BOSTON -- Eric Fehrnstrom began to panic when he landed on Sanibel Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast in December 1989. Fehrnstrom, a scandal-sniffing veteran reporter for the Boston Herald, the then-Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, was on a juicy story he knew had page one potential. It might even, as he would later describe it, become a “kill shot.”
With Massachusetts in a fiscal free fall, the lieutenant governor, Evelyn Murphy, had jetted down to the island for a short vacation. If Fehrnstrom could find her, the story of an out-of-touch politician would write itself. But out in the island heat, away from the smoky cocoon of the fourth-floor statehouse press room, “Fernie,” as he was known, wasn’t so sure he could land his prey.
He had a lot of beach to cover and no addresses for Murphy. “I thought it was crazy,” recalled Michael Fein, a Herald photographer who accompanied Fehrnstrom. “We were lost as to what we were going to do.”
A day into their search, they were no closer to finding Murphy. If it's possible to feel despair on a tropical island, they found it driving around in their rental car, Fein told The Huffington Post. They began to question and debate their strategy. And pray for luck. It was then that they spotted Murphy jogging past the palm fronds along West Gulf Drive.
Shaking off their disbelief, they sped far enough ahead for Fein to jump out and find a hiding place behind a bush. “I had a long lens,” he said. "I was just like, 'Wow, this is unbelievable.'" They got their kill shot. "The next day, we splashed her picture across page one, her middle-aged thighs flouncing across more than 300,000 newspapers," Fehrnstrom boasted in a subsequent Boston Magazine essay. The next time Fein saw Murphy, he said he felt the need to explain that he was just doing his job and that he hoped there were no hard feelings.
Not Fernie. He had, after all, effectively reduced an accomplished female politician contemplating a run for governor to one unflattering picture and was proud of the tabloid accomplishment. A decade later, he began his Boston Magazine piece recounting his Sanibel scoop. And it wasn't really his. After all, he didn't snap the picture.
“In my trade, politics was never personal. Hell, people were rarely people -- they were ducks in a shooting gallery,” he wrote. On his triumphant return from Sanibel, he recalled in the piece, “I was greeted with the highest praise in tabloid journalism: ‘Nice hit.’”
Not so nice on the other end.
“That’s Eric Fehrnstrom,” Murphy said in an interview, the first time she's spoken publicly about the photograph. “I was angry that I was the only one who was being tracked on a vacation and not my two male opponents. I just thought that was unfair and improper. It angered me … It still angers me to this day.”
Fehrnstrom couldn’t wait to rub it in, she said. “He called to brag” about getting a free vacation to hunt her down -- before the story hit the newsstands, Murphy remembered. “It’s hard to comprehend that was one of his proud professional moments.”
This is the same Eric Fehrnstrom who now serves as Mitt Romney’s chief media strategist and right-hand man. He's become not just a campaign surrogate, but Romney's surrogate, with a preternatural ability to know exactly what his candidate needs. On top of his responsibilities as Romney's alter ego, he's the muscle behind Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) re-election campaign, having guided Brown's historic insurgent takeover of the late Ted Kennedy's seat in 2010. GQ recently dubbed Fehrnstrom "Romney's balls" in a glowing profile.
But before taking on the president of the United States, Fehrnstrom's subjects were anyone who offered the slightest whiff of scandal or sensationalism. He dispatched plenty of stories on Beacon Hill malfeasance, large and small, in old-school, tell-it-to-me-straight prose. Still, he was no social justice crusader. Robert Connolly, a former Herald guy, described Fehrnstrom as "a Herald hardliner," an ankle-biter of the highest rank.
“He had no shame,” said the photographer Fein. “To be good at it, you have to suspend what’s probably appropriate behavior.” In 1992, Fehrnstrom outed a transgender politician, Republican State Rep. Althea Garrison. Connolly told GQ that he could "remember his glee when he found the birth certificate.”
The scoop mattered -- not so much the politics. Ed Cafasso, a former journalist who has known Fehrnstrom since their time at Boston University’s college newspaper and who worked with him at the Herald and at another paper, said both came up in a competitive media environment of fully staffed newspapers and television stations with investigative units. Fernie had to be tough.
“I always saw him as apolitical," Cafasso said. “In all our time together, all of our conversations professionally and socially -- no strong political stripe ever appeared to me. … As reporters, we saw ourselves as equal opportunity troublemakers.”
Fehrnstrom quit the tabloid press in 1994, but he never dropped the tough-guy persona that belies his bespectacled, middle-aged moon face. One month into Romney's tenure as governor in 2003, Fehrnstrom chest-bumped North Adams, Mass., Mayor John Barrett after the two got into a screaming match on the set of a local television news program. During Romney's first run for president in 2008, Fehrnstrom famously and publicly dressed down a top Associated Press reporter who correctly pointed out a lobbyist's prominent role in the campaign.
Earlier this year, Fehrnstrom turned his candidate into a late-night punch line when he compared Romney's political positions to an Etch A Sketch that could be shaken up and remade for the general election. Even after the gaffe went viral, Fehrnstrom offered no apologies.
Instead, he continues to step in it.
In early July, Fehrnstrom landed in the middle of another controversy when he told MSNBC that Romney agreed with the Obama administration that the health care mandate was a penalty, not a tax, as the Supreme Court asserted in its 5-4 ruling. Even after Romney later disowned the remark, the Wall Street Journal took the campaign to the woodshed. In an editorial, the paper argued that if Romney "loses his run for the White House, a turning point will have been his decision Monday to absolve President Obama of raising taxes on the middle class. He is managing to turn the only possible silver lining in Chief Justice John Roberts's ObamaCare salvage operation -- that the mandate to buy insurance or pay a penalty is really a tax -- into a second political defeat."
The Journal's owner, Rupert Murdoch, got more to the point. Taking to his Twitter account, he blasted Romney after meeting with the candidate and his team: "Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful." Murdoch's prediction has only looked wiser as the campaign has worn on.
The campaign's inability to answer predictable questions about Romney's tenure at Bain Capital spiraled into an ongoing national conversation about his missing tax returns. Romney was supposed to get relief by embarking on a foreign tour, but the trip turned into a diplomatic gaffe-fest. He is now, to the delight of the Obama campaign, following Fehrnstrom's lead and engaging with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in an argument over his tax rate that can only be conclusively decided if Romney does the one thing he has vowed not to -- release his returns.
Fehrnstrom, who declined to be interviewed for this article, manages to survive such moments -- a fact that further burnishes his credentials as a made man in Romney's world. The Romney campaign, likewise, declined to comment.
Romney may have no older friend on his staff than Fehrnstrom. But friends don't let friends sing "God Bless America" off key at campaign rallies. While Fehrnstrom, former coworkers say, avoids telling Romney what he doesn't want to hear, those beneath him don't get off that easily.
It's good to be Fernie. But is that good for the Romney campaign?
Interviews with dozens of Fehrnstrom's colleagues, members of Romney's inner circle, Boston politicos, and former newsroom pals help fill in the answer -- battle scars included. He may have lofted to a position of national stature. But he's still a tabloid man.
Fehrnstrom is famous for his beefs with one-time colleagues in the press. Less known are the episodes in which he turned his schtick against his own people. Some tirades might have merited a punchy brief in his old paper. Others could have put him on page one. Said a former Herald editor who requested anonymity because he was concerned about losing his current job: “He’s become the kind of character that the Herald covered all the time.”
Fehrnstrom crossed from reporter to public relations in 1994, leaving his job as the Herald statehouse bureau chief to join state Treasurer Joe Malone’s office as a $68,000-a-year spokesman. Malone’s tenure had been marred by ethical scandals, many of which Fehrnstrom had chronicled. Still, the treasurer was a rising star with ambitions to run for governor. Fehrnstrom offered Malone a deal.
"He walked into my office on a Friday afternoon and told me that the Boston Herald, for whom he worked, had offered buyouts and that he had to tell them by Monday whether or not he was going to take advantage of it -- that if I was inclined to hire him he would tell them that he was going to take the buyout,” Malone recalled.
Malone said hiring his former nemesis was a “good opportunity."
In the Boston Magazine essay that explains his jump from newswriter to newsmaker, Fehrnstrom writes that he joined Malone because the Herald's new owners wanted to "de-emphasize" political coverage, and he wanted to earn more money for his growing family, which today includes his wife Kathy and two children.
Fehrnstrom never looked back. He even stood up his own goodbye party. After realizing he wasn’t going to show, state politics reporter Jon Tapper said, “We just finished our beers and talked about what an asshole he was.”
“The whole personal relationship side of things was never important with Eric,” Tapper said.
Fehrnstrom, armed with the skills he honed as a journalist, thrived in his new role as an adversary to his former statehouse friends. "He has that unique knack that allows someone to see both the strategic and the tactical," said his old college friend and colleague Cafasso. "To understand what has to be done at a high level and how to do it at ground level. That was clear as a reporter."
The attacks could nevertheless be personal. When Malone challenged GOP incumbent Paul Cellucci in the 1998 Republican primary for governor, Fehrnstrom peddled stories about his opponent’s personal debts, alleging they were the result of a gambling problem. “Eric came up to me and gave me that line several times,” Tapper remembered.
Malone said he didn't know Fehrnstrom was pitching the gambling story. But he was good at his job. “He’s a war-time communications director,” Malone explained. “He will scratch and claw and fight to communicate his side of the story.”
Once, when Malone was holding a press conference outside the statehouse press gallery, Fehrnstrom showed up with a boombox and a tape of Cellucci declaring a major infrastructure project on time and on budget -- it was not. The boombox tape looped Cellucci's words so they played over and over.
Fehrnstrom's co-workers said he could be just as hard-nosed with them.
“Nobody in my life has ever treated me as unprofessional as Fernie -- ever, ever, ever,” said Denise Jillson, Malone’s campaign manager.
One incident still stands out for Jillson. Fehrnstrom had been on an overseas call with an adviser when the call abruptly dropped. “He pulled out the phone from the wall and knocked down his computer at the same time,” Jillson said.
Fehrnstrom marched out of his office with the phone in his hand like a dead limb. He went to where Jillson sat, and "threw it at my wastepaper basket,” she said.
“This is a fucking piece of shit!" Jillson remembered Fehrnstrom yelling at her. "Get rid of it! Do something about this!”
When they inspected the phone, they realized it wasn’t broken. Fehrnstrom had inadvertently pressed the do-not-disturb button.
After Malone’s defeat, Fehrnstrom was effectively muted by the state GOP elite. He spent three years working for the Hill Holliday advertising agency, run by Jack Connors, a Boston power broker. It was a kind of purgatory for a guy used to the rush of statehouse action. "He was dying to get back into politics," said a source in Fernie's circle. "My impression of him was he kind of punched the clock. He was competent and that people generally liked him but it was a temporary place."
Opportunity knocked when Romney returned to Boston in early 2002 with his sights on the governor's office.
Romney may have come back a national hero after rescuing the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from financial trouble. But he was a hero without establishment Republican backing. Many politicos were still working for Gov. Jane Swift, the incumbent Republican.
"Not a lot of operatives are going to sign on with the campaign of someone opposing the sitting governor of his own party," explained David S. Bernstein, a 20-year veteran Boston reporter who has spent the last nine years covering politics and public policy at the Boston Phoenix.
But Malone had been an early fan of Romney. He told The Huffington Post that he met with Romney over lunch in 1987 and encouraged him to seek statewide office. In 2002, Malone said Romney phoned him when he was considering whether to jump into the governor's race. "I told him I thought it was a great idea," Malone recalled. "If he would make the run, he would have my support."
Romney would also have some of Malone's top staff -- including Beth Myers and Fehrnstrom. "They knew my people," Malone said. He added that he was never asked for any formal recommendations. "I think Mitt knew what I thought of them just from over the years. He recognized that I was a big fan of theirs."
Fehrnstrom was available and willing. And he signed on early -- before Romney had hired a campaign manager. His old newspaper called it a “comeback.”
A WELL-RUN CORPORATION
Three years off the grid had done little to mellow Fehrnstrom. In interviews with former staffers, the word "rage" came up repeatedly.
“He commanded a lot of respect, but in a different way than Romney did,” recalled one former Romney campaign staffer who doesn't want to be named because of the sensitive nature of this story. “Romney is one of those politicians that has the ability to inspire a lot of loyalty with the people around him -- like people at the top and people at the bottom were really proud to be part of the campaign and to be part of the governor's office. There was just something about, 'I work for Mitt Romney. I'm really proud of that.' Fehrnstrom -- you had to respect him, but it was kind of the flip side of that. Because he was the bull, you just didn't want to screw something up for Fehrnstrom. ... You just didn't know if you were going to get your head ripped off."
The team Romney hired was "made up of a mix of private sector folks and political folks," said former political director Brian Shortsleeve, whose two Harvard degrees and his job with Bain & Co. fit squarely in the mold of the former group. Policy directors Kelt Kindick and Eric Kriss were also "Bainies," and campaign manager Ben Coes was a prep school and Ivy League graduate. Field manager Alex Dunn was a longtime friend of the Romney family from Utah.
Together, guys like Coes, Shortsleeve, and Dunn aimed to make Romney's campaign a model of efficiency and precision. "Mitt is a data-driven person," said Shortsleeve. "And the goal was to make it a campaign that operated like a business."
Fehrnstrom belonged to the other group -- the political professionals, including GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who Shortsleeve described as the "big, thousand-pound brain in the room," and Myers, who served as an unpaid, but influential, adviser. Myers and Fehrnstrom forged a professional bond from their years with Malone.
"Eric was a huge driver of strategy," said Shortsleeve, "When push came to shove, he made major strategic decisions and he did a hell of a job for the candidate."
Like any corporation, the campaign had its share of internal conflicts. "The campaign was surreal, like a tale of two cities, because Romney fits all the mythology of a presidential candidate who should run the country -- the perfect Republican business leader," said one senior staffer. "But life on the campaign was filled with all these crazies and these morons and these antics."
The western state regional director, Jeanne Traester, made a similar observation. "The campaign was a tougher place for women to work than men, but that's how the corporate world works,” she said.
"Politics is about power, and everyone is always jockeying for power," explained Traester, who still supports Romney. "These people have a dark side, and sometimes you don't even feel like you're on the same team."
For Traester, this became crystal clear in September 2002, when she received an angry phone call from Dunn, who oversaw the gubernatorial campaign's regional efforts.
"Look, you can't be a mother and have this job. It's just not working out. You can't juggle being a mom and doing this work. You need to pack it up," Traester confirmed Dunn told her. The conversation was first recounted to The Huffington Post by a senior campaign staffer who overheard Dunn's side of the call.
Dunn did not respond to a request for comment.
As Fehrnstrom's influence rose within Team Romney, campaign staffers above and below him said they grew concerned that he was being given too long a leash by the candidate. He could be dismissive and even hostile toward other colleagues' media strategies. Once, according to a high-level staffer, a female job candidate complained about Fehrnstrom and a colleague's inappropriate behavior during an interview. The senior aide started keeping a record of potential legal liabilities related to Fehrnstrom.
After a call with a reporter, a senior staffer remembered Fehrnstrom, again, tossing his phone. In a discussion with another adviser, the strategist threw a pencil and began screaming. This ended the discussion. "He's a liability in my mind long-term only if he doesn't learn how to transition to a team instead of a one-man band," said the senior aide.
"Eric had his own little bonfire," said a campaign official. "but I don't want to get burned by it."
Despite the drama, Fehrnstrom's autonomy grew. He began wielding power over staff decisions in ways that angered and worried colleagues. His favoritism toward one young female aide stood out. Fehrnstrom gave her gifts and, without the knowledge of the campaign manager, Ben Coes, authorized a 64 percent raise in the middle of the campaign that far outpaced those of her colleagues.
When another campaign staffer, Russell Newell, expressed concern to Coes that the situation was becoming disruptive, Coes told him to keep quiet. Coes said he did not recall the conversation, but Fehrnstrom somehow found out about the complaint and angrily exiled Newell from the media department. Newell and two others confirmed the episode. Several other senior aides shared Newell's concern and said the issue was raised with at the highest levels of the campaign.
Romney had attacked Democratic challenger Shannon O'Brien for alleged patronage hires in speeches and negative ads. "I want to make sure that those patronage positions where people have been placed in jobs because of who they know, not what they know -- that those are out," Romney told a reporter. In several TV spots, the campaign portrayed O'Brien as a Basset Hound, too lazy to guard against cronyism right under her nose.
But after Romney won the election, Fehrnstrom's aide became one of a handful of campaign staffers to land a job in the administration, where she received a $40,000-a-year salary. “It was, amongst political operatives, pretty widely known before the story came out that there was a hire in the governor’s press office that wouldn’t stand scrutiny,” said Scott Ferson, who runs a Boston political communications firm.
Eventually the worried staffers proved prescient. When the Boston Globe inquired early in the Romney administration about why the young staffer had gotten the job, Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman called her "an invaluable employee who was 'spearheading' the governor's media services department and monitoring media reports." Behind the scenes, the ax swung. Fehrnstrom's favored employee was fired the next day. It was a rare setback for Fehrnstrom while working for Romney.
The staffer soon landed a temporary job at Hill Holliday, Fehrnstrom's old ad agency, the Herald reported.
By the end of Romney's first month in office, Fehrnstrom was consolidating power within the state government media operation. In an effort to save money, the governor slashed more than half of the 60 press secretary jobs from various state agencies. "This reorganization is long overdue," Fehrnstrom said in a press release. The cuts were a boon to Fehrnstrom, who had been given the new title of communications director.
Fehrnstrom's salary reflected his importance. State finance reports show that he earned the highest salary paid to anyone on Romney's staff for all four years of the administration. He started at $150,000 a year -- at least $20,000 more than any of his counterparts in the previous administration, the Boston Globe reported at the time.
Now, under the streamlined organizational chart, nearly all state business and press had to stop at Fernie's desk. "He's always been able to make more of himself than just his role," explained Bernstein, the Boston Phoenix reporter. "The Romney style of communications is a very centralized one and that's the way it was when he was governor. ... You didn't go to one department and deal with the press person there. Everything funneled directly right back to the governor's communications office. So he was just very, very central."
But the enhanced profile didn't always suit Fehrnstrom. At the start of his term, facing a big budget deficit, Romney announced staggering state cuts to local budgets. Schools, public safety, and poverty programs, including legal aid, were in jeopardy. The state's mayors were expected to just go along with the governor's austerity measures. Romney had refused to meet with them.
Democrat John Barrett III, who presided over North Adams as the longest serving mayor in the state, might have been willing to hammer out a compromise, having crossed party lines twice before. He backed Republican Gov. William Weld's re-election bid in 1994, and supported Malone's -- and Fehrnstrom's -- old nemesis Paul Cellucci for governor in 1998. But Team Romney didn't even try to court him. Barrett soon became one of the governor's most vocal critics.
Barrett agreed to debate the budget cuts on a New England Cable News program with a Republican mayor. Instead, he got Fehrnstrom. After the show, the two got into a heated exchange. "I think he said I was a bigger piece of shit than what he assumed," Barrett told The Huffington Post. "I just said, 'You are nothing but a wuss. Get out of my face.'"
With that, Fehrnstrom chest-bumped him, Barrett recalled.
Barrett pushed Fehrnstrom back. "He was bullying me," Barrett said. "You just can't do that. It's unheard of to get in the face of any mayor."
The incident made the news. Fehrnstrom was forced to apologize. "John, no matter what happened the other night at NECN, I should have ignored it, got in my car and left," Fehrnstrom wrote to Barrett. "I regret the incident that occurred between us. I want to offer my sincerest apologies."
Such combativeness had been on display during the 2002 campaign. At times, Fehrnstrom acted more like a bouncer than a communications strategist. A tracker working for O'Brien recorded a similar incident two months before the election, when he tried to film Romney talking to a reporter on a sidewalk. Fehrnstrom got in his face, according to a video and memo documenting the incident.
Fehrnstrom turned to the tracker and warned: "I'm not going to tell you more than once alright? The news conference is over. He's having a private conversation with a reporter. OK?"
The tracker replied: "Alright."
"Let me talk to you over here for a second," Fehrnstrom said. "Because I don't think you understood what I said." He then physically pushed the tracker and repeated his admonishment to stop filming Romney. "The news conference is over. OK? He's having a private conversation with a reporter. ... That's when we turn off the camera and walk away."
Frank Phillips, the Boston Globe statehouse bureau chief, recalled a campaign stop where he tried to talk to Romney, who was talking with another reporter. Fehrnstrom "jumped in front of me," he said, "and tried to block me. I shoved him out of the way."
The tactics, and the importance of tight message control, never eased up. During the new governor's press conferences, Romney's staff began moving to protect the governor from reporters eager to question him. "The ropes went up," recalled David Guarino, the Herald's statehouse bureau chief at the time. "The lapel pins showed up. Advance guys had earpieces."
"I can’t say it served him poorly, but it sure did rub the media the wrong way and I think it only enhanced the aloof image they continue to struggle with today," Guarino said.
"He would swing through the side door and swing out," said Phillips of the governor. "There would never be the scrum. Fehrnstrom was there to end it if things were getting out of hand."
Before he left the governor's office in 2006, Romney appointed Fehrnstrom to a five-year term on the Brookline Housing Authority. The part-time post only paid $5,000 a year, but it would extend Fehrnstrom's years in government long enough so he'd qualify for a full state pension. The move would have cost taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars, and the head of the state pension system said the appointment reeked of cronyism.
"In retrospect, it's hard to see how they thought that wasn't going to blow up in their face," said Bernstein, the Boston Phoenix reporter.
The headlines weren't what a communications guru wants to leave his boss as he's heading for the exit. One read, "Eric, Ask Not What Your Town Can Do For You." Another splashed, "The New Mitt -- Just A Good Old Boy After All."
For at least a brief moment in the public eye, Fehrnstrom ceased playing the heavy and became what he used to chase as a Herald hardliner. Eventually, he resigned from the housing authority, finding refuge in best intentions. In a statement to the Globe, he said, "I never anticipated that my desire to serve my town would be criticized or used to make unwarranted political attacks against Gov. Romney."
The apologies were short-lived. In an ultimate act of message control, before leaving office, the Romney administration replaced their computers, allowed staffers to buy their government computer hard drives, and had electronic communications wiped from government servers. Reutersreported that the effort cost Massachusetts taxpayers roughly $100,000.
RAISING HIS PROFILE
On the night of Jan. 19, 2010, Fehrnstrom celebrated one of the biggest upsets in political history and with it, his own ascension as a national figure. He’d gotten an actual Republican elected to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat -- an office that had been under the liberal icon’s control for 47 years. He’d done so with state Sen. Scott Brown -- a former Cosmopolitan centerfold who became best known during the campaign for his ability to look natural behind the wheel of a pickup truck.
In his victory speech, Brown railed against the Beacon Hill establishment, thanked independents, and repeated his familiar stump line: “This is the people’s seat!” All of it felt like classic Fehrnstrom, reminiscent of the 2002 Romney campaign’s battle cry. “It was all of us against the machine,” Brown told the cheering crowd. “And tonight we have shown everybody now that you are the machine!”
Out of the camera’s view, Fehrnstrom tapped away at his cellphone while Brown tried to stay on script. A little more than nine minutes in, Brown infamously introduced his college-aged daughters and declared, "Just in case anybody who’s watching throughout the country, yes, they're both available."
The election outcome disheartened Kennedy loyalists. Brown had campaigned on voting against healthcare reform, Kennedy’s legislative white whale. “It was a tremendous amount of disappointment,” recalled Tad Devine, the consultant who devised the anti-Bain ads that helped Kennedy crush Romney in the 1994 Senate race. “They ran a really good campaign. It was an opportune moment for him. Eric certainly deserves a lot of credit.”
Bob Shrum, a longtime Kennedy clan speechwriter and adviser, said he saw the defeat coming, but admitted, “It was not a happy event to say the least.” As for the truck driver’s miracle worker, Shrum said, “I guess I could say Fehrnstrom Etch A Sketched Scott Brown so that he simultaneously appealed to moderate Republicans and Tea Party people.”
The strategist had been widely credited for turning Brown into a contender -- mainly through a bit of kitsch that had President Kennedy morphing into the Senate candidate in a TV ad. Whether Brown won because of an absurdly error-prone opponent, the influx of national money and national GOP operatives, or Fehrnstrom's own decisions, remains open to debate.
Nevertheless, a few more big wins would affirm Fernie's status as one of the prominent political strategists in the GOP. He'd become a national figure. Aspiring Republican candidates wanted Brown as their rabbit's foot and Fehrnstrom as their message man. It was time to take the magic act on the road.
Fehrnstrom was in good position to do just that. In 2009, he co-founded the Shawmut Group with two other longtime Romney aides, Peter Flaherty and Beth Myers. The three consultants believed they could do more than just win midterm races. They could be transformative. Brown's “election really changed the political landscape,” Flaherty said. “It gave a lot of would-be candidates a reason to believe.”
Despite their aspirations, the partners survived on a tried and true source of funds: Romney. He bankrolled them through his political action committee, Free and Strong America PAC, which he founded in spring 2008. Together, Fehrnstrom, Flaherty and Myers were paid nearly $25,000 a month from the PAC; Fehrnstrom's cut worked out to around $120,000 a year. Throughout 2009 and 2010, the Shawmut team continued earning money from Romney, even when hired by other clients.
During the 2010 election cycle, Fehrnstrom and company picked up a number of Republican hopefuls: Former Bear Stearns chief economist David Malpass, seeking a U.S. Senate seat in New York; Rick Lazio, running for governor of New York; George Demos, who was running for a U.S. House seat on Long Island; State Rep. John Loughlin, a military officer-turned-media consultant, seeking a U.S. House seat in Rhode Island; and management consultant and Washington state Sen. Don Benton, challenging Democrat Patty Murray for her U.S. Senate seat. In Massachusetts, they signed on to Karyn Polito's campaign for state treasurer, Jeff Perry's congressional race on Cape Cod, and Mary Connaughton's bid for state auditor.
Every last one of them went down in defeat.
Loughlin, the media expert, was caught recycling Brown's old talking points nearly verbatim at his campaign launch. He continued to lean heavily on Brown's rhetoric and enthusiasm right up until his six-point defeat in November.
Had Loughlin won, the Shawmut Group would have laid claim to another Kennedy seat -- that of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D), who was retiring. Asked about the two-year-old race, Loughlin told The Huffington Post that "it was a long time ago" and said he had no recollection of the work that Shawmut performed.
With Polito and Perry, Fehrnstrom and his team showed that while they could throw good punches, they had trouble taking them. Polito never adequately explained allegations of petty graft involving prized Red Sox vanity license plates that went to her family and friends. She did not return requests for comment.
Perry, a former police sergeant, failed to quiet resurfaced allegations that he ignored the screams of a 14-year-old girl who was being illegally strip-searched by a fellow officer in 1993. Given that Perry was running against a district attorney, it should have been obvious to his campaign team that the subject would come up.
Perry lost the race. Before it was over, conservative talk show host Michael Graham vented his frustration with Perry's campaign messaging, saying, "I hate the fact that he didn't just say 'I was wrong, and here's what I learned from my mistakes.'"
Perry told The Huffington Post he could not comment on his 2010 campaign because of his current position as an appointed special sheriff of Barnstable County.
In the case of former Rep. Rick Lazio, Fehrnstrom's hopes for a transformative win were no match for the Tea Party. Lazio had become infamous a decade earlier for violating then-Senate candidate Hillary Clinton’s personal space during a debate when he was running against her. This latest campaign was a rebranding effort -- but a rightward one -- with the moderate Lazio playing to the Fox News crowd with his opposition to the construction of a Muslim-affiliated community center near New York's Ground Zero.
Lazio said Fehrnstrom worked with him extensively on his messaging. “Eric is very competent in the communications space,” he said. “We would work with him on message issues in terms of what the campaign put out, my appearances, interviews, different issues. If I did ‘Meet The Press,’ beforehand, I would usually get on the phone with him and do a talk-through on how to handle different questions.”
Lazio said he never felt like Fehrnstrom was in the campaign just to collect a paycheck. When money got tight late in the race, he explained, Fehrnstrom and his team “gave up dollars that they were probably otherwise entitled to.”
“They’re mission people,” Lazio said. “They believe in the cause.” The cause, he explained, remained the same as it was when the Shawmut Group was founded. Fehrnstrom wanted to prove Republicans could win in blue states.
Lazio lost the primary by 24 points to Carl Paladino, the upstate businessman known for sending racist and sexually explicit emails involving a horse.
Jason Kauppi, a GOP communications consultant in Boston, said, “I think the jury still has to be out” on Fehrnstrom as a top strategist.
With Romney, it was never lightning in a bottle. But he was always Fehrnstrom's most important client.
The strategist was Romney’s wingman throughout the governor’s failed 2008 presidential run. It was a short, humiliating campaign that saw Romney blow through millions of dollars of his own fortune, only to lose in states where he had invested a ton of time and money (Iowa) and had a geographic advantage (New Hampshire). At issue were Romney’s flip-flops. It’s a malleability that Fehrnstrom should have helped correct a long time ago, said a 2002 Romney staffer.
Back in 2002, “if anything, Romney was open for business in terms of what his positions should be on an issue or the particular issue of the day,” the adviser said. But Fehrnstrom could not bring himself to challenge Romney's shifting positions. “He was too much of a true believer to me,” the adviser added. “Political operatives owed it to the candidate to be brutally honest about things. … Eric was very much the placater for Romney.”
Fehrnstrom's faith in Romney could also come across as arrogance, especially in the primaries, where Romney faced other Republicans. Before the 2008 Iowa caucus, Fehrnstrom caricatured Gov. Mike Huckabee's supporters as "a loose confederation of fair-taxers, and home-schoolers, and Bible-study members," according to Michael Kranish and Scott Helman's authoritative biography, "The Real Romney." Fehrnstrom went on to dismiss Huckabee's grassroots operation as unsophisticated and cheap, a series of dull outings to a pizza chain or barber shop.
"I have a theory about why Mike Huckabee holds public events in Iowa like getting a haircut or going jogging. ... It's because he doesn't have the infrastructure to plan events for him," Fehrnstrom said. "And when he does do events in Iowa, he goes to the Pizza Ranch where you have a built-in crowd, so you don't have to make calls to turn people out. We're very proud of the organization we have built in Iowa."
Fehrnstrom seemed oblivious to the insult he was leveling at the same voters Romney needed to win. A few days later, those same Bible study members handed Huckabee a nine-point victory, sending Romney's campaign into a tailspin.
In New Hampshire, Bruce Keough, the chairman of Romney's statewide campaign in '08, took issue with Fehrnstrom and Romney's dynamic. On the road, Romney and Fehrnstrom were like a two-man bubble. Keough, who supported former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the 2012 primary, sounded off in "The Real Romney." "His preference in traveling between events in New Hampshire was to be alone with Eric in the car and not use those gaps in his schedule as opportunity" to educate himself on state issues, Keough complained. "And I thought it was curious."
Romney bowed out of the 2008 primary in early February. Fehrnstrom was with him until the bitter end.
But those car rides were good for something. Jamie Burnett, Romney's New Hampshire political director in 2008, said it was clear Fehrnstrom had a deep institutional knowledge of the candidate. And trust. "He was with the governor all the time," Burnett recalled.
In this election cycle, Fehrnstrom has assumed not just a prominent role, but a lucrative one. He has a stake in American Rambler Productions, a consulting firm that oversees media buys for the Romney campaign and takes a cut of the money spent. So far, the Romney team has made American Rambler its top outside vendor in fees paid -- funneling more than $40 million to the company through July.
"It says that he's a key player in the race," Shrum explained. "Maybe the key player."
In the first presidential election of the Citizens United era, American campaigning, already harsh, is taking an even sharper turn. Forget swift boats. There are now armadas. While Romney continues to hammer away on the surface about the ballooning deficit and steep job losses, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by his campaign and its Super PAC surrogates with the goal of obliterating a president. It's a time tailored for a tabloid man.
Every morning, the Romney campaign begins with Fehrnstrom. He leads a conference call that includes Romney and the rest of the senior staff.
"Everyone from top to bottom in the organization respects and places great value on Eric's intellect, his instincts and the loyalty he has for the governor and the team," wrote Romney adviser Kevin Madden in an email. "The nature of campaigns is that you have a lot of folks involved with day-to-day operations who are relatively new. Eric has been working with the governor for a long time and knows him well, so oftentimes he helps mold everyone together."
Ever since the campaign shook its Etch A Sketch and pivoted to the general election, Fehrnstrom's tactics can be felt at a granular level -- from the campaign bus honking outside Obama events to Romney's stunt press conference in front of Solyndra during the federal contracting brouhaha involving the energy company.
For all of his dexterity in spinning minor events into major distractions, however, Fehrnstrom can just as easily be the Romney campaign's own dust cloud.
In early June, as Romney worked hard to chip away at Obama's advantage among women voters, Fehrnstrom went on live TV and dismissed women's health and reproductive rights as "shiny objects," intended by Democrats to "distract people's attention" from economic issues.
Sometimes, Fehrnstrom appears to create and hype conflict for sport. It's not uncommon for him to take swipes at Obama strategist David Axelrod on Twitter for no apparent strategic reason. In late April, he tweeted to Axelrod: "You can't run on record, so you try scaring people into voting against opponent. Stephen King would be jealous." After Axelrod was booed at a campaign event in Boston, Fehrnstrom referred to the May 31 incident on Twitter as a "Boston Massacre."
When the crowd at a Boston fundraiser jeered Obama for teasing them about Red Sox favorite Kevin Youkilis being traded to the president's beloved Chicago White Sox, Fehrnstrom quickly jumped on the non-controversy, whipping it into a one-day story just like his old tabloid days. In his hands, the White House's reaction was an evasion. "Will White House order a change in official transcript that says Boston crowd booed Obama's Red Sox comments?" he tweeted on June 26.
The White House was paying attention. Fehrnstrom's public needling paid off when the president's spokesman, Jay Carney, was forced to weigh in. “Anyone who knows Boston knows the Red Sox, and anyone who was in that room last night knows that the preponderance of people shouting … were saying ‘Yoooook’ and not ‘Booo’ for God’s sake,” Carney told reporters during his daily press conference.
Fehrnstrom had won another day.