Historic Liberal Republicans: George Romney

George Wilcken Romney (July 8, 1907 – July 26, 1995) was an American businessman and Republican Party politician. He was chairman and president of the American Motors Corporation from 1954 to 1962, the 43rd Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, and the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969 to 1973. He was the father of Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.romney1

Romney served as a Mormon missionary in the United Kingdom and attended several colleges in the U.S. but did not graduate from any. He served as the chief spokesman for the automobile industry during World War II. He became the chief executive of American Motors Corporation in 1954. At American Motors he turned around the then struggling firm by focusing all efforts on the compact Rambler car. Romney mocked the products of the “Big Three” automakers as “gas-guzzling dinosaurs.”

Romney ran for Governor of Michigan in 1962 as an independent-minded reformer defending the individual against the power of “Big Labor, Big Industry, and Big Government.” He was elected and then subsequently re-elected in 1964 and 1966 with increasingly large support. As Governor, Romney worked to overhaul the state’s finances, greatly expanding the size of state government and introducing Michigan’s first state income tax. He succeeded in attracting businesses to the state and in cutting unemployment to below the national average. Romney had also inherited an $85 million budget deficit, but he left office with a surplus. Romney led the way for a large increase in state spending on education, and Michigan thereby began to develop one of the nation’s most comprehensive systems of higher education. (I went to the University of Michigan — Go Blue.)

Romney also was a strong supporter of the American Civil Rights Movement. During his first State of the State address in January 1963, Romney declared that “Michigan’s most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination—in housing, public accommodations, education, administration of justice, and employment.”

Romney decried both the large influence of labor unions within the Democratic Party and the similarly large influence of big business within the Republican Party. Romney opened his office in the Michigan State Capitol to visitors, spending five minutes with every citizen who wanted to speak with him on Thursday mornings, and he was always sure to shake the hands of schoolchildren visiting the capitol. He almost always eschewed political activities on Sunday, the Mormon Sabbath. Romney saw a moral dimension in every issue and he held his political views with as much fervor as his religious ones. Writer Theodore H. White said “the first quality that surfaced, as one met and talked with George Romney over a number of years, was a sincerity so profound that, in conversation, one was almost embarrassed.”

In the 1964 U.S. presidential election, Senator Barry Goldwater quickly became the likely Republican Party nominee. Goldwater represented a new wave of American conservatism, of which the moderate Romney was not a part. Romney declared, “If [Goldwater’s] views deviate as indicated from the heritage of our Party, I will do everything within my power to keep him from becoming the Party’s Presidential nominee.” During the Fall 1964 general election, Romney cut himself off from the national ticket, refusing to appear on the same stage with Goldwater. 

Romney campaigned for Governor in mostly Democratic areas and, when pressed at campaign appearances about whether he was supporting Goldwater, he replied, “You know darn well I’m not!” Romney was re-elected as Governor of Michigan in 1964 by a large margin, despite Goldwater’s landslide defeat to President Lyndon B. Johnson that swept away many other Republican candidates.

Romney was a front runner for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in the 1968 election, but Richard Nixon won the nomination and the election. Nixon later appointed Romney as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed months earlier in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., directed the government to ‘affirmatively further’ fair housing. When Romney became the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he believed those words gave him the authority to pressure predominantly white communities into building more affordable housing and end discriminatory zoning practices. Romney sought to use his power as secretary of Housing and Urban Development to remake America’s housing patterns, which he described as a “high-income white noose” around the Black inner city. Romney ordered HUD officials to reject applications for water, sewer and highway projects from cities and states in which local policies fostered segregated housing. He dubbed his initiative ‘Open Communities’ but did not clear it with the White House. As word spread that HUD was turning down grants, Nixon’s supporters in the South and in white Northern suburbs took their complaints directly to the President.”

Open Communities conflicted with Nixon’s so-called “Southern strategy” forcing Romney to back down and release federal monies unconditionally in cities that resisted Romney’s policies. At one point, Nixon told his chief of staff, Haldeman, “Just keep [Romney] away from me.”

Romney was a proud member of the Ripon Society, a centrist public policy organization that was the intellectual heart of moderate Republicanism. While Romney condemned the violence that befell Detroit during the riots there in 1967, he acknowledged that urban unrest was deeply rooted in economic deprivation. Speaking days after the riot, he affirmed, “The drive for human justice has gained ground during the past few years. All our efforts have not been wasted, all our programs designed to bring about equal opportunity are not now valueless. We must not permit a backlash to weaken the valuable programs and policies designed to bring about first-class status for all citizens. ‘We must arouse ourselves from our comfort, pleasure, and preoccupations,’ and “listen to the voices from the ghetto.’”

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