Eric Fehrnstrom, a prominent national Republican consultant, has been called consigliere, campaign pit bull, electoral knife-fighter. Now he has a new title, far afield from the world of presidential attack ads and daily tracking polls: student of theology.
The longtime adviser to Mitt Romney is enrolled as a member of the class of 2016 at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies, according to school officials.
While the school includes students preparing to enter the clergy, many graduates go on to other faith-informed ventures, the route Fehrnstrom appears to be taking. The school calls itself “committed to the Catholic theological tradition, rigorous academic inquiry, interdisciplinary study, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and the engagement of faith and culture.”
The Master of Theological Studies program requires students to take 16 courses, encouraging them to participate in retreats and prayer groups. But the degree is not regarded as formal preparation for pastoral ministry.
While Fehrnstrom remains active in politics — including advising Scott Brown — such a dramatic new tack in his career surprised some longtime associates, who said it was tough to envision the trench warrior of two presidential campaigns stepping into the role of theological scholar.
But former colleagues say Fehrnstrom has adopted a softer tone in recent months, reaching out in a manner they did not associate with the famously aggressive strategist.
Fehrnstrom helped guide Romney’s political career from his winning 2002 run for governor through his losing 2012 bid for the presidency, and he served as a top adviser on Brown’s successful 2010 US Senate campaign and again in his failed 2012 bid.
First as a Boston Herald reporter and then as a political operative, Fehrnstrom has been widely renowned for a style that could spill over into the confrontational, including notable flare-ups with a Massachusetts mayor in the early days of the Romney administration and with a reporter during Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Fehrnstrom’s sharp-elbowed style grated on many in Massachusetts politics, who recall what some regarded as dirty tricks.
In 2011, he landed in hot water when he was revealed as the covert operator of a Twitter account that mocked a potential challenger to Brown. The account, @CrazyKhazei, lampooned Democrat Alan Khazei, the founder of City Year, who later stepped out of the race when fellow Democrat Elizabeth Warren accumulated momentum.
An errant tweet from Fehrnstrom’s personal account, in @CrazyKhazei style, uncovered him.
On the Romney campaign, Fehrnstrom was regarded as one of the aides closest to the candidate, able to interpret his longtime boss’s wishes and widely considered an enforcer both internally and among reporters.
He drew headlines in 2012 when he compared various stages of a presidential campaign with an Etch-a-Sketch. Democrats pounced on the remark to portray Romney as a flip-flopper.
Even with his new scholastic undertaking, Fehrnstrom has continued in his role as political adviser, helping guide Brown’s move toward a Senate bid in New Hampshire this year.
As recently as Tuesday, Fehrnstrom appeared with Brown during a campaign visit in Rochester, N.H.His company, the Shawmut Group, is also serving as the general consultant to Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s gubernatorial campaign in Rhode Island.
Fehrnstrom joined other Romney alumni earlier this month at a ski retreat in Deer Valley, Utah. He declined to comment for this article.
Peter Flaherty, a fellow partner at the Shawmut Group and a former Romney aide who was the former governor’s liaison to religious leaders during his presidential campaigns, said of Fehrnstrom, “He has always been intellectually curious, and this allows him the opportunity to pursue an academic degree in a subject matter that he has a great deal of interest in.”
Former state treasurer Joseph D. Malone said he never really saw a religious side to Fehrnstrom when Fehrnstrom was serving as his aide in the 1990s.
But he said he was not entirely surprised that Fehrnstrom was now delving into theological scholarship.
“I think of Eric as a guy who is pretty unpredictable and pretty open-minded, so I could picture him getting to a certain juncture in life and wanting go explore something more deeply,” Malone said.
Fehrnstrom is not the first high-level political operative to delve into the spiritual. Michael McCurry, who was press secretary in the Clinton White House, received a master’s degree from Wesley Theological Seminary last year and now teaches religion and politics there.