Running Mate: Ann Romney

Ann Romney brings cluster of causes to husband Mitt’s candidacy
By Pamela  H.  Sacks


BELMONT — Ann Romney has just arrived home from an annual charity auction for Armenian orphans. She has won a child’s pink trunk filled with pint-sized ball gowns and tutus, all tulle and sparkles.

The dress-up clothes will be a Christmas gift for her two granddaughters, who are 2 and 7 years old. As she holds up a flouncy white tutu, the object of many a little girl’s dreams, Mrs. Romney seems a bit skeptical.

“I was never a girly girl,” she says with a laugh. “I never had stuff like this. I was always a tomboy. I played with balls and bats.”

Indeed, the 53-year-old wife of GOP gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney looks a good deal more like an athlete than a ballerina. On this afternoon, her perfectly coifed blonde hair and crisp white blouse highlight her ruddy complexion. She is tall and fit — trim, but not waif-like.

Mrs. Romney settles into an armchair in the family room, which is decorated in blue and accented with a red Indian carpet. Family photos are scattered on tables and dressers. She chats amiably about the nor’easter sweeping through the area.

Her husband’s handlers have been hesitant about setting up the interview. They feel the press has not treated her fairly in the past. Before agreeing to make her available, they have asked the reporter to call several people, among them Marian Heard, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, of which Mrs. Romney is a member of the board of directors.

“This is a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-involved kind of person,” Mrs. Heard says. “Ann has an abiding interest in children and the community and a genuine interest in listening to people.”

Mrs. Romney displays little caution during the interview, which lasts close to an hour. She is spontaneous and self-assured.

Asked if she ever wishes she had built her own career, she answers without hesitation: “No. My career is motherhood. My boys are the love of my life.”

The Romneys, both of whom are widely regarded as good-looking, live on a wooded, 2-acre estate a few minutes’ drive from downtown Boston. They present an image that has sometimes backfired in their efforts to connect with everyday people. A political ad in which they are seen finishing each other’s sentences as they talk animatedly about their lives together drew widespread criticism, particularly among women.

Mrs. Romney asserts that the negative response did not bother her.

“No, not at all,” she says. “The purpose was, Mitt is not a heartless businessman. Some women have said they didn’t like it, and some have told me they loved it.”

Both Romneys grew up in wealthy homes in Michigan. They met as teenagers, quickly fell in love and married while students at Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution in Utah. They moved east when Mr. Romney entered a program at Harvard University that allowed him to simultaneously earn business and law degrees. Using money from the sale of stock, a gift from Mr. Romney’s father, they bought the first of three successive homes in Belmont, where they have raised their five sons, who now range in age from 21 to 32. The Romneys have four grandchildren and a fifth on the way.

Surrounded by oil paintings of each of her sons at an early age, Mrs. Romney says during their childhoods she was very involved in their lives and their education. They attended public elementary schools, and she was a member of the PTA.

“I think it’s important to be involved at that level,” she says. “The teachers all know you’re looking over their shoulder and know what’s going on.”

The children went on to the private Belmont Hill School for boys, because, she says, “they weren’t applying themselves. They needed a good shove.”

All five sons followed in their parents’ footsteps, attending BYU, where the youngest is now a student. Mrs. Romney says they chose the college because they love to ski.

Mr. Romney has said a shattering event in his life was his wife’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis four years ago.

Mrs. Romney is open about discussing her battle with the neurological disease. She first noticed she was tripping far too often, which, she says, was unusual for her because she is athletic. She also was thinking in slow motion and could not get her words out. She thought maybe she had had a stroke.

She remembers sitting in a neurologist’s office and reading through brochures on Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other neurological disorders.

“They actually have those brochures,” she says, looking incredulous. “I kept thinking, “This is me, this is me, this is me.’ ”

An MRI revealed lesions on her spine, indicating multiple sclerosis.

“I was shocked because I thought it was a younger person’s disease,” she says.

She was 49 at the time, and the disease was progressing rapidly, she says, prompting the doctors to put her on steroids, which made her so sick she could barely get out of bed.

“They were killing me,” she says of the treatment. “You have bone loss; they are so bad for you.”

Mrs. Romney was introduced to several practitioners of holistic medicine, who persuaded her to adopt alternative therapies. She now eats organic foods and very little meat. She practices reflexology and undergoes acupuncture treatments. She credits the lifestyle with turning her health around.

She also rides her bay gelding, Baron, as part of her physical therapy. She is a champion in dressage, a discipline in which the horse is controlled in difficult steps and gaits by slight movements of the rider.

“Everyone has to find their own way,” she says. “Three years ago I was really, really sick and not able to function at all. A lot of the symptoms are gone. I’m not 100 percent. I still tire easily, and I’m frightened I’ll have another attack.”

As the interview continues, the telephone rings and Mrs. Romney mentions she is expecting a call from Robert Redford. She and the actor, who owns a ranch in Utah, became acquainted after Mr. Romney took charge of the Salt Lake organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“We got very concerned with land use out there, development and sprawl,” she explains. “If you think it’s bad here, you should see it out there.”

This is one of several causes Mrs. Romney has embraced since 1994, a watershed year in her life, she says. While campaigning for her husband during his unsuccessful bid for longtime U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s seat, she became deeply disturbed by her visits to shelters for homeless people and battered women.

Teen pregnancy caught her attention, and she began working with Elayne G. Bennett, who is president of Best Friends Foundation, a youth program for girls that emphasizes abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol.

From there, Mrs. Romney says, she got involved with United Way programs and became aware African-American churches were doing the lion’s share of work with people living in inner-city neighborhoods plagued by violence, drugs and poverty.

She sought out Jeffrey Brown, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge and a leader in the Boston TenPoint Coalition, and Ray and Gloria Hammond, both doctors and co-pastors of the A.M.E. Bethel Church in Boston.

She recalls that they were astonished at her interest.

“They said, `What? Someone’s going to help us?’ ” Mrs. Romney says. “I wanted to learn their needs and where we could assist.”

To get resources to the churches, Mrs. Romney says she was instrumental in establishing the United Way’s Faith in Action initiative, which backs programs for at-risk teens and evaluates their effectiveness.

Mrs. Romney says that since she returned from Salt Lake City, her time has been consumed by her husband’s campaign, but she is now starting to take up her inner-city work. She said she was looking forward to an upcoming meeting of Faith in Action to discuss a $2 million federal grant to the Black Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of 80 Boston-area churches working on African-American and Latino issues.

“We’re going to be instrumental in helping them decide how to use it, apply it and evaluate what comes from it,” she says.

Mrs. Romney maintains that her husband’s promise to cut taxes and slash the state budget would not have a negative effect on the type of urban programs she favors.

“Mitt is very cognizant of these issues,” she says. “It will be the last place we will cut. It would take a piece out of my heart.”

When she and her husband first arrived in Salt Lake City in 1999, Mrs. Romney had recently been diagnosed with MS, and initially intended to spend the time there restoring her health. But, she says, she soon missed her work with the urban churches. She went on to use the Olympics as a forum to draw attention to the plight of children, and brought Jeffrey Brown and the Hammonds out to Salt Lake City to assist in the effort, according to friend and colleague Jeralyn Dreyfous.

“She wasn’t afraid to use that platform in a way it hadn’t been used before,” Ms. Dreyfous says by telephone from Salt Lake City. “It was controversial. She stood her ground and I’m proud of her.”

Mr. Romney has described his wife as “an angel,” and his marriage as ideal. Others have suggested that he is domineering. Ms. Dreyfous is effusive in describing what she observed.

“There is still a real romance, and they have such a high regard for each other,” she says. “When they see each other, there’s a real spark and delight. It’s true that he can interrupt and cut off other people, but he doesn’t do that to her.”

Back in Belmont, Mrs. Romney is willing to entertain one more question: Do she and her husband have the perfect marriage?

She laughs.

“No,” she says. “We have differences and disagreements. He’s manic and I’m calm. He’s high, high energy. He’s argumentative. We agree on a lot, but when we disagree we’re able to work it out.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: At press time, the campaign staff of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon P. O’Brien had agreed a Telegram & Gazette request for an interview with Emmet Hayes, Ms. O’Brien’s husband. His profile is tentatively scheduled to run next Tuesday.