Reporting from Washington—Mitt Romney stood before a shuttered steel factory in Pennsylvania the other day, using the iconic backdrop to underscore what has become the most forceful theme of his presidential campaign: the need for more jobs.
"He has done everything wrong," Romney said of President Obama as a breeze tousled overgrown weeds around the locked main gate of Allentown Metal Works. Then, as the Republican has done time and again, he touted himself as the chief executive America needs to get the country back to work.
During the years he was governor, the state ranked among the last in the nation in job creation. The percentage increase in jobs — about 1% — was lower than in all but three states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In worse straits were Ohio, suffering the ongoing deterioration of its manufacturing infrastructure; Michigan, beset then by the decline of the auto industry; and Louisiana, devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Many factors contribute to the economics of any given state, and a governor can sometimes have only limited influence. But Romney's performance in the job represents his argument for election. He and his backers say he is responsible for demonstrable progress for the state, which faced a series of economic challenges, including a fiscal crisis that mushroomed shortly after Romney's election.
"I'm very pleased that Massachusetts had a lower unemployment rate than the nation for three of the four years I was governor," he told reporters last week, citing another way to measure a state's employment record. "The governor before me lost jobs; the governor after me has lost jobs; we actually created jobs."
Leading economists and business advocates in Massachusetts say Romney is correct — but only to a point.
"Romney's record of economic stewardship fell short of expectations," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed group that provides research on fiscal and economic matters. In remarks echoed by others, Widmer said Romney fell particularly short in his promise to recruit employers to the state.
The top finance advisor to two prior Republican governors said Romney was distracted by political ambition in the final years of his term.
"The real tragedy of Romney's governorship is that he did not utilize his full capacity as governor," said Stephen P. Crosby, who served in the Cabinet of two previous Republican governors and advised the transition of Romney's Democratic successor. Crosby, dean of the University of Massachusetts' McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, praised Romney's leadership and business acumen but said he never delivered on promises to lure jobs to the state.
"He took his eye off the ball," Crosby said.
Romney and his backers make the case that he instituted historic bureaucratic reforms, promoted business development and expanded jobs even though he inherited a dire situation from his Republican predecessor, Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift.
Romney came into office after the state's once-vital technology sector had cratered, reducing both jobs and state revenue. Between 2001 and December 2003, the end of Romney's first year in office, the state lost 205,100 jobs, or about 6% of its workforce, according to the Boston Globe.
His supporters, and even some of his detractors, credit Romney for handling a $2-billion-plus budget shortfall the year he came into office. They applaud efforts he led to streamline government, save money and find new revenue sources. And they applaud some systematic changes including elimination of hurdles in processing permits for new and expanding businesses. But even some of Romney's most loyal supporters frown when the subject of job creation comes up.
In December 2002, as Romney prepared for his swearing in, the unemployment rate was 5.6%. When he left office it was 4.7%. But a team at Boston's Northeastern University found that the unemployment rate was influenced by a steady out-migration of working-age adults during the Romney years.
Between July 2002 and July 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 222,000 more residents left Massachusetts than arrived in the state, one of the highest population losses in the country. The out-migration was a significant contributor to the state's declining unemployment rate, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
Ranch C. Kimball, who became Romney's point man on jobs issues, described the governor as "determined to make businesses feel more comfortable in Massachusetts," instructing Kimball to meet with executives to find out what they needed to expand in the state.
Romney jumped in personally to keep several large employers in the state, he said. When Gillette Co. was purchased by Proctor & Gamble, there was concern that Gillette might leave the state. Romney met with leaders of both companies, and Gillette agreed to stay.
He and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy worked to prevent the closing of Hanscom Air Force Base and other facilities in the state when proposed base closings threatened more than 30,000 jobs in 2005.
One former military base, in Devens, Mass., became a magnet for an expansion by Bristol-Myers Squibb. It moved to the 89-acre site after reaching a deal with the governor and the Legislature granting the company a $34-million infrastructure bond.
Kimball said Romney's efforts paid off beyond such high-profile examples. The number of companies in the newly organized Massachusetts Business Resource Team, designed to encourage employer expansion, grew from 13 to 288 in three years, he said. Romney left office before the jobs were fully realized.
"I give him very high grades for budget leadership and for [bureaucratic] reform," said Jim Stergios, who worked in the Romney administration and now directs the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank in Boston. "But I give him lower grades for job creation and for changing the state's overall business climate, a problem that would take two consecutive gubernatorial terms to accomplish."
As he campaigns, Romney has claimed credit for Massachusetts' comparatively small jobs gains, while sometimes acknowledging that his tenure was less than perfect.
"There are lots of things that I would have liked to have been able to do in Massachusetts," he said during a news conference with reporters outside Lincoln Financial Group in Concord, N.H. "I'd like to make Massachusetts a right-to-work state. I'd like to lower the corporate tax rate. I'd like to lower taxes even further. I'd probably like to have the weather a little warmer, but that wasn't under my control."
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.