Remembering Lenore and George Romney

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With Mitt Romney possibly returning to politics to run for U.S. Senator from Utah, and with his niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel as current Chair of the Republican National Committee (although she has now dropped the “Romney” at the President’s behest), I decided to engage in a little remembrance as a demonstration on how political positions can change 180 degrees, and yet few people point out the oddness of that.

I grew up in Michigan when Mitt’s father George Romney was governor and his wife, Lenore, was also a political force. Let’s start with Lenore, who was a feminist when the label was new, all the more interesting because she was a life-long Mormon woman. After George Romney had left his role as governor and entered the Nixon administration in 1969 as Secretary for Housing and Urban Development (half-way through my senior year of high school), Lenore was selected by the Republican party to run against the popular Democratic senator Phil Hart in 1970.

Few recall that the Republican Party platform at that time supported the nascent (but doomed) Equal Rights Amendment and, at this time before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (and actually through the 1976 election), the party took an official a pro-choice position on abortion as the issue worked its way through the states. Lenore Romney, along with her friend and future First Lady Betty Ford, strongly supported both of these issues during that campaign for Senate. Lenore said, “never has the voice and understanding of a concerned woman been so needed.” [1]

It should be noted that both of these issues faced growing controversy in the party as Pat Buchanan and others were attempting to implement the infamous “Southern Strategy” by shifting to party positions that would sway the remaining old-guard, pro-segregation southern Democratic politicians and voters to their side. That shift had begun with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it is quite complete today. It is hard to imagine that Attorney General (and ex-Alabama senator) Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III really sees himself in “the party of Lincoln.”

Lenore Romney lost that Senate race to Hart, but as far as I can tell, she remained a strong feminist up until her death in 1998. Justice for women was her driving theodicy, so to speak. Her son Mitt campaigned unsuccessfully for senator from Massachusetts in 1994, and then successfully for governor in 2002, publicly endorsing her brand of centrist Republicanism himself as a successful governor, until he decided to first run for president in 2008. By this time his late mother’s political views were no longer welcome in the party, and free from the family matriarch’s influence, he changed his positions on these issues with the political wind.

George Romney moved from being the successful chief executive of Detroit’s American Motors Corporation, where he famously turned back an earned bonus to the company because he thought nobody was worth that level of salary, to become governor of Michigan in 1963. Although some of his education-related programs had their start with his Democratic predecessor John Swainson, Romney presided over an amazing growth spurt in buildings and entire new campuses for Michigan colleges and universities, as we baby boomers began to graduate from high school in record numbers.

State financial aid budgets exploded as well. If I recall correctly, the programs of Romney and his protege/successor William Milliken had two parts. One could get up to 100% of tuition for state colleges and universities waived on a sliding merit-based scale depending on grades and standardized test scores. At the same time, a grant-in-aid program provided cash to help pay for room and board, as well as books and fees, based on a family’s documented financial need. These two programs meant that I could make my way through three Michigan schools to my first degree virtually free, as I qualified for both programs.

Free college thanks to a Republican governor. Imagine that! Someone should bring that idea back.

After some time at two Upper Peninsula universities, I was accepted at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan in January of 1972. Although today a separate four-year university located on the old Henry Ford estate, this school at that time was primarily focused on junior-senior degree completion in business and engineering, with an emphasis on placing students like me in alternating-semester cooperative (and well-paid!) work assignments with Detroit-area companies, most relating to the automobile industry. Because of George Romney’s background and support, this program grew greatly during his, and his successor’s, tenure, and it secured me my first job with Ford Motor Company while still a college junior, alternating studying business and computer science with a great job programming simulations of new factory designs. I continued working there for eight years, completing that degree plus a graduate program in Ann Arbor on the side (and paid for by my employer), and so I believe that I primarily have George Romney to thank for that valuable leg up.

A third interesting tidbit about George Romney has to do with his response after the 1967 Detroit race-related riots. He brought in for consultation on poverty and race issues the noted community organizer Saul Alinsky, a name later to be tied (usually in pejorative terms) to Barack Obama (who was eleven years old when Alinsky died) and Hillary Clinton, and usually by people who have never read his work. Romney was quoted then as telling his Republican colleagues that, “I think you ought to listen to Alinsky.” [2]

Equal social, political and reproductive rights for women, and inexpensive college education for young Michiganders were the political legacies of Mitt Romney’s parents. History is often the uncomfortable enemy of political positions.


  1. Kurtz, Howard. “Mitt Romney’s Mother and Her Long-Ago Senate Race.The Daily Beast, 21 Feb. 2012.
  2. “When Romney Met Alinsky” PERRspectives, 23 Sept. 2014.