Mitt Romney wasn’t always “heartless” on the issue of illegal immigration. He once hired Community Lawn Service with a Heart, the actual name of the landscaping company to which Rick Perry alluded in Tuesday’s debate. Perry was reviving the story that Romney had hired the company, which used some illegal immigrants from Guatemala, to tend the ample grounds of his Massachusetts home.
Annoyed by Romney’s charge that he is soft on illegal immigration, Perry had to dig something up to silence his opponent. This story was the best he could do. In the grand scheme of things, it is a pretty minor matter, but Perry pretended to treat it with extreme gravity, arguing that it destroys Romney’s credibility as an opponent of illegal immigration. Perry even circled back to the story, triggering some boos from the crowd.
At first Romney literally laughed off Perry’s lunge. But the fakeness of the laugh was quickly revealed by the sudden and strange loss of Romney’s customary composure. Somewhat flustered at the unexpected attack, Romney started grabbing at Perry’s shoulder and made a nerdy appeal for help to “Anderson” after Perry kept up his prepared, though poorly executed, patter.
Romney’s usually unflappable demeanor is one of his more impressive qualities, but in Tuesday’s debate he betrayed the prickliness of a perfectionist under fire. Above-the-fray aloofness would have served him better. It would have strengthened the view that his candidacy is inevitable. His defensiveness only served to raise Perry up to his level and left the impression that a long slog through the primary season with Perry may have just begun.
Apparently Romney’s old lawnmower problem still bothers him. Other prominent perfectionists have been unnerved by niggling nanny issues. For Romney it is his trivial hiring of Community Lawn Service with a Heart that still rankles. In 2006, the Boston Globe provided all hands-on-deck coverage of Romney’s lawn maintenance, even dispatching reporters to Guatemala to track down members of his old ground crew:
The Globe received a tip in July alleging that Romney was using illegal immigrants to landscape his property. Reporters then observed the lawn service workers outside Romney’s house more than a dozen times, sometimes as frequently as twice a week.
Reporters tracked down four current and former employees of the company at their homes in Chelsea and in Guatemala. All had landscaped Romney’s property while working for Community Lawn Service with a Heart, and their tenure ranged from one worker who had joined the company just a month ago to another who had worked there 10 years.
The Globe found one worker down in Guatemala who recalled that the Romneys treated him nicely. He sometimes got a “buenos dias” from the passing governor and a glass of water from his wife.
Confronted with the Globe‘s story, Romney said, “Aw, geez.” A Romney spokesman explained that the governor was ignorant of the immigration status of these workers.
The owner of the landscaping company, according to the Globe, “said he met Romney through the Mormon Church and said Romney has used his company’s services for a decade” without ever asking about the immigration status of his workers.
Perry now calls this the “height of hypocrisy,” and the Globe‘s 2006 story adopts this same tone: “Even as Romney travels the country, vowing to curb the flood of low-skilled illegal immigrants into the United States, some of those workers maintain his own yard, cutting grass, pruning shrubs, and mulching trees.”
Did Romney knowingly hire illegal immigrants? Probably not. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to care about their immigration status until the Globe nabbed him and this complicated his first presidential run. In Tuesday’s debate, he said that he contacted the landscaping company after the story came out, not to upbraid it for breaking the law but for exposing him to embarrassment: “So we went to the company, and we said, ‘Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake! I can’t have illegals!” That was perhaps Romney’s most straightforward answer of the evening.
None of this would have come back up if Romney hadn’t decided to play the hardliner against Perry on illegal immigration. The truth is that neither candidate is blameless on the issue and both look opportunistic. Is the moderate Romney really outraged that the children of illegal immigrants receive in-state tuition rates in Texas? No, but he has to pretend to be in order to tap into Tea Party support. Is Perry really outraged that Romney hired illegal immigrants to mow his lawn? No, but that was the only weapon of revenge at hand. The scuffle will likely go down as another petty and forgettable episode in the pandering sport that is American politics.