independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

The unseen Irishman behind Mitt Romney's new surge for victory

Not many people in America have heard of Peter G Flaherty II. And to this quiet and unassuming Irishman, that's exactly how it should be.

If Mitt Romney wins the presidential election next month, observers say it may all be down to the deft political handling of the soft-spoken lawyer from Boston, one of the most important members of the Romney campaign, and a leading light in the Irish-American community.

Hailed recently by The New York Times as Mr Romney's "unseen but crucial weapon" in his fight for the White House, Flaherty has been given one of the most important jobs of the campaign: stealing away the Catholic vote from Barack Obama and winning over religious conservatives who remain deeply suspicious of Romney's Mormon roots.

A devout Irish-American Catholic who keeps a statue of the Virgin Mary on his desk, Flaherty's quiet determination has already reaped significant rewards. During the bitter fight for the Republican presidential nomination, it was Flaherty who persuaded five former ambassadors to the Vatican to publicly back Romney over his Catholic rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

It was also Flaherty's quiet diplomacy that scored a secret meeting between his boss and the influential Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy M Dolan in Manhattan last April. That meeting led to Dolan -- arguably the most powerful man in the American Catholic church -- accepting an invitation to deliver the closing prayer at the Republican National Convention in August, a massive coup for Romney who is aggressively pursuing every Catholic vote he can get.

'We're going to have outreach to Catholics in a co-ordinated, organised effort -- state by state, diocese by diocese, parish by parish and pew by pew," Flaherty told The New York Times.

American Catholics make up about a quarter of the electorate and a recent poll showed Mitt Romney with a slight lead among registered voters who are Catholic. Some political pundits point out that in the past 40 years the presidential candidate who won the Catholic vote has also won the popular vote.

The son of an Irish-American lawyer and nurse, Flaherty (47) has lived his entire life within the Irish hub of Boston and now lives less than three miles from Romney's luxurious town home in the quaint suburb of Belmont.

A devoted father of three, Flaherty is married to a school teacher, Jen, and loves spending time with his family, coaching his son's basketball and little league baseball teams and taking them out for burgers and hotdogs at a cheap local joint in South Boston on weekends.

Family to Flaherty is everything. And despite his devout Catholic beliefs he sees inspiration in his Mormon boss's faith and values. "I think [Mitt is] always happiest when Ann is around him," Flaherty said. " Pope John Paul II said: 'As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.' Mitt sets a wonderful example for a young father like me."

It was Flaherty's own tragic family past that led him into public service. When he was just seven years old, his aunt, Eileen Gill, was murdered in broad daylight in Boston by a spurned suitor.

The incident deeply affected the young boy who vowed that when he grew up he would "go after the bad guys".

Working as a clerk during the day and taking a law degree at night, Flaherty went on to become a public prosecutor, specialising in murder cases and forging close bonds with the families of the victims. His aunt Eileen was a constant source of inspiration: "I always kept my aunt's murder at the back of my mind," he said.

Despite his aggressive reputation as a prosecutor in the courtroom, Flaherty has used a velvet-glove approach on the campaign trail for Romney, universally liked by both sides of the political aisle as a genuinely 'nice guy'.

"He's the St Francis type," his brother Michael said recently. "He always has a smile on his face. He's unbelievably generous. He's the first guy people call when they're down."

Soft-spoken and extremely mild-mannered -- a rarity in American politics -- Flaherty is known to disarm political foes by beginning conversations with cheerful updates about his three young children Peter, William and Matthew. Those who have been wooed by Flaherty say he never goes for the hard sell, preferring instead to request that they "keep us in mind" and reminding potential supporters that the Romney campaign's "doors are always open".

And careful to remain in the shadows, he keeps a safe distance from the press and photographers, rarely granting interviews and remaining the ultimate backroom operator.

But behind Flaherty's do-goody image and low key approach is a man propelled by a deeply conservative mission. Some critics charge that Romney, who has faced years of accusations that he has flip-flopped on various issues -- most especially on abortion -- reached some of these dramatic reversals with the help of Peter Flaherty.

Take Romney's decision to come out publicly against stem-cell research in 2004; the governor honed these views after weeks of discussions and briefings with Flaherty, who arranged for two Harvard researchers to brief Romney on their embryonic research work. Soon after this meeting in November 2004 Romney came out against stem-cell research. Months later, he reversed his views on abortion.

This dramatic turnaround on abortion by Romney has alarmed some commentators who don't buy that Romney is the new right- wing social conservative he's claiming to be.

Some years back, Flaherty was cornered at Princeton University by a group of opinion-makers and commentators who were eager to dissect Romney's evolution from moderate to conservative. What was the deal? Was this guy for real, they wanted to know?

But according to those present, the quiet Irishman -- who could be the next Karl Rove or Rahm Emanuel if Romney becomes president -- was resolute in his faith that he had backed the right man.

"Obviously I've got to believe he's for real, or I wouldn't be wasting my time," he said.

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