Busi­ness­man Rakolta is Rom­ney’s big­gest cham­pion in Michi­gan

The Detroit News - - Front Page -

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.

NOLAN FIN­LEY

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