Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C.
— Social conservative Peter G. Flaherty II is one of Mitt Romney’s four closest longtime aides.
Yet outside of social conservative circles, he is not exactly a household name. That’s the way Flaherty likes it.
|Peter G. Flaherty II is one of Romney's closest aides.
Flaherty took an unusual path to becoming the man who could be the next Karl Rove or Ed Gillespie if Romney becomes president.
The son of a lawyer and a nurse, he grew up in Arlington, Mass., next to Belmont where he now lives 2.5 miles from Ann and Mitt Romney’s town home.
Flaherty graduated from the College of the Holy Cross with a bachelor’s degree in economics. For four years he attended New England School of Law at night while working clerical and administrative jobs in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office in Boston.
When Flaherty was seven, his aunt Eileen Gill was murdered by a rejected suitor in broad daylight in Boston. Flaherty’s brother Michael remembers Flaherty saying that when he grew up, he wanted to go after the bad guys.
So, after obtaining a law degree, Flaherty became an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County and rose to prosecute homicide cases.
“I always kept my aunt’s murder at the back of my mind,” Flaherty tells Newsmax.
Flaherty developed personal relationships with families of victims and still keeps in touch with some of them.
In 2001, after 13 years in the district attorney’s office, Flaherty became vice president of his brother Michael’s Walden Media, focusing on the business side.
The company produced “The Chronicles of Narnia” fantasy film series, which has grossed $1.5 billion, and the documentary film “Waiting for Superman,” which exposed how teacher union contracts that prevent firing of incompetent teachers are harming America’s children. A third brother, Chip, runs the company’s publishing arm.
Flaherty’s family members were all Democrats, but — troubled by the state’s budget deficit — he volunteered to work on Mitt Romney’s campaign for governor of Massachusetts. He became liaison to the law enforcement community.
After Romney was elected governor in 2002, Beth Myers, a protégée of Karl Rove who became Romney’s chief of staff, heard how capable and hard-working Flaherty was as a volunteer in the campaign.
“I was looking for a deputy chief of staff,” Myers says. “People thought Peter would be great, but he would never do it because he is doing cool things with Walden Media. But I met with Peter, and by the end of the meeting, I offered him the job. He called me back later that night and said he would come on board.”
Flaherty worked on judicial issues and legislative liaison and slowly morphed into an advisor on social conservative issues. It was Flaherty who arranged for Romney to meet with experts from Harvard and Stanford at his State House office during the debate over embryonic stem-cell research, the focus of a bill in the Massachusetts legislature in 2004. Romney eventually sided with opponents of the new technology.
“It was during that discussion, which related to something called embryo farming, which is taking donor sperm and donor eggs, creating embryos, experimenting on them and then destroying them in 14 days, that it came home very forcefully to me that the Roe v. Wade mentality had cheapened the respect for human life in this country,” Romney tells me. “And for that reason, I made it very clear that I am pro-life.”
As Romney sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, Flaherty continued with him as deputy campaign manager. After Romney suspended his campaign, Flaherty, along with Myers and Romney’s communications director Eric Fehrnstrom, formed the Shawmut Group to provide public relations and campaign advice.
One of their first clients was Scott Brown, who won election to the U.S. Senate. They also ran Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC.
Paid as consultants with the title senior advisor, Flaherty, former Boston Herald State House reporter Fehrnstrom, and Myers are now Romney’s closest longtime aides, along with Robert F. White. A volunteer, White is a friend of Romney’s and a fellow founder of Bain Capital.
“Mitt has come to rely on Peter’s judgment on a host of issues,” says Myers, a lawyer. “There is not a strategy session that he is not invited to. He leavens every discussion with a point of view. He is invited to every debate prep, every speech prep, every strategy session. He’s part of the core team.”
“I rely on Peter’s judgment and advice all day long,” says Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager.
While attending law school, Flaherty met his wife Jen through a mutual friend. A Boston College graduate, she became a teacher at the Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill.
Conversations with Flaherty usually begin and end with a mention of his three young sons, Peter, William, and Matthew. Despite the demands of the campaign, he makes it a point of attending parent-teacher conferences. He coaches their basketball and Little League baseball teams.
He will sometimes return home from Romney campaign headquarters on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End to see the boys before they go to sleep, then participate in conference calls and juggle emails into the night.
Flaherty, 46, is on the board of trustees at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston and the New England School of Law. He is vice president of the board at the Suffolk County Children’s Advocacy Center, which assists victims of child abuse and their families.
Flaherty’s idea of a good time is taking his family for hamburgers and hot dogs to Sullivan’s in South Boston, where a cheeseburger costs $2.10.
“What everyone loves about Peter is he talks about his three boys all the time,” Myers says. “It doesn’t take long before you feel they are your own.”
“He’s the St. Francis type,” says his brother Michael. “He always has a smile on his face. He’s unbelievably generous. He’s the first guy people call when they’re down.”
Besides advising Romney, Flaherty is the candidate’s go-between with social conservatives. Fiscal conservative and national security conservatives are not part of his portfolio. Those issues are handled by others.
“I’ve seen them all and worked with them all going back to Reagan,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, says. “In a primary that has such a huge pool of tea party and evangelical voters, this is a critical constituency for anybody seeking the nomination. Peter is extremely well-connected, knows everybody, is very highly regarded. I think he has a tremendous amount of credibility based on his relationship with the candidate. Romney is really lucky to have him.”
Tim Goeglein, vice president of external relations of Focus on the Family, says, “Peter has one of those very rare traits: He is a great listener, and he understands how our concerns can relate to larger conservative issues.”
“Peter is very intelligent, a good guy, and pretty conservative,” says Dave Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union. “I know that Romney respects and listens to him.”
But aside from social conservative leaders, Flaherty is not well known in the conservative movement.
“I doubt if anyone is charged with outreach to conservatives as a whole, although there are a number of respected conservatives involved in the Romney campaign,” Keene says. “The weakness of the campaign as far as the conservative activist community is concerned is that few of the day-to-day folks in the Romney operation are known to — or know — many conservative leaders. The result is an unintentional insensitivity that can be off-putting, though Romney’s message and the campaign itself have been consistently conservative.”
Until last month, Romney was not sending a representative to Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meeting, where 150 conservative leaders gather at the offices of Americans for Tax Reform every week to exchange intelligence, plot strategy, and hear from candidates.
Now Bay Buchanan, who became a senior adviser to Romney in January, is attending them regularly and giving presentations, wowing conservatives.
While Flaherty remains behind the scenes, his gracious manner, command of Romney’s positions, and ability to provide access to the candidate help win over conservatives.
“He will tell people who might be with us, look, I know we may not be your first choice, but we’d like to be your second choice,” says Mark DeMoss, the founder of an evangelical public relations firm and an unpaid Romney advisor. “That is what primaries are all about.”
An Irish Catholic, Flaherty persuaded five former ambassadors to the Vatican to back Romney. He arranges Romney’s meetings and appearances with conservatives.
If Flaherty took an unusual path to arrive at his position, he is also unusual as a political operative because until now he has never given an on-the-record media interview. Only a few sentences from him have ever appeared in print.
“He’s not looking for glory, which is one reason he is not better known,” DeMoss says. “You never have a sense that he is promoting Peter. He is promoting Gov. Romney. He is not building his portfolio or building his platform to do other things politically.” Flaherty describes Romney as a good listener and a voracious reader.
When Romney makes a tactical mistake — as when he referred to his wife as having two Cadillacs — he will poke fun at himself.
“He is the most self-effacing person in the organization,” Flaherty says. “He reads everything — informational materials, policy papers, novels. He is always reading. He reads quickly and is so smart and has a deep shelf of knowledge.”
Flaherty once made the mistake of giving Romney a non-fiction book recommended by a friend. He had not read it himself.
“The next day, he had read the book and was asking me questions about it,” Flaherty says. “I had to admit I had not read it.”
Flaherty says Romney leads by example.
“I think he instills a certain work ethic in people,” Flaherty says. “People want to do their best and work their hardest because they see how hard he works.”
As for some conservatives’ doubts about Romney, Flaherty says, “Right now, there’s more than one candidate, so he is not going to get all conservatives behind him. As we see the field get smaller and smaller, I’m convinced those who are with the other candidates will come with Gov. Romney, and everyone will come together and move toward the goal of defeating Barack Obama.”
Inevitably, Flaherty brings the conversation around to family.
“Mitt has a huge heart, and that’s why he and Ann are together,” Flaherty says. “I think he’s always happiest when Ann is around him. Pope John Paul II said, ‘As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.’ Mitt sets a wonderful example for a young father like me.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.
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