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A political product of the mass demonstrations against Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in early 2011, Democrat Mahlon Mitchell lost his electoral debut in the state’s historic recall elections on June 5, 2012.
But three days later, Mitchell -- defeated 53 percent to 47 percent by GOP Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch -- was hailed as a rising star at the state Democratic Party’s annual convention.
So it wasn’t surprising that Mitchell was among those chosen to criticize Republican Mitt Romney ahead of the presumptive presidential nominee’s June 18, 2012 visit to Wisconsin.
Mitchell’s line of attack: As Massachusetts governor, Romney cut millions for firefighters’ equipment. It carried extra weight because Mitchell is head of the Wisconsin firefighter union.
On June 12, 2012, Romney claimed that President Barack Obama wants to add more government jobs and said the nation doesn’t "need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers."
The same day, the Wisconsin Democratic Party issued a news release in response, quoting Mitchell and a national Democratic Party spokesman.
Mitchell claimed in the release that Romney used a line-item veto to cut "millions of dollars for firefighting equipment," including firefighters' "coats, pants, helmets and boots."
His claim was similar to one made a day earlier by an Obama campaign official and another made days later by Vice President Joe Biden.
Is Mitchell right?
Asked for evidence, Mitchell referred us to Gillian Morris, spokeswoman for Obama's re-election campaign in Wisconsin.
She cited a July 2006 veto Romney issued for line item 8000-0050 in Massachusetts’ 2007 budget, his last during his single four-year term as governor.
The item, which was restored by the legislature, provided for $2.5 million in grants to local fire departments for firefighting equipment that would "include, but is not limited to, turnout gear."
Turnout gear, said Edward Kelly, Mitchell’s counterpart with the Massachusetts firefighters union, generally includes a firefighter’s coat and pants.
That’s also how turnout gear is described by the National Fire Protection Association.
But Kelly said turnout gear could also be interpreted to include a helmet and boots. And in any case, the line item allowed local governments to spend the grant money on any type of fire safety equipment.
For context, we wondered whether Romney’s veto was indicative of his treatment of fire departments and firefighters when he was governor.
Kelly said Romney cut aid to local governments, which resulted in cuts in fire department funding and led to firefighter layoffs.
A February 2012 Boston Globe article also mentioned the aid cuts in recounting how, as governor, "Romney fiercely protected a costly and controversial perk for police officers after seeking and receiving the endorsement of the politically influential police unions."
We also contacted Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that values "free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government." He said the Romney administration generally "limited grant programs to municipalities because their view was that such programs represented a relatively unaccountable entry into local affairs."
"There was also a political principle at work," Stergios said in an email. "Resist the usual small, targeted grants to local constituencies because they opened up all kinds of political fights among those constituencies (the firefighters got a grant, so shouldn't the police officers?) and localities (Bourne, Lawrence, and Worcester all wanted grants for fire stations, why shouldn't other communities?)."
We asked Romney’s campaign for a response to Mitchell’s claim. Spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger provided a video clip of comments Romney gave in response to an interview question about his statement that the nation didn’t need more firefighters.
That had nothing to do with Mitchell’s claim, so we emailed Brandenburger again, but got no reply.
Mitchell said that as Massachusetts governor, Romney used a line-item veto to cut "millions of dollars for firefighting equipment," including firefighters' "coats, pants, helmets and boots."
In 2006, Romney vetoed $2.5 million in grants for all types of fire safety equipment, including those Mitchell cited.
We rate Mitchell’s statement True.
Wisconsin Democratic Party, Brad Woodhouse-Mahlon Mitchell news release, June 12, 2012
Salon.com, "Romney’s long assault on firefighters," June 11, 2012
Email interview, President Barack Obama Wisconsin campaign press secretary Gillian Morris, June 20, 2012
Email interview, Mitt Romney campaign spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger, June 22, 2012
Massachusetts Legislature, fiscal 2007 budget and veto actions
Gov. Mitt Romney, veto message, July 8, 2006
Obama-Biden campaign website, Vice President Joe Biden blog post, June 18, 2012
Political Transcript Wire, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter conference call transcript, June 11, 2012
Interview and email interview, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation Director of Research and Public Affairs Andrew C. Bagley, June 20 and 26, 2012
Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, "Budget monitor," Dec. 13, 2006
Interview and email interview, Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center president Noah Berger, June 25, 2012
Email interview, Pioneer Institute executive director Jim Stergios, June 26, 2012
Interview, Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts union president Edward Kelly, June 25, 2012
PolitiFact Tennessee, "Tennessee Democrats accuse Romney of saying more cops, more firemen, more teachers are not needed," June 18, 2012
CNN, "Romney on Obama: ‘Is he really that out of touch,’" June 8, 2012
National Fire Protection Association, glossary of "A reporter’s guide to fire and the NFPA"
Mitt Romney campaign, "Fox & Friends" interview, June 12, 2012
Boston Globe, "In Quinn bill debate, Romney stood by labor," Feb. 18, 2012
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