Governor Mitt Romney said yesterday he has created a special office to help faith-based groups in Massachusetts land more federal money, and he appointed his wife, Ann, to lead it.
Romney, flanked by his wife and Jim Towey, head of the White House office of faith-based initiatives, endorsed faith-based programs yesterday as a means to provide social services and said he wanted to step up the state's efforts to help religious groups and charities attract federal help.
Some 44 groups in Massachusetts received $21 million in federal funding last year, ranking Massachusetts 16th in the nation among states receiving federal faith-based initiative grants. The state has received $60 million over the last two years. Massachusetts becomes the 27th state to create a special office for the program.
Romney made the announcement as he steps up his efforts to test the presidential campaign waters. But he and some of the recipients of the grants insisted yesterday that the faith-based initiative is not related to his political future.
''This is a great love of my family for many years," Romney told a group of about 25 religious and charitable leaders, as he outlined Ann Romney's history over the past decade of working to help faith-based groups and charitable organizations seek funding.
Describing Ann Romney's unpaid job, he said she will help provide information and resources to the groups to help them navigate through the process of obtaining federal funding.
Previously, Romney had assigned a deputy chief of staff to oversee the effort.
But critics of the faith-based effort warn that Romney's move bolsters President Bush's attempt to get more federal dollars to religious organizations carrying out social services, a policy they say is eroding the traditional division between church and state.
''The Bush administration is trying to break down the church-state wall and give public money to the churches without the legal safeguards that ought to be in place," said Joe Conn, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, D.C. He said the president is aiming to scrap the safeguards that have been in place since the Roosevelt administration to prevent federal funds from being used to promote religious views.
Romney's announcement was immediately portrayed by some critics as an effort to reach out to Republican presidential voters, in this case evangelical Christians, who make up a key part of the Republican constituency.
''It is not a coincidence," said US Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Democrat from Somerville and an opponent of Bush's faith-based funding program. ''If I were running for president out of Massachusetts, maybe I would want to raise my personal religious profile."
Capuano said the move also is in line with what Romney has been doing on other issues, such as voicing a conservative stand on abortion and opposing the cloning of human embryonic stem cells for research, to portray a more conservative image than the one he cast when he was seeking votes in Massachusetts.
''It is bigger in the red states," Capuano said of the federal faith-based initiative. ''It goes along with the other things he has been doing the last several months."
The governor brushed aside any suggestion that he is attempting to appeal to the religious right, which dominates much of the Republican presidential primaries.
''This is something that all the states are involved in, Republican and Democratic," Romney told reporters yesterday after the meeting with Towey. ''It is a way of receiving federal support. I will do as governor what is in the best interest of the state. This is something we have been working on for a year and a half."
He insisted that presidential politics is not a consideration. ''I think it is impossible if every time I do something that is good for Massachusetts, you say, 'Gosh, that might help you if you want to be something more than governor,' " he said. ''Then is the answer then that I should never do anything good for Massachusetts?"
Towey dismissed the criticism of federal funding of religious groups. He said faith-based groups are prohibited from spending the money on religious activities or lobbying.
''No preaching on Uncle Sam's dollar," he said.
Still, the Bush initiative has run into strong opposition, even with the Republican controlled US Senate, which has blocked the administration's efforts to raise the funding levels.
Faith-based organizations apply directly for the federal grants, but Romney and others at yesterday's event said the state can assist groups in the application process.
Rabbi Bill Hamilton from Kehillath Israel Temple in Brookline, who worked with the United Way's local faith-based initiative under Ann Romney, said groups often got updated computers or supplies for after-school programs that target troubled youth.
Karen LaFrazia, executive director of the St. Francis House for the homeless in Chinatown, said her group is applying for federal funding to help the organization develop a job placement program for former inmates.
Romney's motives were not an issue to the religious leaders who attended yesterday's event in the governor's office.
One of the organizations, the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, has collected grants totaling more than $6 million from the White House's faith-based office in the past three years.
The group's executive director, Harold Sparrow, praised the state's close relationship with Washington, D. C.
''In a tight economy, having the capacity to teach people how to raise and access more state and federal dollars is always a good first step," said Sparrow. ''And if the state is going to work at creating an infrastructure to gain federal funds, whether it's faith-based or community-based, that's a good thing."
Romney is spending $146,000 in campaign funds on a glossy, 24-page booklet touting his record as governor that will be distributed in today's Globe.
Romney said he is following the example of other governors around the country and denied he was trying to blunt the criticism by Democrats that he has failed to accomplish any significant goals and therefore has no record on which to run for president or for reelection. He said the booklet includes cover photos of Romney with Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, and lists what he sees as the top 10 accomplishments since 2003, crediting Romney and the Legislature.
Also yesterday, Romney met with Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who refused to discuss the meeting with reporters. Romney said he spoke with Bush about the Florida governor's education initiatives.
Globe correspondent Janette Neuwahl contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at Phillips@globe.com.