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Wednesday, August 27,2014

Bully politics

by BERL SCHWARTZ
Mary Edgar of Okemos is a quiet, grey-haired senior citizen, hardly the type you would expect to confront the angriest mayor in America, Virg Bernero.

But that she did on Primary Election Day, when as precinct cochairwoman she told him he was campaigning illegally close to the polling place at Okemos Public Montessori- Central.

Bernero did finally move. One source said he did so after calling Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, who educated him on state law. Another said it was only after someone swore at him for not moving. To his credit, the sometimes explosive mayor kept his cool.

But he continued to pass out literature that appears to violate state law because it failed to state who paid for it.

Bernero's unusual efforts in another political jurisdiction were part of an apparent get-even campaign against a fellow Democrat, Ingham County Commissioner Deb Nolan. Her sin was trying to do her job.

As chairwoman of the county commission, Nolan signed a letter dated Oct. 14, 2013, that sought a meeting with him to resolve an impasse. According to the letter, the city had agreed in 2010 to transfer retirement funds set aside for 34 city employees who were going to work at the consolidated 9-1-1 call center. Three years later — and a year after the call center actually opened — the city still hadn’t transferred the funds.

The literature Bernero was handing out supported Nolan's primary opponent, accountant Amy Lothamer, and several other Democratic candidates. But it lacked the line that state law requires saying who paid for it when it specifically advocates voting for a candidate, as this one did. Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said Monday she is going to file a complaint with the state. She also said it was handed out illegally close to polling places, although she was unaware Bernero was one of those doing so.

The suspicion is the campaign piece was the handiwork of Capitol Region Progress, a shadowy political action committee that had paid for two nasty mailers against Nolan, replete with unflattering photos of her. (See mailers attached in online version of this article)

Capitol Region Progress is the same nonprofit that produced negative mailers against former Lansing City Councilman Brian Jeffries, who lost his seat last fall after a campaign against him led by Bernero. It is not registered as a political action committee with the county, state or federal government. If it is not specifically calling on voters to support a candidate, it is not covered by campaign finance law.

That means it can put out anti-candidate literature without having to report not only who paid for it but who contributed to the organization that paid for it. Thus, in theory, Bernero could be paying the bills without being reported.

Nolan and others are convinced that Bernero is behind Capitol Region Progress. Others are not so sure, but it does seem incredibly coincidental that it targeted the same candidates the mayor took an active hand in opposing.

Bernero said Monday by email: “As to Capitol Region Progress, I’m not a member or an officer of the organization and I don’t direct their efforts, but I do appreciate their advocacy for a stronger Lansing region.”

What he didn’t say is if he contributes money to it or urges others to do so. He denied any knowledge of campaign violations — this from a veteran campaigner who is well aware that literature advocating voting for a candidate must say who paid for it.

Regardless of Bernero’s connection or lack thereof to Capitol Region Progress or his failure to look at what he was passing out, Nolan has it right when she says his foray into her campaign — a fellow Democrat with a reasonably progressive reputation — is nothing short of “bully politics.”

Bernero, she says, “made it clear to many people that he was going to go after me for that threatening letter. He made it clear to people we know in common so that it would come back to me that that was why he was going to take me to task.”

She added, “I made it clear to many people around him I’d like to sit down and work this through. He had no interest in working it through. He’d rather get into running a campaign against me instead.”

The impasse over the 9-1-1 workers has been resolved. The city is in the process of paying its debt to the county. And county officials may have learned a lesson about diplomacy. One commissioner said the county could have tried harder to work it out behind the scenes before what Bernero may have perceived as an attack on his and the city's credibility – one that played out in the media.

Far more important is whether Bernero will learn a lesson. He has clearly damaged his favorite cause: regionalism.

His email statement says: “My intent as mayor is to move forward in good faith with all of the members of the county commission. We all need to continue working together in the best interests of the Lansing region. Deb has two more years to demonstrate that she can also work in good faith to support regional progress.”

His style of bully politics doesn’t square with that. Nolan has it right when she says: “It’s not the way to move forward as Democrats or in regionalism. The whole region is negatively affected by bully politics.”

As for Nolan, all turned out well. She beat Lothamer handily. She still has to get through the general election, but for now the score is Nolan 1, Bernero 0.

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