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Wednesday, May 6,2009

Back to the future, again

Bernero says his reelection would mean more of what he's already done

by Neal McNamara and Angela Vasquez-Giroux


(This story was corrected on May 6, 2009, to reflect that Mayor Virg Bernero did not remove an Eric Hewitt campaign sign from a shop window in Old Town.)


In 2003, Virg Bernero was 258.


It was by 258 votes that he lost his first bid to be Lansing mayor to incumbent Tony Benavides 11,789 to 11,531.


But Bernero went back to the state Senate and put in his time making sure people in Lansing knew his name.


His earned a coup in early 2005 when he got national media attention for defending two workers who were fired from Weyco in Okemos because they were smokers. The workers’ boss said that their behavior was unhealthy; Virg said it was their choice to do what they will in their free time.


By March 2005, around the time when the subsequent mayor’s race was about to kick off, Bernero was polling just six points behind Benavides — 35 to 41 — and Bernero had 94 percent name recognition compared to Benavides’ 100 percent.

Soon after, Bernero took on state Rep. Michael Murphy — seen at the time as a possible candidate for mayor that year — over a parcel of land on Ottawa Street. Bernero wanted the land for Lansing to be used for residential purposes. Murphy wanted to build a new St. Stephen's Church, of which he was the pastor.

That land was eventually conveyed to the city and is set to be the site of a new development by Gene Townsend.


“That’s really one of the keys to economic growth — to bring people downtown,” Bernero said at the time.


He was already talking like the Virg Bernero we know today. And on April 20, 2005, Bernero launched his second bid for Lansing mayor.

Some questioned whether Bernero was in the Senate simply to train to be mayor, crafting legislation favorable to the residents of the Lansing so he could get a good buzz going. That year, the newsletter MIRS ranked Bernero No. 8 among the 10 least effective senators because of a lot of work he did that focused on Lansing issues, as opposed to statewide issues.

He had authored legislation that would require pipeline builders to pay $250 a mile for pipe at a time when Wolverine Pipe Line Inc. was planning a gas line on Lansing’s south side. And he was behind bills that would require annual lead testing for all municipal water suppliers to do annual lead testing right after it was announced that the pipes of 14,000 homes in Lansing might be contaminated with lead.


Back on the Weyco beat, he tried to pass a bill making it illegal for employers to fire workers for engaging in legal offthe-clock activities.

He even wore a city of Lansing lapel pin as opposed to state legislator’s pin.


But Bernero says it wasn’t like that. The Weyco legislation, the pipeline legislation — those things didn’t build much political capital, he says. What he’s most proud of in two years in the Senate was a failed bill to ban soda in public schools.

“We were relentless on the issue of school nutrition, “he said. “The bill didn’t pass, but the average mother knew where I stood.”

Whatever Bernero did, it worked (that and Benavides was seen as a nice man but ineffective mayor). Before the August primary he was ahead of Benavides 41 percent to 27 percent, and after it was 46 to 27.


By November, Bernero was 4,874.

It was by that many votes that he won his second bid to be Lansing mayor, 12,926 to 8,052.



Launch


On Saturday afternoon behind the Lansing City Market, which will probably be demolished by year’s end under a Bernero plan to build a new market, a crowd of about 60 gathered and put on green “Vote Virg” T-shirts. The crowd was a mix of supporters (one woman dressed her dog in a Bernero shirt), city department heads and other area politicians.

Close to 1:30, Randy Hannan, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and political adviser/spokesman, hopped up on a picnic table and announced to the crowd that they would parade south down the River Trail to a set of concrete steps behind the Lansing Center, where the mayor would give a speech. When the parade started, Bernero, 45, and his wife, Terri, an elementary school principal in Lansing, led the way, walking a good 10 steps in front of the parade.

Bernero was calm as he walked, but behind him was a big, fat tail of green. A man at the front of the parade chanted “four more years!” over and over as the group wound its way south, passing by the Ottawa Power Station — the redevelopment of which is another Bernero initiative — and its gargantuan cranes, their necks crossed like swans and silent on that windy Saturday afternoon


When the parade reached the Lansing Center, the song “Eye of the Tiger” was pumping from a set of speakers and it looked for a second like Bernero might run over to the Capitol, up its steps and lift his arms and yell, "Yo, Adrian!"


The parade settled on a set of concrete steps behind a podium, making the proverbial choir. And after an introduction by East Lansing Mayor Vic Loomis, Bernero started preaching.


“I’m here to reapply for my job” was all he had to say to get the crowd going.

It was a strange sight if you took a step back: Bernero flanked by upward of 60 supporters but giving his speech to a crowd that included four reporters, two cameramen and a handful of passersby. One astute observer pointed it out as made for TV. But, who’s counting?


"I thought, 'I know that name,'" said a woman, who wished not to give her name, who was watching the rally. She said she was from Livonia but had recognized Bernero from his famous fights with Fox News pundits over the auto industry and came down to watch him speak.

Bernero is entering this race — the latest and perhaps last of four candidates to announce after At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, local attorney and school board member Charles Ford and local musician Ben Hassenger — at a considerable advantage. He has far more money coming into 2009 than the other candidates, he is the incumbent and he has crafted an image as the savior of the common man defending General Motors on Fox News and leading a coalition of mayors from around the country to lobby for the car companies.

The Livonia woman hit on a topic that Bernero clearly intends to run on. He’ll be going door to door, as will campaign volunteers, but he’s focused more on the blue-collar jobs than politicking.

“My top priority is to save GM; it’s a higher priority than the election,” he said. “The campaign will be less of my personal time. Because it has to be GM and the auto industry.”

The plight of GM is, apparently, a product of the economy — and the economy of years past. But he's also made overtures of economic development — successfully — to young professionals in the city. A group called Accelerate Lansing, composed of 20- and 30-somethings supportive of new developments downtown and, in general, the mayor's agenda, was formed from outreach through meetings at downtown hotspots like Troppo.

One Accelerate Lansing member at the campaign kickoff was Lansing resident Darick Hensel. He plans to volunteer for the campaign because of Bernero’s "positive attitude," the mayor's "content of character" and the fact that he was "looking forward."


Another Accelerate Lansing member (and former Bernero staffer), Josh Hovey, was out to support the mayor as well.


"I like the direction Lansing is heading under Virg Bernero's leadership," he said, citing the growth of downtown as one positive change in the last three years. "He's the only candidate with a true vision for Lansing's future," he added.


For a long time, it seemed, Bernero’s focus was on downtown Lansing and its redevelopment. It’s been touted by his administration that you could go bowling along Washington Square it was so empty; but now there are lofts, coffee shops and bars.


But a number of the development projects set for downtown are on hold because of the economy. (The new Lansing City Market has been delayed because of overbidding.) So what’s Bernero going to tell all the youngsters (and some oldsters) who are waiting to move into the stalled Capitol Club Tower?


“What I’ll show people is the effort,” he said. “People are reasonable and appreciative of the work we do.”


Development matters, but without a manufacturing sector in this city, Bernero says, there is no creative class.

During his speech Saturday, Bernero didn’t take many jabs at his opponents, but he did say that some of them have a proclivity to say “no” a lot. He was probably talking about Wood, his City Council nemesis, but he didn’t specifically say.


In Wood he will face a candidate who has a lot of
suction with neighborhood groups and a reputation of being a City Hall
wonk. Her response to the claim that she exists as a naysayer is that
she is questioning things and that there’s nothing wrong with that.


In
Ford, Bernero will face a man with experience as a member of the school
board, City Council and years as an executive at the state Department
of Transportation.

To Bernero’s “no” claim, Ford would like to
see some substance.


“If everybody thinks Virg Bernero has done a good
job, wait until you see someone who’s qualified to be a CEO,” he said.



Successes


There’s no doubt that Bernero scored big with the redevelopment of the Ottawa Street Power Station. Hundreds
of millions are being invested into a beautiful, but oh so vacant,
downtown landmark to transform it into a headquarters for the Accident
Fund Insurance Co. According to the plans for the building, it’ll open
up Grand Avenue and the riverfront and add some architectural flair to
downtown.

It was almost two years into Bernero’s term that the
Accident Fund project was announced. Around that announcement were many
more in the field of economic development, including Capitol Club Tower
and the redevelopment of the Lansing City Market. Capitol Club Tower
hasn’t broke ground yet, but after a painful approval process last
summer, the groundbreaking on a new City Market could come soon. The
City Market was sold to developer Pat Gillespie, and after the
71-year-old building is torn down, he has plans to build a residential
and commercial mixed-use project in its place.

For Gillespie,
one of the stars of the local development community, Bernero’s
administration has been huge.


“He’s surrounded himself with very
competent folks,” Gillespie says, mentioning Economic Development Corp.
Director Bob Trezise Jr. and Planning and Neighborhood Development
Director Bob Johnson. “They’re A players. They understand development
and customer relations. We deal with a lot of cities and these guys are
top notch.”

Things get done quicker, Gillespie said, and
that’s one of the things Bernero touts from his time in office. When he
first came into office, people questioned his need to do things so
quickly.

“I will not sacrifice progress for harmony,” he says.


One of the things he likes most about being mayor, Bernero said, is
that he can actually do things. In the House or Senate, bills are at
the mercy of politics on a much larger scale and there’s less control.
As mayor, he can speed up big projects.

But it’s not just
economic development. Bernero points out the deficits the city has
overcome each year chronologically from $10 million, to $7 million to
$6 million. He says he’s shrinking government, and he has, in a way.
The city has 190 fewer employees since 2004. He also hasn’t raised
taxes, even though property tax rates generally rise without the hand
of government. There’s also $10 million in reserves the city hasn’t
touched, and it maintains an AA bond rating.

Eric Schertzing,
Ingham County treasurer, was at Bernero’s speech on Saturday. He says
that the health of the county’s largest city affects his sector of
government.

“The financial health of Ingham County is heavily
dependent on our capital city,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of
economic wealth in East Lansing, Meridian Township and Delhi Township,
but the focal point is the city of Lansing. If Lansing is
vibrant, it increases all the other efforts the county has to take on.”


And that’s why Schertzing, who has known Bernero since the 1980s, will
support the mayor.

Building on the success of programs
initiated before his election, Bernero is pledging to expand the HOPE
scholarship (a program spearheaded by Police Chief Mark Alley) into a
citywide program. After landing one of the 10 slots available through
the state, modeled on the Kalamazoo Promise, Lansing was designated a
Promise Zone, which would fund two-year scholarships for Lansing School
District students to attend Lansing Community College.

He's
been quick to tout the successes of neighboring East Lansing, including
the FRIB facility at Michigan State University and an IBM center near
MSU. He refers to MSU as a regional partner, saying that those
developments will bring bright scientific minds to the area.


Vince
Villegas, a local real estate agent and Bernero supporter, said that
he’s heard of several big companies eyeing Lansing to invest in. And if
that happens, the city needs someone like Bernero in office to push it
through.

“It’s going to be a lot of work to make sure we keep
the momentum going,” Villegas said. “We’re in a position for some
phenomenal growth. I think at the end of day, what we need for Lansing
and the state is a fighter.”

Then there’s Bernero’s biggest
job as of late: lobbyist for the Big Three and the blue-collar worker.


Go to YouTube and type in Bernero’s name and you will get a group of
videos of Bernero squaring off against cable news pundits. Bernero’s
rise to cable news darling came during his first trip to Washington in
November to lobby on behalf of a Big Three bailout. He was invited to
be on Neil Cavuto's show on Fox News — and on that day he became the
“angriest mayor in America.”

His tirades against Wall Street
“fat cats” and “pencil pushers” continue today. Go to the city’s Web
site and you’ll find a fresh video of Bernero on Fox News debating the
effects of a Big Three bankruptcy.

Yet, even in light of some
undeniable positives popping up in Lansing — The Accident Fund, the
Promise Zone designation — Bernero pledged to work just as hard as he
did on day one, if Lansing's voters give him another four years.

Bernero
is racking up some endorsements early — you can count Gillespie and
Schertzing in there. Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann was
present Saturday and confirmed he would endorse Bernero for mayor.

Loomis
wouldn't commit to an endorsement, joking, "I have my own re-election
to worry about," but during his introduction he hailed Bernero's
leadership.

"I can personally attest to his leadership style,"
he said. "I want to thank (Bernero) for saying, 'I'm not done, I've
only just begun, I want four more years.'"



Putting the rock in ‘Rocky’


Virg
Bernero doesn’t deny he gets hot under the collar. Whether with a
pundit, or calling a City Council member a “piece of shit” or a
“motherfucker.”

His quarrels with City Council are the best
examples of his impatience. That “motherfucker” was thrown at First
Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt last year behind closed doors after a
failed Council vote to approve the applying for a grant to improve
Frances Park. It should be noted, however, that Hewitt called the
Italian- American mayor a “guinea wop,” which Hewitt (himself of
Italian descent) claims was rhetorical.

Moreover, Bernero can
be a bully, as state Rep. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing, found out when she
helped raise money for Wood’s last Council campaign — resulting in a
temper tantrum personally phoned into her office by the mayor. (Bauer
is not endorsing in this race.) And he can let his partisanship get the best of him, as two merchants in Old Town found out in 2007 when he seemingly threatened retribution because they had campaign signs in their windows for Eric Hewitt, who was running against his Council candidate, Harold Leeman Jr. And he can be vindictive,
as PR woman Kelly Rossman-McKinney found out when she lost a city
contract after she delivered the eulogy at the funeral of neighborhood
activist Ruth Hallman, Wood’s mother. Such antics have helped fuel
“Anybody But Virg” signs around town and motivate some voters to say
they can’t support him because they can’t stand him.


Last summer two
very large quarrels with Council took center stage. The first was the
approval of the sale of the Lansing City Market. There was vocal
protest from supporters of the market to the sale, which would lead to
it being torn down and replaced with housing. The Council eventually
approved the sale, but the vote was down to the wire and essentially
pitted the business community — which came out in droves to support the
sale — against Council members Wood, Hewitt, At-Large Councilman Brian
Jeffries and Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson, who demanded
changes in the sales agreement, and the old City Market supporters.

Perhaps
more controversial was Bernero's refusal to open two of the city's
three golf courses, Waverly and Red Cedar. Both courses, he said,
sucked money from the budget and weren't going to start making enough
money to stay afloat any time soon. The closure of the courses led the
Council to vote to sue the mayor. That move is on hold as
Council hasn't yet approved the mayor's deficit elimination plan for
last year's budget, which developed a deficit after the mayor was
unable to persuade local unions to reopen and renegotiate their
contracts.

Lopping off the golf courses has led to questions
whether Bernero is trying to sell off city assets. When he first came
into office, Bernero unloaded Potter Park Zoo onto the county and has
presided over the sale of the South Grand Avenue parking ramp to
developer Sean Elliott for Capitol Club Tower development. Then there’s
the North Grand Avenue ramp and its expansion to the Accident Fund the
Ottawa Power Station redevelopment.

Hot right now is the mayor’s insistence on selling the North Capitol Avenue ramp
to Lansing Community College. His administration also plans to build a
$9 million ramp on the east side of the Grand River, in the general
vicinity of the Gillespie Marketplace development and the Lansing
Center.

After Council blocked an attempt to reconsider the LCC
purchase of the North Capitol ramp by rejecting a vote to set a public
hearing for the sale, Bernero used a rarely employed charter provision
allowing him to call a special meeting of the Council and set the
agenda. Council eventually set a hearing.

“There’s no
concerted effort to sell off non-money-making ventures, but, given the
economic crisis, now is the time to look at those things,” he said.


Then
there’s the question of whether Bernero is actually committed to
Lansing, or if he’s using the office to launch into higher office.

In
the future, he said, he wants to serve in a position that allows him to
best serve the community. That could be mayor, but it could be
something in the private sector.


Would it count as serving Lansing is
he took a go at U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers’ seat after redistricting?


“Not
really,” he said.


There have been claims that he’s a “job hopper” he
says — he stepped into the Lansing mayor’s race shortly after being
elected to the Senate. But he points to his record serving eight years
on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners and a full term in a House
seat.


“God willing I’ll serve a full term,” he said when asked, if he
won, whether he’d stay mayor for another four years. “I fully intend to
serve the full term.”



Campaign slogan


When
Wood announced her candidacy for mayor in February, Practical Political
Consultants conducted a poll for City Pulse showing that she and
Bernero were split 50-50 among likely voters.

Bernero disputes
the poll.


“You didn’t run a poll, it was a survey. I don’t take your
poll seriously at all. It has no relationship to reality. … That’s not
to say we don’t have a race on our hands,” he said.


(City Pulse
reported at the time that the poll had an error factor of 9 percent and
was “too small a sample to be much more than an overview.”)


His
candidacy in 2005, he said, was “Back to the Future.” Not like the
movie, but like he was channeling former mayor David Hollister, who
brought Lansing a new GM plant and the redevelopment of parts of
Michigan Avenue, including Oldsmobile Park. It was back to the momentum
of the Hollister years.

But this time it’s all about saving
jobs. No, scratch that, public safety is always No. 1, but right up
close behind that is reinvigorating the manufacturing base in Lansing.
(A Fox News jockey would probably call that “Back to the Past.")


“I
will fight like hell to bring jobs to this community,” he said. For
this election, Bernero’s campaign slogan is simple.

“More of
the same,” he said. “What does that mean? More change, more activity,
more improvements for Lansing. What you saw in the last four years is
what you’re going to get. But we have to do more of it quicker.”

“There’s
no Mayor 101 course. Your life experience prepares you for this job or
not. This job comes at you like a freight train.”



Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story should have said that an Old Town merchant removed a campaign sign from her store's window that Bernero did not like after he complained to her about it.



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