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.