George, Mitt, and HUD | Bleader

George, Mitt, and HUD

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Mitt Romney, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference last year
  • Gage Skidmore
  • Mitt Romney, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference last year
"Civil rights for African-Americans was George Romney’s lifelong, passionate cause, undertaken in defiance of his church as well as the conservative wing of his party," Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote in the New York Times Book Review Sunday. "Mitt has shown scant inclination to follow his father’s example."

Kabaservice is author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, published earlier this year. The elder Romney was chairman and president of the American Motors Corporation, then was elected governor of Michigan in 1962. "George Romney governed at a time when Republican moderation meant something," Kabaservice wrote Sunday, in the course of reviewing The Real Romney, a new book on Mitt. "He stood not only for pro-business fiscal conservatism but for civil rights and civil liberties" including "government programs to promote equal opportunities for all Americans. If his son has the courage to champion such positions in the face of conservative opposition within his party, he has given little indication of it in his campaign so far."

The same day those observations by Kabaservice were published, Mitt Romney was speaking at a private fundraiser in Florida, and some of his comments were overheard by reporters outside the event. "I’m going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them," Romney said. "Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later."

Fifty years ago—in February 1962—President John F. Kennedy proposed the creation of a cabinet-level department to coordinate federal housing programs. Many northern cities then were struggling with the influx of impoverished blacks from the south, whose poverty-related troubles were exacerbated by job discrimination and housing segregation in their new northern homes. The department JFK proposed was designed largely to combat these problems. But Kennedy made clear he'd name housing administrator Robert Weaver to lead the agency, and there was a problem with Weaver: he was black. Southern congressmen defeated the proposal in the House.

Three years later, President Lyndon Johnson renewed Kennedy's proposal for the agency, but without identifying who'd head it. In a speech to Congress in March 1965, Johnson said the department of Housing and Urban Development would be "a focal point for thought and innovations and imagination about the problem of our cities." This time the proposal passed—and then Johnson appointed Weaver secretary.

After Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he appointed as HUD secretary a man he'd beaten in the Republican primary—George Romney.

On racial desegregation, the elder Romney was more liberal than most Democrats are today. He realized that attacking segregation required targeting discriminatory government policies that trapped blacks in city ghettos. Since cities were crowded, it meant, in particular, opening the suburbs to blacks. As HUD secretary, he was outspoken on the need for desegregation. "The most explosive threat to our nation is the confrontation between the poor and the minority groups who are concentrated in the central cities, and the middle-income and affluent who live in the surrounding and separate communities," he told an association of home builders in 1970. "This confrontation is divisive. It is explosive. It must be resolved."

He cut the urban renewal funds and water and sewer grants of several suburbs who refused to accept subsidized housing. Suburbanites responded angrily to the specter of integration, and Nixon and his top aides soon saw Romney as a political liability. "George won't leave quickly, will have to be fired," Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, wrote in his diary in 1970. "So we have to set him up on the integrated housing issue and fire him on that basis to be sure we get the credit."

Because there was also political danger in firing him, Romney kept his post. But Nixon had the power. Scandals in the Federal Housing Administration—a HUD agency—had nothing to do with the desegregation push, but it gave the president cover for blocking Romney's efforts. In 1973, Nixon froze federal housing subsidies, effectively ending Romney's campaign for desegregation.

Romney resigned from HUD that year. In the 39 years since, there have been modest reductions in U.S. segregation, but in Chicago and many other cities, African-Americans still live mainly in separate and vastly inferior worlds. The main change between then and now is the indifference about the issue today—an indifference well reflected by the younger Romney's idea that HUD can simply be folded for business efficiency's sake.

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