In the world of important political documents — from the Magna Carta to the Pentagon Papers — there are also those known for more pedestrian reasons. Count Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” in that category.
For those who don’t recall, Romney mentioned the binders during a 2012 presidential debate in which he was questioned about workplace inequality. He awkwardly referred to the “binders full of women” he had considered for state posts after he was elected governor. Critics pounced on his response as clumsy at best, patronizing at worst. Late-night comics had a field day.
For all the high-stakes attention they drew, the binders themselves never surfaced. Until now.
A former Romney aide recently exhumed the files and shared them with the Globe. Two white three-ring binders (weighing in at an aggregate 15 pounds, 6 ounces) are packed with nearly 200 cover letters and résumés, along with a few handwritten notations.
They have their roots in the 2002 transition period after Romney beat state Treasurer Shannon P. O’Brien for the governorship. A coalition of women’s groups created the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP), cobbled together information on women interested in serving in government, and submitted them to Romney’s still-forming administration.
“It was a response to a desire on the part of the Romney administration to access a pool of talent,” said Linda Rossetti, who worked with the coalition, made phone calls to encourage job candidates to submit applications, and included her own. “They drummed up what was an inelegant way to get at this pool of talent.”
Romney ultimately received high marks for the number of women he appointed to high-level administration posts and state courts.
The binders’ lineage remains in some dispute. While Romney said he noticed a paucity of female candidates for top positions and asked for the résumés, and former aides say Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey reached out to MassGAP, veterans of the coalition recall providing them unsolicited.
Regardless of their beginnings, the files found their way into a close presidential campaign a decade later. Following Romney’s conquest of President Obama in their first debate, an audience member rose during the second to ask a question about workplace inequality.
After Obama bragged about a law he had signed aimed at closing wage gaps between men and women, Romney delivered a slightly stilted answer, starting with, “Thank you and, uh, important topic.”
He continued, telling the audience about his efforts as he prepared to take office as governor: “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Democrats pounced, packaging two of Romney’s perceived shortcomings — women’s issues and a sometimes-awkward public persona — into viral mockery. And Obama recovered some momentum after his difficult first debate.
In the Donald Trump era, the notion that Romney paid a political cost for explaining how he had tried to hire more women seems almost far-fetched.
These days, women’s groups have expressed frustration about the relative lack of women in Trump’s Cabinet and images of all-male groups making important decisions from the White House. Trump won even after being caught on video boasting about sexually assaulting women, and his inauguration was followed by massive women’s marches.
But in the moment, Romney’s explanation was seen as sorely lacking.
Campaigning in Iowa the next day, Obama gleefully noted, “I’ve got to tell you, we don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women.”
Romney’s team, moving quickly on mop-up duty, cut a new ad featuring women from his Cabinet. Women who had worked in the administration toured swing states, explaining the effort’s earnestness.
Now after nearly 15 years the inhabitants of the binders, which were revealed by a former Romney aide who requested anonymity, recall the experience with a touch of bemusement.
“That’s going back quite a bit. A lot has transpired in between,” said Lillian Gonzalez, a certified public accountant. Handwritten notes accompanying her name include “Party? . . . Latino . . . May not be [Republican].”
Gonzalez, a decade and a half later, confirmed that she was not a Republican and that after an initial interview she never heard back.
“That’s true, I’m not. Absolutely correct. I fly off the screen to the left,” Gonzalez said.
Many candidates applied for several positions. Some binder-dwellers did find state jobs, either with Romney or in subsequent administrations.
Jane Wallis Gumble, who had worked in housing and community development since William F. Weld’s administration, stayed on. Marylou Sudders left early in Romney’s tenure but returned as Governor Charlie Baker’s health and human services chief.
Jane Tewksbury would lead the Department of Youth Services under Romney and governor Deval Patrick. Gina McCarthy, who put in for a gig with environmental affairs (“knows about brownfield redevelopment” is scrawled next to her name), would eventually find a national profile as President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
Beth Myers, who was Romney’s chief of staff and later his presidential campaign manager, recalled that the binders’ utility outlived the transition.
“He wanted to have his Cabinet and office staff well represented with women. We weren’t getting a ton of names,” Myers said, adding, “those résumés in the binders — they weren’t just used in the beginning to look for staff and put in a corner; we used them throughout, especially for boards and commissions.”
The cover letters range from laconic to sycophantic.
“It is very exciting that you both have made this extraordinary commitment to appoint women in your new administration,” wrote one candidate in a letter to Romney and Healey.
Another slipped in a prominent reference to her Ivy League pedigree: “Although I have worked in the private, for-profit sector since graduating from Yale . . .’’
One applicant said she doesn’t remember the process at all. “I have no idea how my name got in there,” she said, even after being reminded of her cover letter. “Maybe some circuitous route.”
Indicative of the age of the long-buried binders, if not that of their occupants: Many used since-outdated e-mail addresses (think attbi.com), and more than a few did not include any e-mail addresses, opting instead for fax numbers. Very few included cellphone numbers.
Myers recalled that Team Romney’s use in 2002 of Monster.com to solicit job candidates “was considered really radical.”
“Obviously, today — I would probably still use the binders — but that’s just not the way information is passed these days,” Myers said.
Indeed, if the binders seem vestiges of a political era past, so, too, does Romney’s verbal blunder.