Presidential debate 101: Where did Romney get those 'binders full of women'?

Mitt Romney misspoke at the presidential debate when he said he'd asked women's groups to help find qualified women for top Massachusetts jobs. In fact, they initiated the binders. But Romney did use them – and did appoint more women to leadership positions than other governors.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney walks with comedian Dennis Miller (l.) and senior adviser Barbara Comstock before boarding his campaign plane in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., Wednesday, after Tuesday's presidential debate with President Obama.
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As governor of Massachusetts, did Mitt Romney assemble binders full of female candidates for appointive state jobs?

This question arises, of course, because of an unusual moment from Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York. Asked a question about his position on pay equity for women, Mr. Romney zigged and talked about encouraging gender equity in Bay State government jobs after he won the governor’s chair in 2002.

“I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men,” said Romney on Tuesday. “And I went to my staff and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are all men?’ ”

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After his staff said the résumés reflected people with qualifications for the posts in question, Romney pushed them to expand their search, according to his debate-night account.

“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ ” said Romney. “And [they] brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”

Now, we’re not going to evaluate “women in binders” as an Internet meme that’s got Twitter in a twist. Lots of other people have done that. Nor are we going to talk about the political importance of the women’s vote in general.

Instead we’re going to try to evaluate what’s known about those binders. Because they were real.

Romney wasn’t the driving force behind their compilation, however. He misspoke about that. Instead, the instigator here was a nonprofit group called the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, or “MassGAP” for short.

MassGAP is a nonpartisan coalition of 25 women’s groups dedicated to what it sees as the underrepresentation of women in top appointed jobs in Massachusetts government, according to its website. In 2002, it approached the gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Shannon O’Brien and asked them to commit to a series of steps intended to boost female representation in top ranks.

“Both campaigns made a commitment to this process,” according to a MassGAP statement on the “binders” brouhaha.

After Romney won, MassGAP set up committees for each post in the new administration, and recruited and interviewed potential female applicants. It compiled this information in binders and sent it along to Romney’s transition team. You can even see a picture of one of them at the link for the MassGAP statement, above.

“To be perfectly clear, Mitt Romney did not request those résumés,” said Jesse Mermell, former MassGAP executive director, during a conference call arranged by the Democratic Party.

But he did use them. He reached out to business contacts for possible female appointees, as well, said his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, in an Associated Press interview. Before the 2002 vote, women accounted for about 30 percent of appointed senior-level Massachusetts government positions. By 2004, 42 percent of new Romney appointments were women, according to MassGAP.

And Romney’s right that a 2004 study by the State University of New York found Massachusetts to be first in the nation in the percentage of women in top government jobs.

That study might be a bit misleading in that the overall numbers of appointive positions in the Bay State are quite small compared to, say, California, or New York itself. The total number of women at the top in these states’ governments was quite likely larger, even if the percentage of women was smaller.

And Romney’s appointment of women to open posts declined as his term went along. From 2004 to 2006, the percentage of newly appointed women in senior jobs dropped to 25 percent, according to MassGAP figures.

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