A top surrogate to Mitt Romney, Staples Inc. founder Tom Stemberg, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital,” airing this weekend, that making money -- rather than creating jobs -- was the primary goal of the presumed Republican Party presidential nominee when he ran Bain Capital LLC and that Romney “acted responsibly” as chief executive officer of the private-equity firm. Stemberg appeared with a top backer of President Barack Obama, Lawrence Fish, the former chief executive officer of Citizens Financial Group Inc., who questioned Romney’s record.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
JULIANNA GOLDMAN, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Hello, I’m Julianna Goldman in for Al Hunt this week. We begin the show with Staples founder and Romney surrogate Tom Stemberg and Larry Fish, an Obama surrogate and former chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group.
Want to welcome you to the show, gentlemen. Both of you are joining us from Massachusetts, not too far from each other, in Boston and Newton. But I want to start with a story that’s making headlines right now, and that’s word this week that a Republican super-PAC had been considering launching an ad campaign tying President Obama to his controversial former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, sort of bringing up some questions about the millions of dollars from super PACs that could be put toward character assassinations in this election.
And since you both have contributed to the Romney and Obama super-PACs respectively, just wanted to ask you whether or not you’re comfortable with having your money go toward these kinds of efforts? And, Larry, let’s start with you.
LARRY FISH: Well, good morning, Julianna. I am not comfortable with having my support of the president used in the form of character assassination or negative campaigning. The Supreme Court ruled on this. We are allowed to make these contributions. I am completely public about my support of the president’s PAC, and I think that that should be reciprocated by the Republican supporters of the various Romney PACs.
So far, a lot of that money has been in the shadow. And it would be helpful to the American people to be able to know the amounts of that money and who is giving it.
But regardless, since it’s not required by law, to the extent that the PACs support negative campaigning, I think it will reflect badly on the candidates and - and probably not going to work in the long run.
TOM STEMBERG: Well, Larry - Larry, the truth is - the truth is, the Obama PAC just put out a totally misleading ad about Mitt Romney’s involvement in private equity that’s totally unrepresentative, that fact-checkers found is totally fallacious, that - as Peter Lynch told me yesterday, this is so ridiculous, because at the point in time that steel company - which Mitt was no longer even involved with - filed bankruptcy, 25 other steel companies filed bankruptcy the same time during foreign competition. And yet your money’s being used for that, Larry.
GOLDMAN: Well -
STEMBERG: You guys are just unbelievable.
GOLDMAN: Well, Tom, let’s turn to private equity in a moment, but I just want to pick up on something Larry said a moment ago, which - whether or not this money from the super-PAC should go to negative campaigning - are you prepared to say that you don’t want your money going to the Romney super-PAC toward negative campaigns?
STEMBERG: I believe that it’s essential that we get somebody in the White House who knows what he is doing. Larry got to run a big bank, but he only got to do so if he worked his way up the ladder and had all kinds of different jobs to learn how to be a banker.
We’ve got a guy in the White House now who was a community organizer. I guess as a community organizer you give a lot of speeches, because he certainly gives lots of speeches, but he doesn’t know how to run anything. And his record demonstrates that. So if it means that my money has to be used for negative ads to demonstrate some of the foibles there, I can live with that.
FISH: Well, Tom and I disagree on that, and I’m hopeful that the campaign will be a positive campaign and a true discussion about the circumstance of the country. And I’m perfectly prepared to defend the president’s record. I think it has been, given the circumstances that he inherited, quite outstanding. But we can get into the specifics on that, Julianna.
GOLDMAN: All right. Well, let’s turn attention to this debate over private equity, because the Obama campaign and the Obama super-PAC did launch ads this week attacking Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital, saying that it created - that he was focused on creating wealth for him and his investors, not jobs. But, Tom, isn’t that the role of private equity?
STEMBERG: Well, I think the role of private equity as fiduciaries is certainly to make money. I think the great news about Mitt Romney’s involvement, he hasn’t just made money. He’s helped grow some companies, which not unlike Staples have made major contributions to society in the form of saving people money. Or backing a woman named Linda Mason, who started Bright Horizons and helped her grow a business which today employs 20,000 people around the United States and helps mothers go to work. And we had one at Staples Center, and it really was essential for the working mothers and our workforce. So these things had redeeming social value, in addition to making Mitt and his investors a lot of money.
GOLDMAN: So, Larry, though, private equity, it can play a positive role in the economy. Isn’t that right?
FISH: Of course it can. And nothing that Mitt Romney or his private-equity financial partners did as far as anybody knows was the least bit illegal.
The question about private equity - and this applies to Mitt Romney and his partners - specifically is whether when the opposite of what Tom mentioned, when jobs are eliminated, whether they have behaved fairly and whether they’ve behaved responsibly. Was fair and complete severance provided to displaced workers? Were their pensions honored? Were they given a year’s worth of health benefits to facilitate the transition? And were they supportive in a responsible way of the communities that were hollowed out by the job loss? Was -
STEMBERG: Larry - Larry -
FISH: - money made available for job readiness programs?
STEMBERG: Larry, you know -
FISH: And whether or not -
STEMBERG: Larry, Larry, Larry -
FISH: - those programs were implemented.
STEMBERG: Larry, you and I - you and I both know that when a company goes bankrupt, you as a company have absolutely no say whatsoever as to what happens. The judge and the trustee do. So, I mean, whatever happened there - and I’m sure there were some unfortunate circumstances there, cannot be laid to rest at Mitt Romney’s lap. It just can’t be.
GOLDMAN: Well, Larry -
FISH: Well, we shouldn’t just be talking -
GOLDMAN: Go ahead.
FISH: Go ahead, Julianna.
GOLDMAN: No, no, you go ahead. Go ahead.
FISH: We shouldn’t - we shouldn’t just be talking about bankruptcy. We should be talking about how private equity - and Mitt Romney specifically - has behaved when jobs have been eliminated. And that has happened often.
When Governor Romney - and I’m a resident here in Massachusetts - was the governor of our state, we ranked 47th in job creation. Not last, but 47th in job creation.
STEMBERG: Larry -
FISH: The president, in the last three-and-a-half years, in a very difficult global economy, in a very difficult global economy, has created 4.2 million new jobs, in 26 months.
STEMBERG: Larry, Larry, Larry -
FISH: So I do know the record of the governor.
STEMBERG: - the president took over - the president took over -
GOLDMAN: Tom, go ahead.
STEMBERG: Larry, again, the - the record is the record. When the president took over, unemployment was under 8 percent. He spent $800 billion of the taxpayers’ money on the so-called stimulus, building bridges to nowhere. And not surprisingly, after wasting all that money, we have - now have unemployment over 8 percent.
STEMBERG: And most of those lost jobs have been women. And we now have 23 million Americans looking for work. Our economy is barely growing, despite zero percent interest rates. And, of course, the president’s got great plans. When you’ve been in office for three-and-a-half years, you ought to be running on your record, not on trying to run away from it, and that unfortunately is what the president’s doing.
GOLDMAN: Well, I want to ask just a more macro question about this whole private-equity debate. Larry, are you concerned that, you know, as we debate the merits of private equity, that it could end up vilifying the financial industry as a whole?
FISH: No, I think it should be - thank you for asking that question - there should be complete transparency. And the fact is, there isn’t. And the question of fairness and responsibility is an appropriate question to be raised. Whether private equity has been loading companies up with debt, whether they’re been declaring huge dividends, whether those companies have been responsible in how they’ve managed the necessary downsizing that has taken place in many of these situations, that’s a completely fair and appropriate question that Mitt Romney should answer.
GOLDMAN: And, Tom, just 15 seconds left. I’ll give you the last word.
STEMBERG: Well, again, I think Mitt Romney is an incredibly responsible person. I had the privilege of working with him for 15 years at my side at Staples, maybe the best corporate director I’ve ever seen. And not only that, he acted responsibly.
GOLDMAN: Well, Tom, Larry, thank you both very much for the time. It’s a debate I am sure we’ll be having quite a bit between now and November.
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