It's like the Obama campaign is running a miniseries about Bain Capital, and this week's episode is about Ampad, which went bankrupt after Bain took it over. The campaign is playing on our familiarity with reality TV -- not the Jersey Shore-style hot tub kind of reality show, but the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-kind, where people sit on their ordinary-looking couches in their ordinary-looking homes and tear up talking about the hardship their family has experienced. In the Obama campaign's Ampad ad, Valerie Bruton cries when she explains that when Bain took over in 1994, everyone was fired at the Ampad factory and told to reapply for a lower wage, so she had to go on public assistance. Bruton says:
"When SCM shut its doors, that was the first time that I'd ever been in the system, with food stamps. Then I had to get on Medicaid. It was just rough, but I did it. I had no choice because I had my babies. My babies depended on me. That was the most degrading thing. I mean don't get me wrong, it's there for a reason. But I never in my whole life ever [thought] I would have to resort to that, because I wasn't raised like that. My parents instilled in me, 'You give it 110 percent, whatever you do in life.' So when you're not raised with getting public assistance… that was very devastating to me."
Bruton sits on the sofa with Randy Johnson, whom Bloomberg's Paul M. Barrett profiled in Feburary. In 1994, Johnson and five Ampad coworkers roadtripped to Boston, making the plant a huge part of Romney's race against Sen. Ted Kennedy. According to Barrett, Romney was shocked in 1994 when Ampad became an issue, telling a rival in the private equity business, "I was a deer in the headlights." In 1995, he faxed a letter to Johnson saying, "I feel very badly that the Marion plant is being closed," but said he had nothing to do with it since he'd taken a leave of absence from Bain. And he implied his campaign opponent had something to do with it. "I only hope that a misguided effort by outside interests to help the Kennedy campaign did not divert attention and concentration from the real work that could have kept good jobs in Marion."
Marc Wolpow, who reported to Romney at Bain, scoffed at the idea that Romney had nothing to do with the Ampad decisions, as BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski points out. "We carried out the business plan. He was CEO of the firm," Wolpow said in 2002. In February, he told Bloomberg it was a mistake for Romney to frame himself as a job creator, since, "That was not his or Bain's or the [buyout] industry's primary objective." Ampad took on a lot of debt buying other paper companies, and declared bankruptcy four years after its IPO in 1996. Both stockholders and creditors were "wiped out," NPR explains. Lenders got back $0.002 for every dollar owed. But as Zoe Chace explains, that's business:
"You can still get an Ampad pad today. The company is now being run by another private equity firm. A firm that saw an undervalued company, and bought it at a good price."
But Romney's problem, obviously, is not former coworkers tweaking his description of his job at Bain but that he created an enemy in Johnson, and, apparently to a lesser extent, in others who worked at factories that shut down. (Last week's episode in Obama's Bain miniseries featured GST Steel in Kansas City.) Despite Romney's personal fax, Johnson did not let go of his revenge quest. As Bloomberg reported, he's held on to a box of Romney-related documents for more than 15 years, and said in February he was "ready" in case the Democrats needed him. Judging from personal experience, when a family member loses a job due to a company bankruptcy at the hands of what in the 1980s was called a "corporate raider," the family tends to maintain a rather intense emotional association with said raider, forever. Young children of the family member tend to heckle the raider at public events whenever presented with the opportunity.
It's not clear whether in 2012 Bain will be a big issue, like it was in 1994, or a minor one, like it was in 2002, when Romney ran for Massachusetts governor. But either way, it will be hard for Romney to cut similar ads defending his record. The people who would defend Romney's business decisions are less likely to be sympathetic on TV, and they're less like to want to do cut an ad anyway, since they have more to lose. His detractors, on the other hand, have their years of rage.