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Romney revamp plan seen as clever move

BOSTON — Mitt Romney, the son of a wealthy and politically successful family, became a hero for saving the Utah Winter Olympics and then sailed triumphantly to election last fall as governor of Massachusetts.

So why, many people in Massachusetts are asking, did Romney choose to begin his term as governor by picking a battle with one of the most powerful and well-connected officials in the state?

The official in this case is William M. Bulger, president of the University of Massachusetts.

The battle is over Romney's plan to reorganize the university and, perhaps coincidentally, eliminate Bulger's $309,000-a-year job as president of the statewide system. The system includes five universities and state colleges and community colleges.

Bulger, a 67-year-old Democrat, then began a counterattack, accusing Romney of "arrogance" and "a kind of elitism" in offering a plan that would privatize some of the University of Massachusetts system.

Romney has insisted that his plan is not an assault on Bulger, merely a good management proposal that will help him with his primary goal: closing a $3 billion state budget deficit.

But even a Republican lawmaker said, "The astonishing thing here is that the Romney camp has decided to conduct its legislative program without any regard to politics whatsoever." Democrats, he noted, easily dominate both houses of the state Legislature.

With this talk, many have concluded that Bulger will keep his job.

But even if the Legislature rejects Romney's proposal to eliminate Bulger's job, Romney's attack on him may have already badly wounded him. Romney could also emerge with an important victory even if the Legislature turns down his reorganization plan. His attacks on Bulger, the quintessential symbol of this city's old-style, Irish-American politics, have played well with his core Republican constituency, said a Democratic political consultant.

Aides to Bulger say that far from being politically tone deaf, Romney had a clever plan. The governor knew he could not deliver on his promise to close the deficit without raising taxes, one aide said.

So Romney "set President Bulger up as the poster child for the Legislature's unwillingness to let politics as usual die in this state," the aide said. This would then become a ready explanation for why Romney could not balance the budget without new taxes.