Opinion: Behind the loneliest vote, a Michigan boy shines through

By James Rosen

Willard Mitt Romney always cast himself as an outsider.

When he ran unsuccessfully against Teddy Kennedy for senator of Massachusetts in 1994 and successfully for governor in 2002, when he announced for the 2008 presidency at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn — Romney downplayed politics.

Instead, he described a life teaching Sunday school at Mormon churches, doing missionary work overseas, running investment firms far from Washington.

This week, the Michigan native and Class of ’54 graduate of Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills became more than a mere outsider.

Mitt Romney, choking up on the Senate floor, became an outcast.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks on the Senate floor about the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

In becoming the only senator in U.S. history to vote to convict a president of his own party in an impeachment trial, Romney accused Trump of having committed “an appalling abuse of public trust” and “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values.”

“The president delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders,” Romney said. “The president’s purpose was personal and political.”

Uncharacteristically, the man who became known as a data geek throughout his career in government and in the private sector, turned a blind eye to the numbers in voting to convict Trump.

On the morning of Romney’s vote, a statewide survey found that for the first time Trump was more popular in Utah than Romney. After holding him underwater for three years, a majority of Utahans now approved of Trump’s performance as president.

Trump’s 52% rating bested the 46% score Romney had scored in the same poll four months earlier, after he had stepped up his criticism of the president.

Fellow Utah Sen. Mike Lee branded Romney’s vote “very wrong.” But several Democratic senators left the august chamber with tears in their eyes.

Romney in that moment reflected the values of the state he grew up in more than the one he’s called home since 2012.

Though Trump eked out a victory in Michigan in 2016, current polls show him losing here to each of the five top Democratic candidates. His approval rating in the state is 42%.

Romney made it clear on the Senate floor that he understood his vote was not a good career move. But he said other things were more important, like his conscience and his faith.

Predictably, the Twitter-verse exploded pro and con in response to Romney’s lonely vote.

The hashtags “MittRomneyAmericanHero” vs. “RecallMittRomney” dueled with each other in trending on the social media site.

Romney’s courage is less surprising in light of his Michigan roots.

During his most formative years, for the first 18 years of his life, Romney’s growth paralleled Detroit’s development as a manufacturing hub of the country:

►In 1947, as thousands of blacks fled the South to work in Detroit’s auto factories, Romney was born at Harper University Hospital, still a downtown medical mainstay on John R Street between Woodward and the Chrysler Freeway.

►In 1953, the family moved to Bloomfield Hills, just five miles south of Pontiac where four GM plants churned out thousands of Pontiac Star Chiefs, Safaris and other models.

►The following year, Mitt’s dad, George Romney, began an eight-year-stint as chairman of American Motors Co.

►In 1960, Mitt enrolled at Cranbook School, which Eminem would immortalize decades later in the movie “8 Mile” with the cutting line that won his rap battle at a dive Detroit club.

►Two years later, George was elected governor. In a blue-collar state, he built on the reputation he’d forged at American Motors as the working man’s boss. While popular in Michigan, the governor lost to Nixon in the 1968 Republican presidential race.

For the whole of Romney’s childhood, Detroit was a union town; Michigan, a Democratic bastion; he watched his father realize business and political success as a moderate Republican executive who built bridges across the divides. 

Years later, as Massachusetts governor, Mitt pushed through the nation’s first health-care law imposing individual insurance mandates; it would become a model for Obamacare.

So when an emotional Romney explained his lonely impeachment vote on the Senate floor, more than his Mormon faith was on display. So, too, were his roots in a Midwest industrial state where unions ruled, giant plants rolled out iconic cars, and a recording studio on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard produced miraculous music danced to the world over.

James Rosen is a longtime Washington correspondent who’s covered Congress, the Pentagon and the White House.