By Elise Viebeck - 10/17/12 10:42 PM EDT
Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" comment is drawing attention to the gender breakdown in the former governor's administration.
GOP officials deny that Romney's record on hiring women is anything but exemplary. But on Wednesday, critics charged that Romney's commitment to hiring women declined over the four years he ran the Bay State.
"Despite what Romney claimed in the debate last night, there were fewer women in his administration by the end than there were in the previous or subsequent administrations," Mermell said.
Romney's former lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, rebutted the point on Wednesday.
The GOP nominee "has always promoted women in the work place," Healey told NBC.
"I actually spent hours pouring over the resumes in those binders, so I knew what [Romney] was talking about," Healey said. "He was extremely pleased to do this, enthusiastic, and he appointed me to be the liaison to make sure that this got done. And it did get done."
The issue arose Tuesday night when Romney said he sought and reviewed "binders full of women" candidates to join his Massachusetts administration.
The inadvertently funny remark quickly went viral as parody on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook accounts.
But speaking with reporters Wednesday, Mermell said her group had approached Romney with the binders, not the other way around, as part of a project to boost women in state politics.
"We provided the Romney transition team with binders in 2002," Mermell said on a call organized by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). "To be perfectly clear, Mitt Romney did not request those resumes."
Mermell later cited a study finding that the share of women appointees under Romney fell from 42 to 25 percent during his second two years in office when his choices were "out of the spotlight."
The study was commissioned by Mermell's group and conducted by researchers with the University of Massachusetts, Boston in 2007.
But on Tuesday, Romney himself cited a separate study which said his administration had more women in leading roles than any other in the nation at one point.
That report came from the State University of New York at Albany and noted that under Romney, the share of women in top-advisor (54.5 percent) and department-head (50 percent) roles were "well above national and New England regional averages."
Romney said Tuesday that he is "proud" of the finding.
Discussion inspired by the "binders" remark comes alongside a new Gallup poll giving the GOP nominee a 6-percentage-point lead over President Obama among likely voters.
Some recent surveys have also shown Romney gaining ground among swing-state women, a crucial demographic in the race for the White House.
By Wednesday afternoon, Democrats had launched a fundraising effort off what Romney said in the debate.
"Plain and simple, Gov. Romney just doesn't get it," DNC National Finance Director Hildy Kuryk said in an email to supporters. "He has done nothing to support women (except for those 'binders') and we can expect the same if he becomes president."
But on a call with reporters, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus repeated that Romney's record on hiring women is "second-to-none."
"Obama is playing small ball because he can't win on the big issues," Priebus said.