We built it together: a hand up for Mitt Romney’s family, Paul Ryan’s family, and mine

At first I didn’t think we needed another person chiming in on Mitt Romney’s latest stumble. His remarkably clueless comments dissing 47% of the country he wants to lead speak for themselves.

But when I thought more about this — and watched a different, shocking video last night — I felt I needed to connect these offensive remarks to what I see in Minneapolis, and my own life.

The tape that really blew my mind is actually 50 years old. In it, Lenore Romney, Mitt’s mom, talks about her husband George, who in 1962 was running for governor of Michigan for the first time. As she talked with rightful pride about George’s successful personal story, she casually disclosed that the Romney family was on public assistance when George first came to this country. (Watch her comments between 0:45–1:15.)

The story is that George Romney, Mitt’s dad, was born in Mexico while his parents were living there to escape religious persecution. When the Mexican Revolution broke out, George and his family moved back to the U.S. — where George’s self-made story began with what his son would call a government handout.

But it wasn’t a handout — it was a hand up, and George Romney used that hand up the ladder to build a very successful business career. He built it — but we helped.

Now let’s bring this story back to Minneapolis, where we see George Romney’s story repeated literally every day. Immigrants who escape war come to Minneapolis from places like Somalia, Liberia, Burma and Syria. Like Romney’s father, a lot of people come from Mexico, and other parts of Latin America, too.  Some go on public assistance. Some live in public housing. But when I listen to Mitt Romney, I realize that he thinks the story ends there, with generations of dependence, with people assuming the government owes them and doing nothing to help themselves.

I wish I could show him what I’ve seen in Minneapolis, because if I could, he would know how deeply, deeply wrong he is. I have met hundreds of young people doing just what George Romney did: using a hand up in tough times to become part of the American Dream. I know so many young people and young immigrants who are thriving in school, getting STEP-UP jobs, getting into college, starting their careers and beginning to pay back the country that gave them a fair shot.

Some of them have even worked in my office: Hashim Yonis may well be mayor someday, or the great leader who finally brings peace to Somalia. Alex Glaze beat incredible odds that few of us can imagine beating and is excelling at Stanford University. Myriam Demello, an amazingly talented STEP-UP intern in my office this past summer, just started at Hamline University and I predict will be on the Supreme Court someday. And all of them are the key to Minneapolis’ future and America’s future.

For the past seven years, I have held career forums every year in every public Minneapolis high school. I ask 9th graders to make firm plans to attend college and to imagine that their futures are limitless. I have heard thousands of kids talk about their futures — and never once in all that time have I heard a single young person from any background talk the way that Mitt Romney seems to believe they think. He may not think they’re going to be as successful as George Romney was, but don’t bet on it.

Mitt Romney has every reason to be tremendously proud of all that his father accomplished. But in his position, he has an obligation to understand how he got where he is, and to give others the same chance.  So does Paul Ryan.

I raise Ryan because of a part of his biography that I also just learned shows again why Romney’s comments — and the politics that Romney and Ryan practice — are so wrong. When Paul Ryan’s father died when Paul was 16, his widowed mother went back to college herself and used her Social Security survivor benefits to put Paul through college.

That rang very true to me, because that is exactly the same situation that my mother found herself in when my father died, when I was 10.

My father ran a corner drug store where he worked night and day, seven days a week, until he died of a stroke. He literally worked himself to death. My mother took over running the store, then got another job, while she put herself and her three kids through college — with the help of the Social Security survivor benefits that she also received.

My mother was not the “victim” that Romney described, and the very last thing my parents ever would have said is that the government owed them anything. But when my family faced a crisis, there was a hand up from one of those “government programs” that Romney and Ryan now love to hate.

Paul Ryan and I both got to go to college precisely because of the “entitlements” that my hardworking parents never expected they were entitled to.

Politicians make mistakes. People misspeak in public. God knows I have proven both. A lot.

But this latest Romney screed is more than that. It is a window into the soul of a man who wants to lead this entire country, a man who strangely sounds more comfortable talking on that tape than almost any other time I’ve heard him in this campaign.

This sure seems to be a guy saying what he truly believes. Fair enough. We’re all entitled to our opinions.

But we aren’t entitled to rewrite our own family histories and pretend that we build this alone. Because we built it together.

Notes