Kudos to Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times, who yesterday took on, in an illuminating but not-insensitive way, a key chapter in the life of Mitt Romney, the prominent leadership role he took within the Mormon church in metro Boston in the 1980s and '90s. The press has generally treaded so carefully around the fact of Romney's religion that I suspect many Americans don't realize how central the church has been to Romney's leadership resume. Romney's family traces its roots back to the Mormons' founding days, and Romney took up the mantle by taking a prominent role within the lay leadership that effectively runs the religion out around the country -- first as "bishop" of his congregation in Belmont, Mass. and then as president of the entire Boston "stake." In that role, Stolberg writes:

He confronted anti-Mormon sentiment and management challenges, supervising youth programs, the church’s social welfare system, missionary training and outreach to Hispanic, Portuguese and Southeast Asian converts, including Cambodian and Laotian refugees whose teenagers were joining the church in droves.
Later, when his official duties were complete, he contributed handsomely to the construction of the grand — and controversial — Boston Temple, high on a hilltop in Belmont, its steeple topped by a golden angel, just minutes from the Romney home. “Mitt’s Temple,” some local residents called it derisively.
Some Mormons ... found Mr. Romney thoughtful and compassionate; one mother recalled his kindness to her dying son. Others, including a group of Mormon feminists demanding a greater role for women, found him condescending, doctrinaire or just plain bossy. He clashed with a married mother of four who sought to terminate a pregnancy; the incident made news years later, when Mr. Romney ran for United States Senate as a supporter of abortion rights — a position he has since abandoned.
“Mitt is the type who liked to be called Bishop Romney or President Romney,” said Judy Dushku, a professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston and a Mormon feminist leader. “He is very conscious of his place in the hierarchy, but not yours.”

What comes through in the piece is something that I found in reporting a piece in the magazine's new issue, looking at how Romney has worn down voters in New Hampshire after suffering a devastating loss in the primary there to John McCain in 2008. In Belmont, Romney became a "big Mormon," as one person in Stolberg's piece referred to him, through the combination of a major commitment of his time and energy and the benefit of his considerable wealth -- Mormons are expected to tithe 10 percent of their income, and Romney's checkbook played no small part in the construction of the $30 million temple in Belmont. Similarly, in New Hampshire, Romney has built a sense of inevitability this time around through the relentless personal attention he's brought to bear on the state -- there's hardly a small-town parade or county GOP dinner he hasn't been to -- and, again, the power of the checkbook, with which he has papered the small state with hundreds of thousands of dollars, starting way back in 2006. From my new piece:

In September 2010, Mitt Romney invited all of the Republican candidates for the New Hampshire Senate to lunch in a conference room in Concord. He thanked them for running for office, then gave each of them a $1,000 check made out to their campaigns. “He did it in a very personal manner. It wasn’t an impersonal, get-the-check-in-the-mail type of thing,” recalls Jim Rausch, one of the candidates. “I appreciated it.”
It isn’t just state Senate candidates: No New Hampshire politician, it turns out, is too insignificant to get a check from Romney. Small-town Republican committees, county sheriffs, and district attorneys have all have been recipients of his largesse. Often, the money is accompanied by personal courting. Recently, Grafton County Sheriff Douglas Dutile, who received $500 from Romney last year, hosted a lunch for the candidate and other sheriffs. “We talked about world affairs,” says Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard, who received $750 from Romney in 2006 and another $500 last year. “Governor Romney liked the beans that Sheriff Dutile’s wife made and went back for more.”

There is nothing subtle in Romney's rise to prominence within the LDS in Boston and in his more recent siege on New Hampshire. In both cases, Romney knew what he wanted and set about attaining it in a methodical way that, from the outside, looks so transparent as to be potentially off-putting, which may help explain why, as Politico examines again today, Romney's got a ways to go in winning the hearts of Republican voters. It is hard, on the one hand, to entirely begrudge him his success in reaching his goals, because he is putting in so much of his own time and effort -- spending time in the immigrant hoods of Boston, showing up at the customer appreciation day at the lumber store in far-northern Berlin, N.H. But at the same time it is also hard to overlook how much those efforts have also been supplemented by the blunter power of the greenback. Romney works too hard to be accused of simply buying himself victory, a la Steve Forbes and countless others. But his tireless, dutiful work on behalf of his leadership missions has without a doubt paid off for him because it was fueled by more than just elbow grease.