On May 17, inside a red-roofed mansion in a whitewashed enclave of properties in Boca Raton called Whisper Walk, the lights were low. Mitt Romney was talking, and atop a table cluttered with napkins, candles, and water, a video recorder blinked to life.
The candidate appeared relaxed, for once among people like himself — white, affluent, and conservative. He spoke calmly and with authority, as if this were his Boston living room and these were his confidants. He made several mildly provocative comments, but then came a question from the back. "How are you going to convince everyone to take care of themselves?"
Without hesitation, Romney responded. "There are 47 percent of Americans who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims... I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility for their lives."
47 Percent Videographer
This most pivotal moment of the 2012 presidential campaign came right here in our backyard. Yes, it topped Hurricane Sandy and the debates because it not only caught the extremely scripted Romney in a rare candid mood but also halted his campaign's momentum for two weeks as the candidate tried and failed to explain away the insensitivity.
But while the public eye fixed on Romney and Marc Leder, the local private-equity-fund manager who hosted 150 millionaires at the swank $50,000-per-plate fundraiser just off Yamato Road, someone else was forgotten: the person behind the lens. How did she get the camera inside? Why?
Now New Times has spoken with Anne Onymous, as the videographer wants to be known, for the first time. Though she declined to give a full interview or her real name, she did say this: "My motivations were pure. I saw Romney as dangerous and felt it was my duty to expose him."
But a look at months of her Twitter, YouTube, and other social media accounts gives hints about the person and the event that just might end up in the history books. The spark that started her filming wasn't outrage over inequality or taxes but rather the Republican's ties to a Hong Kong sweatshop called Global-Tech Appliances.
Of Anne Onymous's 449 tweets, nearly one in six detail Romney's Chinese connections. Her Twitter bio is particularly informative: "Mitt Romney admits buying [a] Chinese sweatshop while at Bain. 20,000 young girls. 12 girls per room. 120 girls per bathroom. Huge fences with guard towers." Next, the profile links to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, which has researched Romney's ties to Global-Tech. (The institute didn't return New Times' requests for comment.)
More puzzling is Onymous's profile picture for her Twitter and Google+ accounts. It was lifted from the cover of the 2008 book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by journalist Leslie T. Chang, who told New York Magazine she doesn't know anything about Onymous.
Two YouTube accounts also provide some clues about Onymous's preferences. She likes Michael Moore and Jon Stewart. She uploaded 12 videos from the Boca fundraiser — the top one receiving almost 200,000 page views and the least desirable (about Romney's wife, Ann) garnering only 162. Another account, RomneyExposed, includes fewer videos and similar interests.
Anne Onymous appears to be profoundly concerned about being identified — and, perhaps, rightfully so. On September 20, she tweeted, "RT Please! I'm about to be sued by a millionaire vulture. Does anyone know a good lawyer?"
Even today, more than a week after the election, trepidation over criminal prosecution lingers. (It's a third-degree felony to tape someone without their permission in Florida.) "It's been a long and nerve-racking couple of months," Onymous said before disappearing into the ether of the Internet.
It seems there's only one way to coax her out of obscurity. And that's to work the Chinese-sweatshop angle. Which is exactly what Jimmy Carter's grandson, James Carter IV, did last May.
Unemployed, sallow, and tech-savvy — your average slacker who reads too much Wired — the 35-year-old son of James Carter III discovered the first traces of the 47 percent video while at his computer in Atlanta. The clip showed up on RomneyExposed but was blurry. "Really just audio files," Carter says. In the clip, Romney recounted a visit he made to a Hong Kong sweatshop he'd bought.
"When I was back in my private-equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there," Romney says, voice clear and full. "We were walking through these facilities, seeing them work, the numbers of hours they work per day, the pittance they earn." The clip ended with Romney musing on how thrilled he was to be American.
Carter, intrigued, had never heard those comments before and didn't know the clip's origins. Its summary said something about a $50,000-per-plate dinner but didn't offer any further clues.
Eventually, he discovered that Anne Onymous had uploaded almost exactly the same blurry video, along with others that appeared to be from the same Romney talk. It was then that Carter realized he had something very, very big.
He courted Onymous for a while and then introduced her to a gray-haired, plain-spoken journalist named David Corn, the politics editor at Mother Jones magazine.
And here's where things got awfully coincidental. Corn and Carter had worked together on an exposé of Romney's connections to Global-Tech Appliances — the same Hong Kong sweatshop Onymous had been following.
The 47 percent story came to prominence, Carter says, only because he'd worked on the sweatshop story. "I wondered, Why does this [person] from South Florida care about sweatshops in China?"
On September 10, a CD from Florida materialized on Corn's D.C. desk. Not expecting much, the editor popped it into his computer. But when he heard Romney say those words — 47 percent — he stopped the video. His blood was pumping. "When I saw it, I had to play it again," Corn says. "To see a presidential candidate, in his own words, show such detachment and ignorance was stunning."
Corn soon discovered that reporters at the Huffington Post were hounding Onymous for the video as well. She demurred but then demanded that Corn blur everyone's face — except Romney's — if he were to show the video.
Within a week, the video was up. It went viral within hours. The reason, says Bryan Marshall, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio, is that "voters were primed... When the 47 percent video came out, it solidified their impression of him."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, issued a statement condemning the comments, and Romney's camp foundered under the scrutiny. Conservative political commentator Sean Hannity made perhaps the most ridiculous suggestion of the whole election: "If I'm Governor Romney, I run with this all day long."
Soon, Carter appeared on MSNBC's Hardball and NBC's Today and even snared inquiries from an agent asking him to write a book. It was vindication. For months, Romney had derided Carter's grandfather on the stump.
Carter, who doesn't know Anne Onymous's real name, says he suspects the videographer is a middle-aged white man. Leder, who threw the fundraiser for Romney, theorizes she was probably a member of the catering crew. But neither explanation fits with what we know about her. Why would a middle-aged white guy care so much about the factory girls of China? And why would someone on a catering crew not capitalize on this moment — write a book, make a movie, get famous?
What's holding Anne Onymous back? Perhaps it's the law or an embittered Mitt Romney trolling for scapegoats. Or maybe it's something else entirely. What if Anne Onymous is one of the millionaires who paid a bundle to attend? We don't know. The last thing we heard from her, by email of course: "I just can't talk right now." And then — poof — she disappeared.