So Was There a Polygamy Commune, or Wasn't There?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 21 2012 2:43 PM

So Was There a Polygamy Commune, or Wasn't There?

This Washington Post write-up on the tiff between Mitt Romney and Brian Schweitzer is remarkably free of information. We learn, for the sixth or seventh time, that Gov. Schweitzer will not apologize for what he told Ben Jacobs -- that Mitt Romney "will probably not choose to highlight his own family’s connection to Mexico as a way of reaching out to Hispanics, because that history involves a polygamy colony." And we learn that Romney is offended.

“My dad’s dad was not a polygamist. My dad grew up in a family with a mom and a dad and a few brothers and one sister,” Romney told Fox News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron. “They lived in Mexico and lived a very nice life there, from what I understand, and then when he was 5 or 6 years old there was a revolution in Mexico. They escaped ... My dad had a very tough upbringing.”
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The write-up wraps with this: "Romney’s father, George, was born in Mexico and moved to the United States as a child. He went on to become the governor of Michigan." Which... doesn't tell us what's being discussed. Let's go back to what Schweitzer told Jacobs.

While discussing swing states, Schweitzer said Romney would have a “tall order to position Hispanics to vote for him,” and I replied that was mildly ironic since Mitt’s father was born in Mexico, giving the clan a nominal claim to being Hispanic. Schweitzer replied that it is “kinda ironic given that his family came from a polygamy commune in Mexico, but then he’d have to talk about his family coming from a polygamy commune in Mexico, given the gender discrepancy.” Women, he said, are “not great fans of polygamy, 86 percent were not great fans of polygamy. I am not alleging by any stretch that Romney is a polygamist and approves of [the] polygamy lifestyle, but his father was born into [a] polygamy commune in Mexico.”

Schweitzer did not say that Romney's "dad's dad was a polygamist." He said that Romney's dad was born into a "polygamy commune in Mexico." This is true. In the 1880s, Miles Romney -- the great-grandfather of the current GOP candidate -- established a commune in Mexico with the express purpose of allowing the church to continue that practice after the United States cracked down on it. Miles took another wife in 1897, while living in the colony. Gaskell Romney, his son, didn't engage in plural marriage. So both Romney and Schweitzer, talking past each other, are right.

Why freak out and ignore the facts of the story? It would be stupid to vote against a candidate because of something his ancestors did, but the Mexico connection is a unique line in the Romney biography that the candidate's deployed when in a pinch. In one debate in Florida, Romney said he couldn't be anti-immigrant because "my father was born in Mexico." But he doesn't say this too often... because saying it cracks open the polygamy history. (The best thing that could happen to Democrats who want to capitalize on anti-Mormon sentiment would probably be a Politifact look at the story.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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