The Detroit News

Businessma­n Rakolta is Romney’s biggest champion in Michigan


Stand John Rakolta on a blank slab of concrete and he can envision the walls going up, the equipment moving in, all of the puzzle pieces involved in bringing a constructi­on project to completion falling into place.

Place him in the political arena, and the unfolding path is less logical. Do all the things you’re supposed to do and you still may never reach the goal.

Still, the Walbridge chairman, who’s spent half his time for the past two years working on Mitt Romney’s presidenti­al campaign, sees similariti­es between the worlds of business and politics.

“You need a philosophi­cal underpinni­ng, a solid team with a common goal and message, a strategy, a quality product, and then you have to sell it all to customers,” says Rakolta, 65. “Seeing this roll out in front of your eyes is fascinatin­g.”

Rakolta is now deep into his second Romney for President campaign, and says he’s involved for two reasons.

First is “a desire to help create change. I think our country has become uncompetit­ive, and we need a president who will reward freedom, hard work and risk. This is my way of doing something to

leave a better world for my kids and grandkids.”

And second is his affection for Mitt Romney, a friend and shirttail relative.

Rakolta met Romney in 1973 while dating his future wife, Terri. Her sister, Ronna, was married to Romney’s brother and Rakolta’s best fiend, Scott Romney. What began as a casual friendship deepened over the years, particular­ly after Rakolta converted to Mormonism when he and Terri got engaged, and endured even after Scott and Ronna divorced.

Rakolta went to Massachuse­tts in 1994 to work on Rom- ney’s unsuccessf­ul U.S. Senate bid. And in 2003, he was one of the first people Romney contacted to join a small group that was helping to shape his presidenti­al ambitions.

“There were 10 of us,” he says. “And we had our eyes on 2008.”

He was a key fundraisin­g strategist for Romney during the campaign four years ago, and sees the losing effort as an important learning experience.

“We didn’t do anything for a year except lick our wounds,” he says. “In the spring of 2010, we all got back together again. We went through the lessons learned and it was a fascinatin­g exercise. Presidenti­al politics is a tough game that takes an enormous amount of money, expertise, commitment and strategy to win. You have to be right on all four of those.

“We thought we were cooking on all burners, but we didn’t win. The business guys stepped back and asked, ‘Why?’ I looked at the mechanical things. Did we raise enough money? Did we spend it right?”

They made adjustment­s and went into the 2012 campaign determined to get everything right.

The team started earlier with fundraisin­g, and made sure the commitment­s from donors were firm. They worked on the organizati­onal structure, and stayed in constant contact with the “bundlers” — deep pocketed donors who can put together large groups of contributo­rs.

And they made sure the team was united.

“What I learned from 2008 is that everybody had an agenda,” Rakolta says. “If you’re going to build a team to compete, you have to make sure everyone’s agenda is in alignment. You have to make sure the campaign is the only thing everyone is interested in. Of course, no one admits to having a personal agenda. You have to be clairvoyan­t almost.”

For a guy raised in the constructi­on world, where process and outcome are inextricab­ly linked, the unpredicta­bility of politics can be frustratin­g.

“So much of it is circumstan­tial,” Rakolta says. “The salient issue can change, as it did in 2008 from the Iraq War to the economy. So much depends on every word the candidate says. You have to guard against fatigue that can lead to a slip.”

Rakolta is noted in Detroit for his quotabilit­y. He is an outspoken critic of ineffectiv­e government, both at the state and city level.

He’s also deeply civic minded, and when he chaired New Detroit he made erasing the racial divide his top mission, frequently inviting diverse groups to the table of his Oakland County home for knock-down discussion­s of race.

But as part of the campaign, he has to make sure nothing he says or does becomes a distractio­n. That can be tough in the midst of a race distinguis­hed by distortion­s and ugly attacks.

“There are days when it gets down in the mud and I search for what might be better, and I can’t come up with anything,” he says. “I’m not cynical. I’m not Pollyannai­sh either.

“But I believe the vast majority of the time the right person gets elected for the right reason. That’s what makes this country so great.”

This year, Rakolta believes Mitt Romney is the right person. And if he’s correct, is there an office in Washington in Rakolta’s future?

“I’m a little superstiti­ous about counting my chickens before they hatch,” he says. “I’ll just say I’m available to serve my country in any way a future president thinks is appropriat­e.”

 ??  ?? Robin Buckson / The Detroit News John Rakolta, center, sits with Scott Romney and Ronna Romney, Scott’s daughter, at the Michigan delegation meeting Sunday in Tampa.
Robin Buckson / The Detroit News John Rakolta, center, sits with Scott Romney and Ronna Romney, Scott’s daughter, at the Michigan delegation meeting Sunday in Tampa.

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