WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney likes to talk about how his father “grew up poor.” But that’s not the whole story.
The father of the presumptive Republican nominee, George Romney, grew up in a family that suffered financial losses and enjoyed prosperity. The elder Romney pursued an upwardly mobile path to become chairman of American Motors Corp. before being elected governor of Michigan.
Mitt Romney’s reference to his father’s financial hardships provides a way to blunt perceptions that his vast personal wealth makes him insensitive to the concerns of struggling Americans. He joins a parade of politicians who have played down their wealthy pedigrees and played up their humble family roots in hopes of convincing voters they understand their concerns.
With economic concerns on the minds of most Americans, Romney and President Barack Obama already are jockeying for an edge. Obama generated a flurry of headlines last week by saying, “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.” Many viewed that as a shot at Romney despite an Obama spokesman’s denials.
On Tuesday night in Manchester, N.H., after another string of primary victories, Romney recalled the hardships his father faced growing up.
“I’ll tell you about how much I love this country, this extraordinary land, where someone like my dad, who grew up poor and never graduated from college, could pursue his dreams and work his way up to running a great car company,” Romney told the crowd. “Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car.”
George Romney was born July 8, 1907, in Chihuahua, Mexico, where his grandfather, Miles Park Romney, and other Mormons had moved to avoid persecution and U.S. laws against polygamy.
Miles Park Romney had five wives and 30 children, and fled to Mexico after passage of the 1882 Edmunson Act that barred polygamy. George Romney’s father, Gaskell Romney, did not have multiple wives.
“At 5 years old, Dad and his family were finally living pretty well. They had a nice home and a small farm, and Dad even had his own pony, called Monty,” Mitt Romney wrote in his book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”
George Romney’s father, Gaskell Romney, was a carpenter who led a prosperous life in a Mormon colony in Mexico, according to the “The Real Romney,” a book written by two Boston Globe reporters. But turmoil from the Mexican revolution later forced the Romneys and other Mormon families to flee back to the United States.
The family suddenly went from owning a large Mexican ranch to being nearly penniless, and the family moved from house to house in California, Idaho and Utah as they struggled to build a new life.
“Dad used to regale us kids with claims that one year in Idaho his family lived on nothing but potatoes — for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Mitt Romney recounted in his book.
Over time, though, Mitt’s grandfather, Gaskell Romney, became prosperous, building some of the finest homes in Salt Lake City, according to the Globe book, but along with many other Americans suffered financial setbacks during the Great Depression.
“He never took out bankruptcy, which he could have done several times,” George Romney wrote of his father, according to the Globe book.
George Romney worked as a plasterer during high school and later attended four colleges, but never graduated. He spent two years as a Mormon missionary in England and Scotland. His first exposure to politics was in 1929, as an aide in Washington, D.C., to Democratic Sen. David I. Walsh of Massachusetts.
He went on to work at ALCOA and the Aluminum Wares Association. His first job in Detroit came in 1939 when he was local manager of the Automobile Manufacturers Association.
He later became head of American Motors and Michigan’s governor. Romney gave up the governor’s office in 1969 to become secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration.
George Romney’s success ensured a more privileged path for his son, Mitt Romney, who was raised in the posh Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills and attended an elite prep school before receiving degrees from the business and law schools of Harvard University.