Paws Up

Fur Flies As Obama and Romney Press Political Dog Fight

Romney’s silence on Mass. votes to ban greyhound racing could come back to bite him, writes Ben Jacobs.

AP Photo

“He’s literally dogged by this issue,” said veteran Democratic consultant Phil Singer, discussing a new angle in what’s become a literal dog fight between the presidential candidates: that Mitt Romney shied away from taking a stand on two fairly recent referenda in Massachusetts to ban dog racing.

Never mind the“War on Women,” the presidential campaign has shifted over to the “War Over Dogs,” as the campaigns have fought for days over which candidate for the White House is less canine-friendly. Mitt Romney started off playing defense, deploying his wife Ann in an attempt to defuse the latest round of stories about Seamus, the family dog that was strapped (in his carrier) to the roof of the family car for a twelve-hour drive to Canada in 1983. When that predictably failed to end the jokes, the Romney camp upped the ante by pointing out that as a young boy in Indonesia, Barack Obama ate dog meat – a hit that doubled as a way of implicitly highlighting the president’s exotic biography to voters who find it off-putting or worse.

Singer, who worked as a top communications staffer for John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008, said voters concerned with animal welfare seemed poised to emerge as a “new voting bloc” as the candidates have keyed in on dogs as a way of questioning the other’s character. He said that Romney’s silence on the two hotly contested votes to ban dog racing in the state could play into that dynamic, calling the dog fight “the kind of story that breaks through with people who don’t always follow minute-to-minute developments but are casually interested and vote.”

Those votes in 2000 and 2008, came just before and after Romney’s term as governor from 2003 to 2007, and voters were concerned with animal rights on the one side, and jobs on the other. During his time in office, the dog-racing ban was less in the mix since the sport had survived the 2000 referendum on a tight 51-49 vote, and he never raised the issue. The debate shifted to whether Massachusetts should allow slot-machine gambling at its dog- and horse- racing tracks, which Romney opposed as a subsidy to a failing industry. His presidential campaign did not immediately return a request for comment on his greyhound racing stance as governor.

Christine Dorchak, the head of Grey2K, a Massachusetts-based organization that advocates a worldwide end to dog racing, combed through her files for the Daily Beast and could not find any evidence of Romney, the state’s governor from 2003 to 2007, taking a stand on this highly scrutinized issue. Dorchak said that the dog-racing industry at one point was “the number three contributor to state legislators.”

By 2008, when Massachusetts became the first state to abolish dog racing by popular vote, a dog was getting severely injured every 3-4 days, she said, and greyhounds were kept in cages so small that they could barely turn around.

“Considering that he put his dog on the roof of his car for sport,” said Singer, “it’s just not surprising that he wasn’t lining up with animal-rights activists.”

But Romney was also indifferent to the plight of the dog racing industry, according to George Carney, who owns Raynham Park, a former dog track that now simulcasts races held elsewhere. Carney, who maintains that the dogs were treated well and that his business just had “an image problem,” says 250 of his employees were laid off as a result of the 2008 ban, “and most of them are still out of a job because they aren’t any jobs.”