NEW ORLEANS -- Governor Mitt Romney, the newly elected vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said yesterday that his work for the organization would not take him away from Massachusetts any more than usual, even as the chair of the state Democratic Party criticized him as an absentee governor interested only in furthering his ambitions.
"He seems completely insensitive to the public reaction to this," said Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Romney's spokeswoman, Shawn Feddeman, responded sharply.
"It's important for the governor to take a leadership role in developing public policy," she said. "I would point out that Phil Johnston served in the Cabinet of Mike Dukakis, and when Mike Dukakis was chair of the Democratic Governors Association [in 1987], I don't remember Phil Johnston criticizing Mike Dukakis in that capacity."
Romney was named vice chairman of the association yesterday in a closed session at the group's annual meeting in New Orleans. Romney, who has helped raise $1 million for the association from Massachusetts companies, will have primary responsibility for collecting more donations in the coming year. The association's campaign account distributes money to Republicans running for governor.
The meeting was itself a way to raise money for the group: To attend, lobbyists, consultants, and corporations have to pay membership fees of $1,000 per person or $10,000 per company. In return, they are invited to receptions and dinners with governors and their staffs, allowing them to buttonhole state officials directly and make their cases and contacts.
The number-two spot puts Romney in line to become chairman of the association in 2006, when 36 Republican gubernatorial candidates will need the millions of dollars in donations the group doles out in election years. That position would give him plenty of political capital should he decide to run for president in 2008, a possibility he dismissed this week despite being mentioned as a possible Republican contender.
After his election yesterday, Romney said he would use the post to benefit the Bay State.
"I'm going to use my association with my fellow governors to do more for Massachusetts," he said. "To apply [their] best practices in our own state. [I want] to build a stronger relationship with the White House and the Congress, which happens to be in my party's hands to make sure we have access and influence, again to help me do my job in Massachusetts."
Romney said he would not be traveling any more than usual to fulfill those duties.
"I've spoken with the other individuals who served as vice chair and chair, and they do have a few more fund-raising calls to make, but travel is limited," he said.
After two days of meetings and receptions at the gathering, which included speeches on the 2004 election victory by Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman and another by Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove, Romney skipped a speech by Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to return to Massachusetts.
Democrats have criticized Romney, who does not draw a salary as governor, for leaving Massachusetts too often. In the fall, he stumped for President Bush in other states and in August he spent 15 of the month's 22 working days traveling. According to a survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Boston in September, 42 percent of respondents said they think Romney's trips hurt the state and 33 percent said the governor's out-of-state travels help Massachusetts.
Johnston is firmly in the former group.
"I've been around for 30 years, and I can't remember any governor traveling this much, except when Dukakis was actually running for president," he said. "He has no policy achievements within the state, so one has to believe that he intends to leave the state permanently soon, for Washington."
Romney dismissed talk of his potential as a presidential candidate earlier this week after members of a panel discussing the 2004 election raised his name as a possible contender. Rumors of higher ambitions have dogged the governor since he first decided to run for the state's top job, and his national profile -- much higher than those of recent Massachusetts governors -- has further fueled the speculation.
Romney has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to serving out all of his first term, which ends in 2006.
Earlier this month, he announced that he would not be taking a Cabinet position in the second Bush administration. He has said he expects to run for reelection, but has not committed to a second term.