Have you ever seen a Mitt Romney lookalike bobblehead doll? Or the parody video, since removed from the Internet, with former Republican candidate Jon Huntsman’s three daughters interviewing a nodding Mitt bobblehead?
This year, the Romney bobbleheads are marketed on the Internet, along with Barack Obama bobble-eads that are reportedly selling faster. But the original Mitt bobblehead first appeared four years ago and was produced—by Ann Romney’s brother at a factory in China—as a party favor for big donors.
When former Utah governor Jon Huntsman was still in the GOP presidential primary race last January, his three daughters “went rogue” and produced the video, with two of them donning blonde wigs to imitate Fox News anchors, and “interviewed” a Romney bobblehead doll. As they studied their nails and asked sarcastic questions — “Governor Romney, people accuse you of being stiff. Do you agree?” — the bobblehead would rapidly oscillate, indicating yes or no.
If those dolls could talk, they might have a lot to tell about their country of origin and who made them there. Although Romney now complains frequently that China has unfairly “taken American jobs,” the Chinese bobblehead Mitts are yet another example of Romney’s propensity to invest in the People’s Republic—and to enrich family members such as Roderick Davies, his brother-in-law, who oversaw the creation of the dolls in China through a Utah company called Asian Sources, Inc.
Asian Sources was one of a string of failed businesses formed by Davies — Ann Romney’s older brother — in Michigan, Florida, Colorado and Utah, culminating in his bankruptcy in 2010. (Mitt Romney’s older brother, Scott, performed legal services for at least two of Davies’ failed ventures. Davies’ son and Mitt’s nephew, Ryan Davies, would eventually join Asian Sources, Inc. after leading a Utah alternative energy company into bankruptcy and being pushed out by the directors amid allegations of embezzlement, tax fraud and securities fraud.)
When Roderick Davies got the campaign doll deal, he already had the connections and experience to handle the job. Among other Asian outsourcing tasks, Davies had worked for Lifelike Doll Company, a Colorado firm that made custom dolls to look like the little girls who received them as gifts (just as bobbleheads are supposed to resemble specific individuals). Davies got that job, too, via Romney — and Bain Capital. After Davies allegedly helped run Lifelike into the ground, attempted a hostile takeover, and was sued by the company, he founded Asian Sources, the firm that went on to create and import Romney’s 2008 bobblehead dolls.
Along the way, Davies traded constantly on his famous brother-in-law’s name, with Mitt Romney’s encouragement. Indeed, Romney and Davies went together into the Lifelike doll business — a venture that not only illustrates their exploitation of China outsourcing but their ruthless corporate style. The Wall Street Journal first broke the Lifelike Doll Co. story last January. But after a single brief report the Journal promptly dropped the thread before unraveling the China connection. The Journal story also missed Romney’s and Bain’s fascination with several other doll and toy companies, not just Lifelike, all of which were also connected with bankruptcies.
The Wall Street Journal’s lead summarized the issue:
“Mitt Romney rarely got personally involved in individual deals toward the end of his time as chief executive of Bain Capital. But he was closely involved in a failed investment in a company that sold expensive dolls semi-customized to resemble the girl they were bought for. Mr. Romney was brought the idea by a friend from Brigham Young University and Harvard Business School who was one of the original partners of the doll company, which was called Lifelike Co. and used the brand name My Twinn.”
“As far as I can recall, Lifelike was the only investment that Mitt originated from his personal network,” former Bain executive Marc Wolpow told the Journal. “He said other Bain partners weren’t enthusiastic, but ‘it was a small investment, so no one really seemed to care that much.”
That “small” investment was $2.1 million, most of which Bain lost after Lifelike went bankrupt in 2003. What the Journal story missed was the fact that between 1997 and its financial collapse the company turned more and more to Asia for parts and after a disastrous 2001 holiday season “the Lifelike Company shifted all operations to China in an effort to reduce production costs,” according to its owners.
When Romney invested Bain’s money in Lifelike, he joined its board of directors and facilitated the hiring of his brother-in-law. Roderick Davies moved from Florida to Colorado to take the job. (Like Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, Davies had served as a Mormon stake president in Florida.)
The Journal quoted former Lifelike CEO Kenn Thiess, Romney’s friend, as saying that Mitt Romney did not pressure the firm to hire his brother-in-law. Interviewed subsequently for this article, Thiess, who had served as a Mormon stake president in Colorado said when Romney brought Davies in, Thiess agreed that the company should expand its use of Chinese suppliers. And because Davies had strong Chinese manufacturing connections, Romney said Davies could be hired to help.
According to the Journal, Lifelike eventually sued Davies, accusing him of trying to subvert its business “by conducting secret dealings with suppliers and trying to set up a competing entity.” While that charge may be valid, at least in part, Thiess fired Davies mainly because Davies was trying to buy controlling shares of Lifelike and then push him out. Thiess said Davies was acting with “Romney family money.” But he would not say whether he thought Mitt Romney was part of the coup attempt.
But in a recent interview Thiess said it was clear at the time—after Romney was elected governor—that “Mitt was setting things up to run for president.” He recalls Davies telling prospective Chinese suppliers that, through him, they were not only establishing a link to the chief executive of Massachusetts (who held an interest in Lifelike) but also, potentially, a future president of the United States.
Lynn Packer is a former broadcast journalist for KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, where he worked for 15 years. He has reported for ABC News and many other news organizations, and taught journalism at Brigham Young University.
Photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong