himself as an accidental politician. He's a businessman, not a bureaucrat, and the crux of his sales pitch for the Oval Office is that he's the only candidate blessed with the know-how to fix a flatlining former blue-chip company called America. So it should come as no surprise that Romney, ever the CEO, has structured the upper reaches of his campaign apparatus like it's a business, with clearly delineated lines of authority. Matt Rhoades, for instance, is the campaign manager as well as the crucial conduit to conservative web macher Matt Drudge, whose transparent cheerleading for Romney in this race has turned The Drudge Report into what Pravda once was for Stalin. Stuart Stevens is Romney's self-styled political Svengali and his top admaker—the man behind the mix of saccharine and slashing TV spots that have put Romney on the path to the GOP nomination. And then there is a man named Eric Fehrnstrom, an omnipresent figure whose precise role in Romneyworld is far more nebulous—even to many of the people who spend their days and nights inside it.
Fehrnstrom calls himself a "utility player," and in the press he's typically identified as a "Romney spokesman" or a "Romney strategist." But that doesn't begin to do justice to his place in the high command. Fehrnstrom has been with Romney for a decade, longer than any other political adviser on his 2012 campaign. "Anytime I've got questions or I've got a doubt, I know I can go to Eric and I'm getting feedback from someone who's inside Mitt's brain," Romney's senior adviser Kevin Madden told me. Or as Peter Flaherty, another senior Romney adviser, puts it: "Eric has a deeper shelf of institutional knowledge of Mitt Romney than anyone I know whose last name is not Romney."
Fehrnstrom's first job for Romney was running the press shop during his successful 2002 run for Massachusetts governor. But his role quickly expanded, and as Romney's national profile grew, so did his trusted aide's. (So much so that when Scott Brown was looking for someone to help him win Ted Kennedy's old Massachusetts Senate seat in 2010, he hired Fehrnstrom, who remains Brown's top strategist.) Over the course of his decade with Romney, Madden says, Fehrnstrom has become "a Tom Hagen figure. He's consigliere to the governor."
But with two slight differences. Whereas Hagen was always trying to cool off the hotheaded Sonny Corleone and keep the peace, Fehrnstrom, 50, is both the wise man and the hothead. He wears the uniform of the modern political consultant—iPad tucked in the crook of his arm, open-collared shirt, rectangular-framed glasses—but his fleshy face and thick New England accent betray a rougher core. And far from reining in Romney, he performs the opposite service for his client: Fehrnstrom toughens him up. "Eric gives Mitt a capability that Mitt doesn't have," says Ben Coes, Romney's campaign manager in 2002. "It's a streetwise savvy; it's an on-the-ground Boston-smarts mentality; it's a back-alley-politics, survival-of-the-fittest point of view. Mitt is not a knife fighter. Eric is a knife fighter." The best political operatives are the ones who provide their clients with a tangible quality the candidate himself lacks. If Karl Rove was Bush's brain, then Fehrnstrom is Romney's balls.
Usually this kind of testicular fortitude is unleashed on a wayward politico or journalist. But occasionally, in the heat of a presidential campaign, you've got to crack some of the skulls closest to you—especially when those skulls belong to aides boasting to reporters about their tactical brilliance. In the days leading up to the Florida primary in late January, a handful of Romney's top advisers were feeling especially cocky about their chances, and so they decided to crow to The New York Times, offering a behind-the-scenes, play-by-play account of how they had carved up the competition.
The Times article was the paper's lead story—page one, top right column—on January 29, and it offered a rare glimpse underneath the hood at the campaign's thrumming engine. Romney was not pleased. When Matt Lauer brought it up a few days later on the Today show, the governor bristled, "I think you can expect advisers to think that the work of advisers is very, very important."
Fehrnstrom was even more pissed off. By some accounts, he was the aide who deserved the most credit for the campaign's commanding fifteen-point victory in Florida. Just hours before the final pre-primary debate, Fehrnstrom noticed that Newt Gingrich was going after Romney for investing in funds that included shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. According to one Romney insider, it was Fehrnstrom's idea to dig into Gingrich's own investments in Fannie and Freddie. That night during the debate, Romney used the new info to devastating effect. The Times article referred to the moment as "a killer blow," but it made no mention of Fehrnstrom's role in it. Fehrnstrom wasn't sore about being left out of the piece, though. Rather, he was furious that anyone other than Romney got any credit. "He believes we are so lucky to work for a guy like Mitt," one Romney adviser says. Or as Fehrnstrom himself explained to me in an e-mail declining to participate in this article: "I think the hired help shouldn't make themselves the story."
Shortly after the Times piece ran, Fehrnstrom got busy fixing the problem, reserving special ire for the advisers he suspected of planting the story. "That article is not what we do," says the Romney insider, "and Eric feels that more strongly than anyone." A few days later, Romney's debate coach, who figured significantly in theTimes story, got booted from the campaign. No one has crowed since.
It was January of 2008, the last time Romney ran for president, and Fehrnstrom was getting in the face of an Associated Press reporter in a Staples store in South Carolina. The reporter, Glen Johnson, had just challenged Romney during a press conference, interrupting him in the middle of a claim that he didn't have lobbyists working on his campaign—Mitt definitely did—and when the press conference was over, Romney rushed after Johnson to press his case. "Listen to my words, all right? Listen to my words," Romney sputtered, smiling through gritted teeth. That's when Fehrnstrom stepped in and cornered Johnson in front of a Post-it notes display. "You should act a little bit more professionally instead of being argumentative with the candidate," he hissed at Johnson. "It's out of line. You're out of line."
The exchange, which was caught on camera, became a brief YouTube sensation, a rare glimpse at the sort of aggressive press-management tactics that are usually employed over the phone or at a hotel bar rather than out in the open at an office-supplies superstore. But for politicos and journalists back in Boston, the video was mostly a source of amusement. They'd witnessed Fehrnstrom tearing into a reporter on Romney's behalf plenty of times before. But him lecturing someone else about journalism ethics? Now that was rich.
Before he went into politics, Fehrnstrom was a reporter himself—and a notorious one at that. He worked for the Boston Herald—the tabloid rival to the more staid Boston Globe—which prided itself on its feisty, muckraking metro coverage. As a Rupert Murdoch owned paper, the Herald's political mission was simple: Make life miserable for Massachusetts Democrats. "The Herald was like the schoolyard bully," Howie Carr, the legendary Boston brawler who was the paper's top columnist and animating spirit, told me. "We were all about finding people and kicking them when they were down. And then we'd laugh about it."
With Michael Dukakis gearing up to run for president in 1988, there was never a riper target for kicking, so the Herald'seditors moved Fehrnstrom from the police beat to politics. The hard-hitting scoops he dug up about the state's budget crunch may have been motivated by spite for a Democratic presidential contender, but the stories themselves were fair, substantive, and uniquely damaging. At one point, George H. W. Bush actually brandished copies of the Herald on the stump, turning one of Dukakis's core strengths—his cultivated reputation for fiscal competence—into a crippling liability. Today, Dukakis is philosophical about the teardown job that Fehrnstrom, Carr, and the rest of the Herald did on him. "I'd say, 'Look guys...don't waste time with that paper,'" Dukakis told me. "The Herald is the Herald."
Fehrnstrom saved his cheap shots for smaller-time Massachusetts pols. When a political activist and gadfly named Althea Garrison was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the fact that she was transgender was an open secret in Boston political circles. But Fehrnstrom was the first one to put that information into print—"I can remember his glee when he found the birth certificate," says former Herald reporter Robert Connolly—thus bringing a swift end to Garrison's future on Beacon Hill.
His biggest scoop of all came in December 1989, when he received a tip that Evelyn Murphy, Dukakis's lieutenant governor, who was running to succeed him, was vacationing on Sanibel Island in Florida during budget talks. Together with a photographer, he flew from freezing Boston to sunny Sanibel and staked her out. They eventually ambushed Murphy while she was jogging, leading to an unflattering picture of her in her running shorts on the Herald's front page—"her middle-aged thighs flouncing across 300,000 newspapers," as Fehrnstrom would later describe it. The photograph helped end her political career.
The Herald did more than train Fehrn-strom as a journalist; it provided him with a political education, too. Sitting beside Carr in the Herald's statehouse bureau, Fehrnstrom was exposed to a particularly nasty and resentful strain of blue-collar conservatism, and he soon came to embrace it as his own. "Eric had the same attitude I did," Carr told me. "He's a Massachusetts native like me. And guys like us—white heterosexuals without trust funds—we were never going to get hired by the Globe, so we decided pretty quickly that we were going to have fun." Fun meant wrecking people.
"We political writers...were in fact a sort of underworld mob unto ourselves," Fehrnstrom later recalled in a 1999 essay about his journalism career that he wrote for Boston magazine. "We figured most pols were overdue in their accounts to the devil anyway." He added: "In my trade, politics was never personal. Hell, people were rarely people—they were ducks in a shooting gallery."
By 1994, Fehrnstrom decided that he wasn't making enough money as a rifleman, so he went to work for the ducks. He signed on as the political flack for Massachusetts's then treasurer, a young Republican named Joe Malone, who had his eye on the governor's office. Fehrnstrom described the move as going from "bomb tosser to bomb catcher," but he still tossed plenty of bombs. His chief target was Paul Cellucci, a Republican and Malone's rival for the party's nomination.
Historically, Massachusetts GOP primaries were polite affairs between gracious WASPs. But Fehrnstrom brought a more ruthless edge to Malone's political operation, attacking Cellucci on everything from his personal ethics to his $700,000 in private debt—a debt that he was forced to deny stemmed from a gambling addiction. In the end, though, Malone lost the election, and Fehrnstrom found himself effectively blackballed from Massachusetts Republican politics. He was forced to take a job doing public relations for a Boston advertising firm. It was easy, lucrative work, but Fehrnstrom had caught the politics bug, and he longed to get back into the game. In 2002, after three years in exile, Mitt Romney came calling.
Fehrnstrom quickly found a fight worth picking, and just as quickly it spiraled out of control. Romney's chief hazer in those days was a gruff former schoolteacher named John Barrett, the mayor of North Adams, Massachusetts. Barrett's pet grievance: the new governor's plan to cut the gushing flow of state money for cities down to a trickle. One night in February 2003, about a month after Romney's swearing-in, Barrett showed up at the studios of New England Cable News just outside Boston to continue his crusade. He says he was scheduled to appear on the NewsNight show opposite another Massachusetts mayor who supported Romney's cuts. But when Barrett arrived, he discovered he had a new debate opponent: Fehrnstrom.
"I think the other mayor didn't want to go at it with me," Barrett says. "Fehrnstrom, being Fehrnstrom, said, 'I'll go at it with him.' " Which is exactly what happened—but it wasn't until the show was over that things really got ugly. As Fehrnstrom and Barrett were leaving the studio, according to Barrett and an NECN producer, Fehrnstrom called Barrett "a classless piece of shit." Then Barrett says Fehrnstrom got in his face and chest-bumped him. Barrett shoved back. The NECN producer separated the two men before things could escalate. Today, Barrett believes the whole episode was a calculated move by Fehrnstrom: "He was there to bully me."
After Fehrnstrom's ugly confrontation with the North Adams mayor, there were numerous calls for Romney to fire his aide—or at least discipline him. Even in the rugged world of Boston politics, getting physical on a political rival was considered beyond the pale. But Romney stood by his man. He refused to discipline Fehrnstrom for the shoving match. Privately, Romney was even more defiant. The Globe's Frank Phillips recalls that after Romney announced to reporters that he wouldn't be reprimanding Fehrnstrom, he approached Phillips for a private conversation. "Romney just laced into me, his hair shaking, for being 'unfair to Eric Fehrnstrom,' " Phillips says.
Romney's willingness to tolerate a little excess made sense, given all of the ways Fehrnstrom had already demonstrated his value. During the 2002 campaign, he proved especially helpful on a topic that continues to dog Romney to this day: his Mormonism. Fehrnstrom felt that in his 1994 race against Kennedy, Romney had let the state's political reporters walk all over him on the subject. Eager to demystify Mormonism in the eyes of voters, Romney answered repeated questions about his faith. Fehrnstrom, however, believed that the strategy backfired: It had turned Mormonism into Romney's defining characteristic. Fehrnstrom instructed the candidate to ignore such questions—which Romney did so well that reporters eventually stopped asking him about it.
Fehrnstrom used his past life as a journalist to dismantle, and carefully rebuild, Romney's relationship with the media. The ex-scribe knew all too well what reporters could do to an unsuspecting politician. As one friend from Fehrnstrom's journalism days puts it: "He's one of those guys who left the press and fucking hates reporters." In 1994, Romney had at least been accessible to, if not necessarily chummy with, reporters. In 2002, that ended. The chatty phone conversations stopped. When reporters tried to buttonhole Romney on the campaign trail, they were rebuffed—sometimes physically by Fehrnstrom, who had no qualms about shoving pesky journalists out of the way. "He wasn't so much Romney's press secretary as his bodyguard," says this same old friend.
Once Romney was elected, he became even less accessible, with Fehrnstrom literally setting up velvet ropes around the governor's office to keep reporters at bay. On the rare occasions when Romney happened upon reporters in casual settings, he fled. Another Boston journalist recalls bumping into Romney in a hotel hallway. "I can't talk to you without Eric here," he told the reporter before rushing off.
The mandate Romney gave Fehrnstrom extended far beyond dealing with the press. As communications director—a job explicitly created for Fehrnstrom, with the highest staff salary at the time, $150,000—he also waded into political and personnel matters. When William Monahan, Romney's neighbor in Belmont, who'd been nominated by Romney to serve as the chair of the state Civil Service Commission, was discovered by the Globe to have once purchased some real estate from a company linked to organized crime, it was Fehrnstrom who called him and demanded his resignation. "He was very, very forceful and very abrupt," Monahan recalls. "It was just, 'Bang, you're out.' " It was also a message that Romney seemed incapable of delivering himself. Indeed, when Monahan appealed to the governor for mercy, he says Romney implied that Fehrnstrom had given him no choice: "He said his stomach was turning," Monahan recalls, "and that he didn't want to do this, but that his senior staff was unanimous that he had to ask for my resignation. He said he didn't want to do this but that he was outvoted."
This gift for the dirty work of politics has endeared Fehrnstrom to Romney—and has saved him when his own neck could've been the one on the chopping block. "If it wasn't Mitt Romney we were talking about," says this friend from the Herald days, "I'd say Fehrnstrom must have compromising pictures of him." Even during the current campaign, Fehrnstrom has occasionally tested the limits of his special status. The morning after his boss's nail-in-the-coffin victory in Illinois in late March, he went on CNN and stepped all over the good news by saying that Romney's upcoming transition from the primary season to the general election would be "almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." While this is surely true on some level—every presidential candidate "tacks to the middle" after the purity test of a primary campaign—it's an awfully dumb thing to say out loud. Especially because the remark handed Romney's opponents, not to mention the media, an irresistible image to attach to a candidate who many already see as a shape-shifter.
Fehrnstrom has also had moments of carelessness on Twitter. In August 2011 he was unmasked as the author of a fake Twitter account that not only mocked one of Scott Brown's Democratic opponents in the senator's reelection campaign but also made a shallow dig at the anti-gay-bullying crusade "It Gets Better." ("I promise to devote all my time in office to making gay videos. Shame on Scott Brown for focusing on jobs!") More recently, on his own Twitter feed, Fehrnstrom has engaged in an ongoing snark-off with Obama strategist David Axelrod. (Sample tweet: "@davidaxelrod If you really want to get health insurance to more people, try giving them a job. 14m unemployed is a disgrace.") Not everyone in the Romney camp is amused. "It's just juvenile," one senior adviser complained to me. "But no one's going to push Eric out of the way, given his relationship with the governor."
But that doesn't mean the old fault lines in Romneyworld have entirely vanished. In one camp, there are the hired guns like Stuart Stevens—the veteran Republican operatives who have worked on other presidential campaigns in the past and presumably hope to work on more in the future. And then there is what one Romney aide calls "the Boston special-relationship crowd"—people who almost certainly wouldn't be working on the 2012 presidential campaign were it not for Romney's presence in it and who exhibit a fierce, almost cultish devotion to the man. People like Fehrnstrom. He started out a decade ago as a hired gun; now he's a "Kool-Aid drinker," as one former Romney aide calls him. He's still got the same resentments he cultivated at the Herald, only now they're trained on new targets—Obama and the national media. Bigger ducks, bigger shooting gallery. (On the morning after Super Tuesday, when a reporter runs into Fehrnstrom on the steps outside of Romneyworld HQ in Boston and says that he's "trying to make sense" of the candidate's mixed performance, Fehrnstrom snaps, "What's there to make sense of?! Mitt won!")
Blind devotion, though, comes with its own perils. Last November, the Romney campaign was divided over whether to run a new attack ad against Obama. The ad included video from October 2008 of candidate Obama talking to an audience in New Hampshire and repeating the words of an adviser to John McCain, who had said, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." But the Romney advertisement edited the tape to make it seem as if the words were actually Obama's. Fehrnstrom, according to a Romney campaign insider, was vehemently opposed to the ad, which had been crafted by Stevens. But he was outvoted, and the ad ended up airing.
The advertisement was Romney's very first anti-Obama spot of the campaign, and it was nakedly misleading. Even some Republicans and right-leaning media voices worried about the tone it might set. But when it came time for Team Romney to defend the spot, it was Fehrnstrom who dug in the hardest, acknowledging—even boasting—that the ad was underhanded. "It's all deliberate. It was all very intentional," he told reporters. "They should probably order some more defibrillators for the Obama reelection committee, because their reaction was quite hysterical. But that was the point."
It was a startlingly obtuse tactic—an "extreme version of political nihilism," The Boston Globe called it in an editorial—in that it deprived Romney of the opportunity to cry foul when his own comments were taken out of context in the future. (Case in point: his February 1 national-TV remark that he was "not concerned about the very poor," which wasn't quite so terrible when read in full.) But it was even more obtuse when you consider that the argument was coming from someone who'd opposed the ad in the first place.
And yet political nihilism may be Romney's only hope for November. While he's been able to cast a spell on intimates like Fehrnstrom, so far the Mitt magic hasn't worked very well on voters. Romneyworld knows it's not going to win a charisma competition. That leaves one option: tearing down Obama. It's a path to victory that Romney has taken before. In 2002—the only race he's ever won—he ran a scorched-earth campaign against his Democratic opponent, hitting her with misleading ads that took her words out of context. (Much as he did with the Obama spot, Fehrnstrom publicly defended the ads, saying they were "something reporters do every day.") And if Romney manages to win with similarly ruthless methods this November? Fehrnstrom's reward will be much bigger than a plum job on Beacon Hill. Says one veteran Romney watcher: "I can just see Eric in Karl Rove's old office upstairs at the White House now."