Mitt Romney's Heartless Advice to a Woman Whose Pregnancy Might Have Killed Her
The summer of 1983 was blistering hot in New England. A record heat wave saw temperatures soar toward the 100-degree mark from June well into September. July had been the hottest month ever recorded at Boston's Logan Airport.
The region's beloved Boston Red Sox, full of hope and promise early in spring and claiming first place in the American League East as late as June 1, apparently melted in the heat, losing game after game and tumbling to last place by mid-July, where they were to remain the rest of the season.
It was also during the sweltering summer of 1983 that the family of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made its celebrated escape from the oppressive New England heat for the cooler climes of Beach O'Pines, Ontario, where the Romney family owns a beachfront cottage in a gated community on the shores of Lake Huron. Prior to departure, Mitt Romney placed the family dog—an Irish setter named Seamus—into a dog carrier and lashed it to the roof of the family's Chevy station wagon for the 12-hour drive into Canada.
The infamous dog ride (dubbed the "Seamus incident") was to become a full-blown issue in the 2012 presidential primaries, as Romney's chief Republican opponent, Rick Santorum, invoked the incident to attack Romney's "character."
Political cartoonists and late-night comedians had a field day with the story. The incident inspired aNew Yorker cover, while the punk band Devo recorded a song entitled, "Don't Roof Rack Me, Bro." ABC's Diane Sawyer, in an interview with Romney during the primaries, dubbed it the "most wounding thing in the campaign so far."
A far more ominous tale in the Romney canon also took place that summer, one that has been largely swept under the rug as the former governor of Massachusetts challenges incumbent Barack Obama for the presidency. There have been no songs written about it, no cartoons, no gags on late-night television, no magazine covers.
It was in August of that year, shortly after the Romney family returned from their vacation to Lake Huron, that a pregnant woman in her late 30s—Carrel Hilton Sheldon—was informed by her doctor that she had a life-threatening blood clot lodged in her pelvic region.
In treating the clot, Sheldon was administered an overdose of the blood thinner Heparin, an overdose that not only resulted in significant internal bleeding, but also extensive damage to her kidneys, to the point where she was on the verge of needing a transplant. Her life was clearly in peril.
Sheldon's doctor advised her that the overdose of Heparin might have also harmed her 8-week-old fetus and, given the possible fatal repercussions to her, he recommended that she abort her pregnancy.
Sheldon, a mother of four at the time (a fifth child had died as an infant), was then a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), outside of Boston. The LDS leader in Massachusetts at that time, called the "stake president," was a Harvard-trained physician, Dr. Gordon Williams, and he counseled Sheldon to follow her doctor's advice to terminate the pregnancy and protect her own life, so that she could continue caring for her four living children.
"Of course, you should have the abortion," she recalled him saying.
According to an account later written anonymously by Sheldon for the LDS women's journal,Exponent II, it was after receiving this counsel from her Williams supporting the potentially life-saving procedure that she experienced an uninvited visit in her hospital from her Mormon bishop at the time, 36-year-old Mitt Romney, who adamantly opposed the abortion.
"He regaled me with stories of his sister and her retarded child and what a blessing the child had been to the family," Sheldon wrote of the incident. "He told me that 'as your bishop, my concern is with the child.'"
Mormon congregations are called "wards" or "branches," depending on their size. There are no full-time "priests" or "ministers," as there are in most Protestant and Catholic churches, but rather lay "bishops," chosen to serve as the spiritual leaders of their wards.
Larger amalgamations of LDS churches are called "stakes," and their leaders, also lay members of the church, are called "stake presidents," something akin, according to the official LDS website, to the position of a bishop in a Catholic diocese.
By the time of his visit to Sheldon's hospital room, Romney was a rising star in Mormon circles. In the early 1970s, while completing both his MBA and his law degree at Harvard, he served in his LDS ward as a bishop's assistant, a religious instructor for teens, and as a "church elder."
In 1981, when he was only 34-years-old, he was named bishop of a ward just outside of Boston and was serving in that capacity when he confronted Sheldon about her pending abortion.
There was no empathy forthcoming from Romney, according to Sheldon, no warmth or sympathy. Moreover, Sheldon contends, Romney cast doubt on her story about the stake president's approval. He simply didn't believe her. He threatened to call him and track him down. He didn't seem to care a lick about her personal well-being.
"At a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends," Sheldon wrote, "I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection."
In essence, Romney strapped Sheldon's destiny to the hood of his Chevy and put his foot on the gas pedal, both literally and figuratively. He was so agitated about the matter that he confronted Sheldon's parents about her decision as well.
According to R.B. Scott, author of the insightful Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, Romney's only concern was for the unborn fetus. Last year, Scott, who is also a Mormon, interviewed Sheldon's 90-year-old father, Phil Hilton, who remembered the incident quite vividly.
"I have never been so upset about anything in my life," he told Scott. "[Romney] is an authoritative type fellow who thinks he is in charge of the world."
Hilton was so offended by Romney's single-mindedness and absolute lack of sensitivity to his daughter's health that he ordered the young bishop out of his home. Hilton told Scott that he was fully prepared to "throw [Romney] off the porch if he paused for even a second." Romney kept moving.
Back at the hospital, a distraught Carrel Hilton Sheldon assented to her doctor's advice and terminated her life-threatening pregnancy. She recovered from her medical crisis, moved to the West Coast, and continued to raise her four children.
And because of her ward bishop, Mitt Romney, Sheldon eventually left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, never to return. "Here I—a baptized, endowed, dedicated worker, and tithe-payer in the church—lay helpless, hurt, and frightened, trying to maintain my psychological equilibrium," Sheldon wrote, "and his concern was for the eight-week possibility in my uterus—not for me!"
When he was confronted about the incident by reporters from the Boston Globe in 1994—little more than a decade afterward—Romney claimed no memory of the incident.
""I don't have any memory of what she is referring to," Romney would later declare, "although I certainly can't say it could not have been me." It became the patterned Romney response to other conflicted moments in his life (the bullying of a classmate in prep school was a similar incident). Mormon feminists came up with a term for Romney's calculated lack of memory: "Romnesia."
"He can seem very distant, unattached at times, almost heartless," says Judith Dushku, a lifelong Mormon and an associate professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston.
Vivacious and energetic, with sparkling blue eyes and a wide range of intellectual interests, Dushku has known Mitt Romney since the early 1970s, when they were both active in the LDS. Romney later served as her ward bishop, from 1981 to 1986, and as her stake president from 1986 until 1994, when he ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate against Edward M. Kennedy.
Dushku was a close friend of Carrel Hilton Sheldon when Sheldon went through her experience with Romney.
"We were all terribly worried about her health," she says of Sheldon's close circle of women friends. "She had had severe medical difficulties, and the idea that she would carry the child to birth was terrifying to us. We loved her. We all expected that Mitt would support the decision of his ecclesiastical superior [the stake president] and when he denounced her and essentially shouted at her that she was wrong—that she was immoral and selfish—I thought, are you kidding me? I couldn't imagine that he would do that. I couldn't imagine anyone doing that."
Dushku sees a disturbing pattern in the Romney resume, one that can be traced as far back as his two years of missionary work in France, during the late 1960s.
"I don't have a sense that Mitt went on his mission to understand people, to engage them as human beings, but rather to excel in the eyes of the church," says Dushku. "It was about fulfilling an assignment, not about compassion. And that has been his modus operandi his entire life."
Raised in a Navy family that moved around the country, and a 1964 graduate of Brigham Young University, Dushku identifies herself as a "social democrat," so she and Romney have often found themselves on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to politics. That said, she describes the two of them of being "friends" in those early years in Boston, along with being Mormon brethren, although never seemingly on the same plane.
Dushku was a single mother of three at the time and, she says, Romney never seemed to be particularly comfortable in the company of unmarried Mormon mothers.
"I mean, if you were seated at a table with him and other Mormon men," she says, "you weren't likely to be included in the conversation. [Romney] thought that any woman that wasn't married to someone who can support them, who wasn't following church tradition in that respect, was just almost too unusual to consider in any collegial way."
Perhaps no other woman in the country—a feminist Mormon who has known Romney for nearly 40 years and who practiced in the LDS Church of Massachusetts while Romney was in various positions of church leadership there—has such a unique perspective on the Republican presidential nominee and his relationship to issues affecting women as does Dushku.
But with rare exception this campaign season—the primary anomaly being an extensive interview in Religion Dispatches with Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl—her voice has not been heard in the mainstream media as part of the cumulative cacophony defining Romney for the American electorate. In many ways, he's been issued a free pass on his record as a Mormon church leader, particularly in respect to his record on women and issues that impact their lives.
The journalistic vacuum is disturbing. In a lengthy profile of Romney appearing only a few weeks ago in the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann went through a litany of Romney's "pastoral activities" in the church: rushing over to a friend's house to help after a fire; deploying a group of Bain Capital employees to find a missing teenager; "straightening out" the "wayward son" of another stake member.
Lemann goes into great detail in an account of Romney helping a young husband apply polyurethane to his living-room floor. The spin is all in one direction. There's no reference to Sheldon or Dushku or any of the other Mormon feminists who bristled under Romney's patriarchal church leadership.
"I think some Mormons are intimidated by being put in the spotlight," Dushku says. "People are afraid to speak out against him. I know I've even felt that way. But there's another Romney that people aren't seeing—the dispassionate Romney, absolutely incapable of experiencing empathy for those in need, particularly for those who see the world differently than he does."
Tough on People
As a founder and member of the editorial board of Exponent II, Dushku had helped usher Sheldon's anonymous account of her tribulations with Romney (then unnamed) into print in 1990. So when Romney was claiming to be a proponent of choice in his 1994 Senate race against Kennedy, Dushku knew better. She publicly identified Romney as the previously unidentified ward bishop in Sheldon's chronicle of the disquieting encounter over her pregnancy.
Moreover, she directly confronted Romney about his apparent flip-flop, which she clearly believed was politically motivated. According to Dushku, Romney told her that his change of position on the issue of choice had been approved in Salt Lake City. "They told me it was OK to take such a position in a liberal state," Romney said.
Dushku was appalled. She wanted to know that Romney really believed in choice, that it wasn't a political expediency. Dushku pushed the issue and asked him about women who might be on public assistance. Romney said he could never support the state providing for an abortion.
Dushku explained to him that for a lot of women, that position wouldn't work. Romney grew irritated with her. She pressed him again on the issue of Mormon women who had been excommunicated by the church for their feminists positions. Romney indicated he would not challenge any church decisions about excommunication. He got up to leave, declaring abruptly, "I don't think we have much to talk about."
In an interview with the Globe about Romney's Senate candidacy shortly before Election Day, Dushku acknowledged that while Romney could be "charismatic and inspirational," he could also be "dismissive" of those less privileged than him. She described him as a man who was "used to having his way." He could be "very pleasant," she noted, but at times of conflict, "he can be very tough on people."
As a self-described "Mormon feminist," Dushku had clearly grated Romney for a long time. Mormon women were expected to stay in their home—to be seen, not heard in the realm of public affairs—focusing on their families and children.
According to church prophets, women have "three principal attributes or qualities: namely, the power to bear; the ability to rear, [and] the gift to love." Most of the LDS leadership and the Romney family clearly adhered to those principles. When Dushku was organizing the Exponent II movement within the church, Mitt Romney's wife, Ann Romney, had was invited to participate but did not attend. She wasn't considered to be that "type of Mormon woman."
Dushku had her own disconcerting encounter with Romney in 1993 that, she says, "shook me up and hurt me greatly."
In spite of her lifelong commitment to feminism and her left-leaning politics, Dushku was (and remains) spiritually committed to the church and to the greater LDS community. She has had her disagreements with many of the church's teachings and many of its practices—particularly as they relate to women—but she found a spiritual comfort in the church that persists to this day.
"I'm so touched and motivated by the basic Christian teachings that I learned all of my life in the Mormon church, that that's the language that reaches me the most deeply," she acknowledged in a 2007 interview with the investigative journalist Susan Mazur, an expert on Mormon polygamy cults. "I deeply value my membership and participation in the church. It is central to my life."
A year prior to Romney's Senate campaign, Dushku sought church permission to make a pilgrimage to the ornate LDS Washington, D.C., Temple (actually located in Kensington, Maryland).
She had wanted to "receive her endowment," a sacred ritual in which Mormons pledge their allegiance to God and their faithfulness to the church. Until recently, Mormons not married to a church member were not allowed to enter an LDS temple. Dushku had never been allowed to enter a temple before—anywhere—and she wanted to "affirm her faith." Her request required approval from both her bishop and, ultimately, her stake president, Mitt Romney.
After meeting with her bishop and one of Romney's counselors (she described the interviews as "lovely" and "affirming"), she went to meet with Romney, who, she said, was confrontational and contemptuous from the start.
In an account she gave to Michael Kranish and Scott Helman for their book The Real Romney (an edited excerpt of which appeared in the February 2012 issue of Vanity Fair), Dushku claims that Romney said something to the effect that "I suspect, if you've gotten through both of the interviews, there's nothing I can do to keep you from going to the temple."
Dushku was startled that Romney would have the slightest interest in keeping her from making her sojourn. In fact, she says, he questioned her allegiance to the LDS religion.
"I just don't understand why you stay in the church," he said. She asked Romney if he really wanted to engage her in such a discussion. "No, actually," he replied. "I don't understand it, but I also don't care. I don't care why you do. But I can tell you one thing: you're not my kind of Mormon."
With that, Dushku recalls, Romney signed her papers and rather "dismissively" bid her adieu. She had come to Romney, in spite of their political differences, as an LDS spiritual leader and was hoping her enthusiasm to visit the temple would be met by Romney on an equal plane. Instead, Dushku told Kranish and Helman, that she felt like she had been "kicked in the stomach."
There was yet another problematic incident that took place during Romney's tenure as ward bishop, in 1984, involving another Mormon woman, Peggie Hayes. This story also first came to light a decade later during Romney's run for the Senate, when it was first reported in the Boston Globe.
Then 24 and active in the LDS church where Romney served as ward bishop, Hayes was a divorced, single mother of a 3-year-old daughter, living in the Boston area after having bounced around from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles and then back to New England.
Her family had been close to the Romneys—she says that she served as a babysitter for the Romney children when she was a teenager—and she trusted Mitt Romney as a friend and mentor, even as a "father figure." When she was in high school, she recalls, Romney even offered her advice on dating.
In the winter of 1984, Hayes had recently given birth to a son, Dane, when Romney visited her home in the blue-collar neighborhood of Somerville. The Romneys had been good to Hayes, she says, hiring her to help clean their basement and then urging other friends to help her find odd jobs. She was expecting more of the same type of support during Romney's visit.
Instead she was "shocked" by what she heard. According to Hayes, Romney "pressured" her to give her son up for adoption through an LDS agency. At first, she thought she had misunderstood him, but much to her horror, she hadn't.
"[Romney] told me it was really important to give the baby up," Hayes said in her original interview with Globe reporters Frank Phillips and Scot Lehigh nearly two decades ago. "He told me he was a representative of the church and by refusing I was failing to comply with the church's wishes and I could be excommunicated."
Hayes took Romney's admonition as a threat. She felt attacked, even intimidated. Moreover, it was insulting: "He was saying that because Dane [her son] didn't have a Mormon father in the home and because of the circumstances of his birth—being born to a single mother—then the expectation of the church was that I give him up for adoption to the church agency so he could be raised by a Mormon couple in good standing."
There was an additional, racial component to the story that has never been reported. Hayes' first child, a girl, was African American on her father's side. "No one ever asked me to give her up for adoption," Hayes said. "They wanted my son because he was a white male who could grow up and be a member of the Mormon priesthood."
It wasn't until 1978 that the LDS Church finally lifted its ban on black men from serving in the Mormon priesthood. "I want to make it clear that I don't think Mitt was a racist," Hayes said in an interview this past week. "But the church was, and remains, a racist institution. And had my son been black, like my daughter, there wouldn't have been this push for adoption."
At the time, Romney issued a formal statement through his campaign organization acknowledging his adoption advice. "This was Peggie's second child," he declared. "At the time, Peggie was not working, had no visible means of support and was living on welfare. She was also a member of a family that had had severe problems in many different ways which, to protect Peggies's privacy, I will not go into in this statement." According to Phillips and Lehigh, Romney strongly denied any threats of excommunication and pointed out that while Hayes had rejected his advice, she remained in the church.
A close friend of Hayes, along with her aunt, however, backed up the story. "I told them what happened the very next day," says Hayes. "This wasn't something that came up later. There were other women in the church who were told the same thing," she says. "The sin was not about having the baby. The sin was not listening to the prophecy of the church."
Hayes acknowledges that there were "family issues" at the time of the incident, but bristles at the way that Romney referenced them in the press. "If I was so unfit to be a mother," she asks, "why was it OK for me to be around his sons, to babysit them, to work at their home?"
LDS officials in Salt Lake City also issued a formal announcement at the time, stating that Mormon policy dictates that unwed parents who are unable or unwilling to marry "should be encouraged to place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS social services," the official church social services agency. "Placing the infant for adoption through LDS Social Services helps ensure that the baby will be reared in a faithful Latter-day Saint family."
Romney, who was trying to position himself as a "social moderate" in one of the most liberal states in the union, was clearly irritated by both the Hayes and Sheldon revelations finding their way into the media.
In their initial reporting on the incidents, Phillips and Lehigh included a revelatory caveat about Romney's response to the charges. "While some of his actions as a church leader appear to contradict the image he is projecting as a candidate," they noted, "Romney says he was only carrying out the policies set by church elders. He has repeatedly said that, if elected, his church views would not affect public issues." (Emphasis added.) Romney was trying to distance himself from the church—and from his own record as a leader in it—as early as 1994.
Hayes didn't buy Romney's explanation then, and she doesn't buy it today. "If he was so married to the church policies then," she asks, "how is he going to shut it off if he's president?"
According to Hayes, Romney called her directly in 1994 when the story was about to break and asked her if she'd be willing to talk. Her son was about 10 at the time. She says that they spoke for about "an hour and a half." Romney, she said, "never got her name right once" in the entire conversation.
Hayes, who eventually completed her master's degree at Emerson College and today serves as Coordinator of Volunteers for the Watertown Free Public Library outside of Boston, says that "I made absolutely the best decision for that kid. He is a wonderful kid, and he loves being with me. If there is a God, I think the last thing he would have wanted is for me to give my son away just on somebody else's decision."
Hayes says that she and her son, now working as an electrician in Salt Lake City (and is not a member of the LDS Church), have "an extremely close" bond. "When I'm with my son," she says, "I know who I am. He didn't belong anywhere but with me."
When he was still an infant, Hayes says, her son needed special surgery. "I called [Romney] to come to the hospital and asked him for his blessings. He was still our bishop, our spiritual leader. He didn't come to the hospital to check up on me or my son when he was sick," says Hayes. "He sent somebody else, two people I didn't even know. That's because he didn't really care. I was really reaching out, and for him not to come, well, that was really hurtful. Once I didn't adhere to his dictates and the dictates of the church, he was done with me and my son."
And Hayes was done with the church. She, too, like Carrel Hilton Sheldon a year earlier, eventually dropped out of the church. "My son was a gift to me," she says. "And there was simply no way the church was going to take him."
These stories involving Mormon women of different age and different status in the church community—and all taking place when Romney was in a hierarchical (and, indeed, patriarchal) position of power over them—form an alarming, composite pattern of Romney's leadership career for more than a decade in the LDS Church.
"Romney just doesn't have any sensitivity to women's issues in general," says Dushku. "But even more than that, he genuinely believes he's always right, that he's never made a mistake. He can never say, 'I might have made a mistake, I didn't understand that.' In Mitt's view, no one else has anything else to offer. He's always right."
Romney—and Republicans in general—are experiencing a significant gender gap at the polls this election season, with the most recent poll conducted by the YWCA indicating that Obama is leading Romney by 49-31 percent with women voters. In respect to issues that most directly impact women, this should come as no surprise.
"Although Romney once supported Planned Parenthood and other services for women," says Linda Bergthold, Ph. D., a national health policy consultant based in California and a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, "he is more recently on record saying he would shut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a program that serves millions of women in every state. He has also said he would support the overturn of Roe v. Wade and, if elected, would likely appoint a Supreme Court judge who shares that position. He has no record of support for equal pay for women or paid family leave, issues of major importance to women. He belongs to a political party whose base wants to cut Medicaid, a program that serves poor women, children and elderly in nursing homes, by a third over the next 10 years."
As Republicans gathered in Tampa to coronate Romney as their nominee, several Republican speakers mocked the Obama slogan of "Forward," calling instead, as noted by Rebecca Traister, Salon columnist and author of Big Girls Don't Cry, for a "moment back in time" when "only a select few—the white, the male, the straight, the Protestant—could reasonably expect to exert political or financial or social or sexual power."
In word and deed, Traister observed, Republicans "have been telegraphing their hope to return us to a moment not just before Roe, but before the birth-control pill, before the sexual revolution, before second-wave feminism hammered pesky terms like 'harassment' and 'equal pay' into our lexicon, to a moment when women's bodies and sexuality and identities were men's to define, patrol and violate at will." Romney, it would appear, is the perfect Republican candidate to bring us back to that patriarchal future.
Of course, one could argue that Romney's backward-looking view of the world is not limited exclusively to women's issues. In respect to economic policies, he would clearly like to revert to the days before workplace safety mandates, the progressive income tax, the right of workers to organize and regulatory controls of financial institutions.
His doubletalk at the first presidential debate last week in Denver about his various economic proposals—many of which directly contradict previous statements he has made—only help to underscore what Dushku has called his "capacity for duplicity" and "his lack of a moral center."
When Romney uttered his now-immortal comments at a Republican fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, about 47 percent of Americans being "victims" who think "that government has the responsibility to care for them," Dushku says that we were seeing the "real Romney."
"He sees other people in need as lazy and slackers," Dushku notes. "He doesn't acknowledge that the path he took was a privileged path, from his parents, that gave him distinct advantages."
Romney likes to say that his controversial role at Bain Capital was to "help out" other companies or "assist them" or "provide business expertise." It's a narrative that completely obfuscates the role that Romney and Bain were actually executing with their leveraged buyouts. Romney & Co. were corporate pirates—nothing more and nothing less—in the worst sense of the term.
In what has been the most important work of investigative journalism dealing with Romney's real record at Bain Capital (Rolling Stone, Aug. 29), Matt Taibbi described Bain's business practices as being driven by a "make-nothing, take-everything, screw-everyone ethos" and Romney himself as a "Gordon GekkoÃ‰without the PR."
Taibii chronicled a sordid history of Bain takeovers in which Romney saddled the companies with huge debt payments, leaving others holding the bag. "In the past few decades," Taibbi asserted, "Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth."
Of course, many of the victims of Romney's corporate raiders were women—clerical workers and mid-level administrators and line workers—whose jobs were vulnerable when Bain plundered them for profits. Romney's leadership team at Bain—like the national LDS leadership—was all-white and all-male.
In whatever he does—whether it be at Bain or with his work as head of the Olympics or most notably in his run for the presidency—Romney casts himself as a white knight in shining armor coming to the rescue: of a failing business, of the Olympics, of the national economy. But his real record at Bain thoroughly contradicts the narrative of him being a so-called "turnaround specialist."
As Taibbi notes, "In the Bain model, the actual turnaround isn't necessary. It's just a cover story." Huge cash returns are extracted on Bain's behalf, Taibbi noted, "whether the captured firm thrives or not."
The Republican presidential nominee was effective at Bain, Taibbi concludes, but not in the way that he and his inner sanctum tout. "Romney is the front man and apostle of an economic revolution," Taibbi concludes, "in which transactions are manufactured instead of products, wealth is generated without accompanying prosperity, and Cayman Islands partnerships are lovingly erected and nurtured while American communities fall apart."
"He sees it as simply a job that a venture capitalist does," says Dushku. "When a venture fails, when a corporation goes under, there's no guilt. No compassion. He simply sees it as a job. Because he doesn't understand what it means to be out of work, again, no sympathy nor empathy. 'I put them out of work, no problem.' He completely trusts that the private sector is going to serve as the ultimate safety net, that the market will serve as the corrective. And as we all know, it doesn't work that way."
Earlier this year, Dushku's daughter, the actress Eliza Dushku (of television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame), got cornered at a benefit dinner by a reporter for New York Magazine and was queried about her family relationship with the Romneys.
"I mean, he went from being my first crush at 6 years old," Eliza Dushku recalled, "and then when I was old enough to hear what was coming out of his mouth, it was over. I'm sure he's a nice guy. I knew him to be a nice person, to those around him. He had five sons that I knew, that my brothers would play with growing up, and they were kind to others. But what they stand for I don't find to be tolerant or just."
The resulting headline declared, of course, "Eliza Dushku Recalls Her Childhood Crush on Mitt Romney"—and her more critical position about tolerance and justice was buried beneath the focus on the "crush."
Her mother, Judith, says that her daughter received little LDS criticism for her comments (although some were certainly published at various places online), largely because Eliza is dismissed as a nonpracticing member of the church. "Mormons circle the wagons," the elder Dushku says, "and you're either inside the circle or you're not. It's a very insular community."
Judith Dushku has been the victim of such circling throughout the years and has been specifically targeted by Mitt Romney. After his loss to Ted Kennedy in the Massachusetts Senate race, Dushku went up to Romney to congratulate him on running a competitive campaign.
Dushku says that while Romney "didn't say anything really nasty," his displeasure with her was bristling at the surface. "He told me he was angry with me and didn't ever want to talk to me again," Dushku recalls. She was taken aback by his response. She thought that in spite of their political differences, that they could at least remain cordial. "No," Romney said, "that isn't possible."
Eight years later, following Romney's victory in the Massachusetts governor's race (during which Dushku had once again been a vocal Romney critic), LDS leaders quietly redrew the Boston-area church districts so that Romney and Dushku were no longer in the same ward. According to Romney's biographer R.B. Scott, the maneuver became known as the "Dushku gerrymander," and the Romneys were now free from encountering Dushku at their place of worship.
Dushku says she never knew about the purpose of the redistricting, but she didn't seem disturbed by the outcome. "That way we both didn't have to see each other," she says wryly.
Place of Privelege
The LDS church claims to be apolitical, asserting that "the church does not endorse political parties or candidates, nor does it permit the use of its buildings for political purposes. The church does not participate in politics unless there is a moral question at issue, in which case the church will often speak out."
But the church drew the ire of many—both inside and outside LDS community—in 2008 when it strongly supported the passage of Proposition 8 in California opposing gay marriage, and during the 1970s and 1980s, it served as a bastion for opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Church leadership has also come to Romney's defense whenever he has been criticized for adhering to LDS policies or principals.
In recent weeks, David Twede, a fifth-generation Mormon who has posted several blogs critical of Romney at MormonThink.com, was threatened with excommunication by his ward bishop and stake president in Orlando, Florida, for "apostasy." While his disciplinary hearing was rescheduled for a "later date," Twede says that he was told by church leaders to "cease and desist" his criticisms of Romney.
On the other hand, Mona Williams, an LDS member from Price, Utah, sent out an email to fellow church members that went viral in the LDS community and that urged Mormons to fast and pray for Romney on the Sunday prior to the first presidential debates.
"I know that seems like such a small thing," Williams wrote, "but I believe 'from small things, great things can come about.' I know that fasting and praying brings about miracles."
Romney's fellow Mormon, Glenn Beck, the controversial right-wing talk radio host, speculated about a Romney victory at the polls by noting, "I think God is trying to make this so clear to us that, if it happens, it's His finger."
Dushku says she's not surprised by the support inside the church for Romney's candidacy. "He's pushing the church into the mainstream," she says, "and that's something they've always wanted. In that sense, it's affirming."
But she also thinks she speaks for many Mormons, particularly women, when she says, "He's simply not one of us. I really think a lot of Mormon women feel that way."
Last week, as Dushku watched the first of the presidential debates, she saw a competent, even "slick" politician sparring with President Obama, but she also witnessed someone who is a political chameleon.
"He's not a man who has anything like a moral core," she says. "He's very loyal to the Mormon church, pays his tithing, is faithful to his wife, and so on, but he doesn't have a set of core values you can count on. I've known him for nearly 40 years. He may have a different suit on, but he hasn't changed. His experience hasn't changed. His performance was very consistent with the Mitt I knew back then. He can't relate to average working women—teachers and nurses and care givers. He's still coming from a place of privilege and entitlement."
Peggie Hayes—who doesn't know Dushku—concurs with her assessment. The prospect of Romney becoming president, she says, "is a horrible idea. It would be terrible." She says Romney's recent positioning as a moderate "is a mask."
"I've known him since I was 13," she says. The Mormon leader who tried to impose church doctrine on her when she was experiencing some difficult challenges in her life hasn't changed. "Not a bit. That's exactly who he was," she declared. "And that's exactly who he is."