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Lunch with Romney

The Massachusetts governor opens up about taxes, Ted, and gay marriage, but stays mum on John Kerry.

6:00 PM, Jul 27, 2004 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Boston

DURING LUNCH with several journalists at Davio's, a relatively new and elegantly appointed restaurant downtown, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney declines to speak on the record about John Kerry. Romney is determined to avoid saying something about Kerry that, however insignificant, some scribe might deem newsworthy. This is John Kerry's week, and the governor, a Republican in his first term, isn't eager to crash the party.

Our conversation moves elsewhere. Romney has many disagreements with Ted Kennedy, who speaks to the convention tonight, but his admiration for the senator's willingness to fight for what he believes is evident. Says Romney, "He's the real deal." He is, of course, a real deal of a liberal. Which is why, the governor adds, Kennedy's association with Kerry isn't going to help him during the fall campaign.

Taxes come up, and those of us from other parts of the country are surprised to learn that Massachusetts isn't as taxing as the old moniker, Taxachusetts, would have you think. In 2000, when income was taxed at 5.95 percent, voters used the referendum to order tax-rate cuts in stages--first to 5.6 percent, then to 5.3 percent, and then to 5.0 percent, the ultimate goal. Right before Romney took office in 2002, with the state budget deep in deficit, the heavily Democratic legislature froze the rate at 5.3 percent. With the state having just recorded a $700 million surplus for its most recent fiscal year, Romney has proposed pushing the rate where the voters in 2000 said they wanted it--to 5.0 percent. Taxachusetts is a slander on the Bay State. As I type this, I'm reminded that seemingly conservative Virginia, where I live, taxes income at the comparatively whopping rate of 5.75 percent.

More on taxes: Some while back the anti-tax lobby managed to get a provision added to the tax code under which individuals wanting to remit more in taxes could do so--up to 5.8 percent of income, which is .5 percent more than they have to. The lobby wanted to show that very few people would voluntarily hand over more money to the state. The lobby has been proven right. Romney observes that last year only 1,330 of more than three million taxpayers paid taxes at the 5.8 percent rate. The "extra" amount? $177,000.

A question is asked about same-sex marriage, an unavoidable topic in Massachusetts. Last November the Supreme Judicial Court declared that the state must define marriage as the union of any two people. Romney disagreed with the judgment, and so has the legislature. Now underway is an effort, which Romney supports, to amend the state constitution so as to define marriage in traditional terms (as the union of a man and a woman) and to allow for civil unions between two people of the same sex. Romney points out that amending the Massachusetts constitution is by design a drawn-out process, and the amendment in question could not be approved by the people until elections are held in November 2006. Romney believes the amendment will pass. He also thinks that its definition of marriage will prevail nationally. (He supports the federal marriage amendment.) He says that Americans have yet to think through the implications of legalizing same-sex marriage, an exercise that his state is going through at the moment, since same-sex couples may, at least for now, be licensed to marry (and more than 2,000 already have). Romney believes on the basis of relevant social science that a child should have a mother and a father, not "parent A" and "parent B," as he says some state bureaucrats recently proposed, and that same-sex marriage would deny a child that right. Romney's view of the matter turns upon what marriage is about, and he sees it as about "the care and nurture of the next generation," not about "the care and nurture of ourselves," meaning our adult selves.

That Romney is a Republican governor in one of the nation's most Democratic states invites the question of what he might be doing to change that. The big challenge is in the statehouse, where Democrats have huge majorities. Romney says that just about every day he's either trying to recruit a candidate for the state House or Senate, or else raising money for one. Those efforts don't go down well with Democratic incumbents. Romney concedes that relations have been "strained," yet he believes that "the fear of contested elections" has enabled the state to "get a lot done." Of course, he won't mind if a few of his recruits do get elected.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.