Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero isn't one to shy away from risks, but the gamble he's making in the 2nd Ward this autumn may be his boldest yet.
Instead of backing four-term incumbent Sandy Allen, in the southeastern Lansing ward, Bernero is rolling the dice on challenger Tina Houghton, the student services coordinator at Michigan State University. From all indications, Bernero is helping Houghton raise money, get organized and do whatever else needs to be done to get her in a position to win Nov. 3.
The two are appearing side-by-side in a flier in which the clear implication is that Houghton supports public safety while Allen does not. (See related story on Page 6.)
That's a gutsy move for a mayor who, at best, has 50 percent of the Lansing City Council on his side during controversial issues — and Allen is part of the 50 percent on his side.
And, consider this: Allen won 57 percent of the primary vote in a five-candidate race. She pounded the field, with Houghton managing only 567 votes, or 26 percent.
If Houghton had received the other three candidates' votes she still would have finished about 300 votes behind Allen.
Obviously, Allen is miffed. She says she's been there "95 percent of the time" for Bernero and can't understand why he would work so hard to beat her.
"I'm just puzzled," Allen told me. "I think he's done a good job as mayor, picking up where Mayor Hollister left off, but the mayor has said if you're not 100 percent for me, you're against me. I'm an independent member of Council and I stand by what my constituents want."
Part of the riff stems from the re-paving of Northrup Street, in which Bernero and the administration supported putting curb, gutter, sidewalks and bike paths into the roadway since they were working on the street anyway. From his point of view, adult and child pedestrians should feel safe walking along this stretch of road south of Jolly Road between Cedar Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
But Allen said several residents on that street didn't want it. They wanted a repaving, period. Keeping the rural character of their street was important to them. Allen said that she felt she should stand by what her residents wanted.
The administration felt Allen cracked under the pressure of a small group of citizens who were "getting bent out of shape."
It added to her reputation in the mayor's camp as an "unreliable vote" that "blows in the breeze" when the temperature goes up.
The other factor is that Houghton is a decent candidate. Bernero and Houghton are past acquaintances. The mother of four is a PTA Board president and member. She founded the Lansing Stars Athletic Club, is a Southside Community Center Citizen Action Team member, a Lansing Parks Board member, Girl Scout Leader and youth athletic coach.
Also, in the eyes of eyes of some, Houghton represents "new blood on the Council."
"What does that mean new blood?" Allen asked. "I bleed red just like everyone else."
The insinuation here is that Allen, 73, may not be as sharp as she once was. She's been known to knit during Council meetings, for example. But Allen said her age and experience is much needed. If nothing else, it gives the Council diversity. No one else on the eight-member board is retired or even close to it.
Allen is still stinging about the insinuation that she's soft on public safety. How can that be, she asked, when she has the endorsements of the Fraternal Order of Police and the firefighters union?
The bigger question is what happens if Allen wins again, which political observers I talked to say is a better than even chance. Allen is well known among the senior citizens in the 2nd Ward, and Lord knows nobody casts a ballot more consistently than the older voter.
When push comes to shove on a key issue, does Allen tell Bernero to shove off? That’s a question the mayor will have to be asking himself if he loses his gamble on Houghton.
Bernero would have, at best, three Council members (Derrick Quinney, Kathie Dunbar and Jessica Yorko). That's two less than he needs to pass anything.
If this were a game of blackjack, this is like Bernero hitting on 17. Who knows? The 2nd Ward could deal him a four.
(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS political newsletter. His column appears weekly E-mail Melinn at email@example.com.)