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Joan Vennochi

Romney's unpardonable offense

Email|Print| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
January 3, 2008

MIKE HUCKABEE got this one right.

Mitt Romney never lets facts get in the way of political self-interest, even when the facts involve a decorated Iraq war veteran seeking a pardon.

At age 13, Anthony Circosta shot a classmate in the shoulder with a BB gun. He pleaded guilty in juvenile court to a felony assault and was sentenced to 364 days of probation. From then on, Circosta's life was apparently exemplary. He enlisted in the Army National Guard as a medic, served as a volunteer fireman, and earned a college degree in criminal justice. In 2002, he served as a National Guard medic at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which Romney headed. Deployed to Iraq in 2004, Circosta was promoted to first lieutenant and awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service.

Circosta needed a gun permit in Massachusetts to gain promotion as a security guard and pursue a career as a police officer. But, to get the permit, Circosta first needed to have his record cleared of a childhood felony. He told the pardon advisory board the childhood incident was not his proudest moment, "but it happened." He moved his life beyond it.

Twice, the Massachusetts clemency board recommended a pardon. Twice, then-Governor Romney declined to grant it.

Huckabee has been telling Circosta's story on the campaign trail to illustrate Romney's penchant for political calculation over human compassion.

Romney is spending millions on ads attacking Huckabee for the opposite. The former Arkansas governor granted clemency requests 1,033 times during his years in office, from 1996 to 2007. In some cases, Huckabee reduced the sentences of convicted murderers, leading to tough and legitimate questions about his judgment.

The ordained Baptist minister is explaining those decisions in the context of a belief in the power of rehabilitation. He also tells voters that the majority of cases involved people with minor offenses who needed pardons to get a job. And, by raising the Circosta case, Huckabee is trying to turn the issue into a question of Romney's judgment. What's worse? Being soft on crime or being soft on justice?

In response, Romney said he followed his own guideline against pardoning firearm-related offenses if the applicant needed a pardon to obtain a gun permit. Apparently, this guideline left no room for discretion in the case of a 13-year-old middle school student who shot a BB gun at boys cutting through his apartment complex.

Romney also said his decision not to pardon Circosta reflects a desire "to make sure that I erred on the side of protecting the public."

However, the Mitt Detector suspects an even stronger desire to put a tough-on-crime face on Romney's bid to become the Republican presidential nominee. The same forces led Romney to similar, well-documented pivots to the right on abortion, gay rights, gun control and immigration.

A soft-on-crime label is never a plus in presidential politics. Michael Dukakis was greatly harmed by the charge during the 1988 presidential campaign, when he was held accountable after a convicted murderer released via a Massachusetts furlough program raped a Maryland woman.

Ironically, Romney withstood a recent demand for similar accountability. Daniel Tavares Jr., a Massachusetts man imprisoned for killing his mother, was released on personal recognizance by a Romney-appointed judge and subsequently charged with killing a newlywed couple in Washington state. Romney ducked culpability by blaming the system, even though as governor, he ignored recommendations that could have made a difference in Tavares's case.

Huckabee has plenty of weaknesses, including some aspects of his record as governor; a lack of experience in foreign affairs; and undue enthusiasm for mixing politics with religion. But his candor and ability to connect with average voters lifted him beyond expectations and his own limitations. He is a threat to Romney in Iowa, at least on paper; the truth will finally come out today at the caucuses.

In the long run, the real threat to Romney comes from Huckabee's instinctive understanding of his rival's weaknesses and willingness to expose them. Attacked by Romney and his millions, Huckabee lashed back hard. The former governor of Arkansas may not survive past Iowa, but he is helping to paint a picture of the former governor of Massachusetts that will survive.

It's the picture of a politician who panders rather than leads at every turn, including a decorated veteran's bid for a pardon.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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