Kirk Jowers, a former Republican operative and longtime Mitt Romney backer, remembers the first time he met Mike Leavitt, the man tapped to run Romney’s transition team. It was in the late 1990s, during a fight over allowing states to force online retailers to levy sales taxes. Leavitt was a staunch supporter of collecting online taxes — a position that split him from anti-tax purists on the right like Grover Norquist. As general counsel for the Advisory Commission On Electronic Commerce, Jowers was on Norquist’s side.
Jowers says the experience left him one of Leavitt’s biggest fans. Not because Leavitt buckled to the more conservative way of thinking — but because he refused.
“It was clear after the first meeting that Leavitt was five miles ahead of everyone else,” Jowers recalled. “He just danced around them and was looking around corners when everyone else hadn’t even seen the corner yet.”
Jowers — who now runs the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah — said Leavitt is the “perfect choice” to lead any Republican’s transition team, especially Romney’s.
Conservatives are nervous about Leavitt, a personal adviser to Romney who will now lead the former Massachusetts governor’s transition team. Many believe that relationship suggests Leavitt will have a prominent role in a Romney White House.
Romney likes to create a circle of trusted advisers around him, say Massachusetts observers, and doesn’t mind picking people who’ll stand against the forces trying to get him to come along to their way of thinking. In the White House, that could mean conservatives like Norquist. In Beacon Hill, it was the political classes who’d run the state for years and with whom Romney did not have a close personal connection.
“He said, ‘This is who I am.’ He made some mechanical gestures to be more of a soft person … but he mostly dealt with the leaders [in the legislature],” said Ray La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts. Inside his own circle, Romney “surrounds himself with people who are analytical,” La Raja said.
But Leavitt’s analytical side may also cause tension for Romney from a policy standpoint — Leavitt supports a key tenent of “Obamacare.” But Jowers’ account suggests there’s even more reason for conservative purists to fret. Leavitt’s willingness to fight conservatives tooth and nail over the online tax issue suggests he won’t back down even when faced with pressure from the tea party crowd.
“[Former Virginia Gov. Jim] Gilmore and Norquist were of course saying, ‘We don’t need Internet tax.’ And Leavitt was always saying, ‘I hope your digital firetrucks can put out the fires for you then,’” Jowers said. “That was certainly a place where he split very prominently with the right at a key point. I’m not sure that he ever made up with them.”
This is not to say Leavitt’s is not conservative. He was a popular governor of Utah, and \a trusted member of the George W. Bush administration. Jowers expects the controversy over Leavitt on the right to blow over.
“It doesn’t seem like [Romney’s taking a] stand to me. It seems like ‘this is a key position and I need someone who is qualified who I like and trust,’” Jowers said. “It’s made a splash for the last couple of days … but typically for this type of job or a chief of staff you get a little more of a free pass because it is seen as an intimate position.”
But by placing Leavitt in that intimate role, Romney may be signaling that he’s prepared to go toe-to-toe with the conservatives who have been driving him to the right since he entered the national political stage.
The ties that bind Leavitt and Romney extend back to Romney’s days as Massachusetts governor, and his selection of his old friend to run his transition could signify a willingness to stick to his more establishment past, despite a primary campaign that saw him tackhard toward the right.
“If Romney feels comfortable with anyone in the political world, it’s this guy,” La Raja said. “If he becomes president, he’ll make a lot of symbolic public appointments to say ‘hey look I’m bringing conservatives into the administration.’ But the guy you want to govern with is the guy you trust.”