Nevadans Need a Closer Look at Romney’s Record

Some “facts and figures” might help make the Bain debate accessible to readers

NEVADA — There’s one critical question on the minds of many Nevadans these days: Will the jobs picture improve during 2012?

It’s a question John Smith, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, took up in a moving front-page piece on January 11.

The national data may finally be moving in the right direction, with job openings rising and unemployment claims falling. But that’s cold comfort for the thousands of Nevadans, some of them jobless for years, who stood in line at a recent employment fair here, eager to snag one of the relatively few positions on offer. It was a scene that suggested the recovery in Southern Nevada may be “excruciatingly slow,” Smith wrote.

At 13 percent, Nevada has the highest jobless rate in the country. Factor in those who are underemployed, and the number soars higher still. So it’s a no-brainer that the economy—specifically, jobs—is at the top of Nevadans’ list of concerns during this election year.

Which means that the Nevada media, many of whom have seen layoffs in their own workplaces in recent months, have a special obligation to help Silver State voters make decisions about which presidential candidates are capable of walking the walk. And recent developments in Republican primary contest—with some candidates attacking GOP front-runner Mitt Romney over his record as CEO of the private equity firm Bain Capital, foreshadowing what will likely be a Democratic campaign message in the fall, even as Romney holds up his private-sector success as evidence that he could help steer the economy—have provided a good, if challenging, opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately, a Jan. 11 story in the Las Vegas Sun punted on that challenge. In the wake of Romney’s win in New Hampshire, the Sun’s Washington correspondent Karoun Demirjian took aim at the former Massachusetts governor’s prospects in Nevada, and how the attacks might shape the views of voters here. The story relayed the argument from each side, but seemed to dismiss the need for independent analysis:

Romney and his campaign have denied the accusations and characterizations, claiming that Romney created at least 100,000 net jobs during his time as the CEO of Bain.

But facts and figures may not be what counts here: In politics, impressions matter, and there are few places in the country where economic characterizations could hit as close to home as in job-bereft Nevada. Romney knows that: He featured Nevada early on, in everything from his first national campaign commercial to the unveiling of his jobs plan to highlight the plight of people in economic turmoil.

Regrettably, there’s much to the argument that facts and figures don’t matter as much as we might like in politics, but part of a reporter’s job is to work to ensure that they are, at the very least, available to voters. Admittedly, that’s a hard task when it comes to Bain Capital’s impact on job creation, where there’s no single fact or figure for reporters to find. A good article by Politico’s Keach Hagey outlines some of the journalistic challenges posed by this story. But a Jan. 4 item by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog at least tried to scrutinize Romney’s claims:

[Romney spokesman Eric] Fehrnstrom says the 100,000 figure stems from the growth in jobs from three companies that Romney helped to start or grow while at Bain Capital: Staples (a gain of 89,000 jobs), The Sports Authority (15,000 jobs), and Domino’s (7,900 jobs).

This tally obviously does not include job losses from other companies with which Bain Capital was involved—and are based on current employment figures, not the period when Romney worked at Bain.

Other media outlets have done their own deep-dive looks at Romney’s record as a venture capitalist. Here’s how reporters at the Los Angeles Times summarized their conclusions in a Dec. 3 article:

Bain expanded many of the companies it acquired. But like other leveraged-buyout firms, Romney and his team also maximized returns by firing workers, seeking government subsidies, and flipping companies quickly for large profits. Sometimes Bain investors gained even when companies slid into bankruptcy.

As the coverage make clear, the question of Bain’s effect is complex and subject to different to interpretations. (A Washington Post editorial this week offered a defense of private equity firms, even as it acknowledged that net job creation is “hard to specify.”) It’s also beyond what one reporter filing a deadline story could try to address.

But there are facts and figures, some of which have already been uncovered, that could help voters who are curious or just confused by the candidates’ back-and-forth. That’s why this state’s journalists should be committed to providing useful, understandable reporting on all the candidates’ stances—and their past performance—on employment.

Three weeks remain before Nevada Republicans caucus on February 4. There’s still time for reporters here to do some serious digging to uncover local angles on this story—and to point readers to the digging that has been done elsewhere—so that caucus-goers have more to draw on than their initial impressions.

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.