An emotional populist message? Check. An arguably good record of public service? Check. Enthusiasm and drive? Check, check.
Statewide name ID? Nope. Money to run television ads to address his statewide name ID problem? Not yet. A proven campaign team to run a statewide governor’s race? Not certain.
As political observers watched Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero jump with both feet into the Democratic gubernatorial sweepstakes Monday, the question wasn’t about Bernero’s potential to win. He’s got that. It’s all about whether he can marshal the resources to convince the big swingers in the Democratic Party to bat for him.
UAW and AFL-CIO officials held off on endorsing Lt. Gov. John Cherry earlier this year out of concern he was not personally raising the money or shaking the hands he needed to lock down a winning November campaign. Without the big unions’ defibrillators to resuscitate him, the former Democratic frontrunner’s gubernatorial campaign flatlined.
The decision left the field open for socially conservative House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, the author of a unionhated public employee health care pooling plan. It’s the same Andy Dillon who made the budget-cutting deal with Republicans last year.
"The MEA and the UAW are going to do everything in their power to make sure Andy Dillon in not the nominee," said Craig Ruff, senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants. "They may have a candidate out there that they feel better about, but in the end, they’ll go with the person who has the best shot."
Bernero could be that candidate. The only other candidate in the field, state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, D-Salem Township, is a truebelieving liberal who’s had no problem picking up the union torch in her distinguished legislative career. But she finished 2009 with only $10,000 in the bank, an underwhelming amount considering she spent the better part of the year in the race.
Three other people are toying with a run: University of Michigan Trustee Denise Ilitch, former state Treasurer Bob Bowman and former Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee. But none of these three are slamdunk options, either.
Ilitch, of the Detroit Red Wings-Litte Caesar’s familiy, can raise money, but Democratic supporters aren’t convinced she’s ready for prime time. And they worry about her Democratic loyalties since she gave money to President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004.
Bowman has the brains and the wallet to do it, but guy hasn’t lived full time in Michigan since former Gov. Jim Blanchard left the Capitol. He’s registered to vote in Harbor Springs, but he lives in Connecticut and works in New York City as a Major League Baseball executive. Besides that, he may embody the Wall Street/CEO image unions have typically opposed.
Kildee’s Democratic stripes cannot be contested, but his moneyraising potential can be. And unlike Bernero, he hasn’t shown the energy needed to make that end of things happen.
All of the sudden, the 45-year-old Bernero — who’s managed to be a county commissioner, state representative, state Senator and mayor in the last 10 years — could be that candidate. Polling last month from EPIC/MRA may indicate that the more voters know Bernero, the more they like him against a Republican candidate.
EPIC/MRA pollster Bernie Porn said that in a match between Bernero and Attorney General Mike Cox, the Republicans’ gubernatorial frontrunner, Bernero wins 53 percent to 30 percent in Lansing. Against the other top Republican, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Bernero is up 50 percent to 30 percent in Lansing.
Outside of Lansing, Bernero is an unknown quantity, meaning he’ll need money to boost his statewide name ID, Porn said.
"He is an attractive candidate. He had the guts to explore the race before John Cherry got out," said Stephanie McLean of GMT Strategies. "He’s an attractive candidate for labor. He’s pro-choice. And he runs a city that’s not doing too bad when you consider there’s a lot more cities in this state that are doing a lot worse."
Bernero made a name for himself in early 2009 on the the national cable news circuit for his passionate defense of the federal auto industry bailout. He carried over that "Angry Mayor" theme Monday during his gubernatorial kickoff at the Lansing Center.
Pointing to his 84-year-old father, Guilio Bernero, Bernero told a crowd of around 150 people that the man his children call "Grandpa" has a different name to the "fat cats."
"To the bankers on Wall Street, he has another name: legacy cost. Just a cost on a spreadsheet that needs to be cut," he said. "Washington and Wall Street don’t care about people like my dad. They don’t care about the (working-class people)."
Bernero kept pounding about how Michigan is in the "fight of its life." The citizens know the score. They know Michigan’s economy is struggling, but they are not helpless spectators. They can do something about and a partisan political atmosphere in Lansing that has created paralysis while billions in federal money has sat on the table.
"I’m thinking it’s time to fight back," he said. "It’s time to take back our state before it’s too late."
The feisty Bernero then took his own roundhouse right at "the insiders and the politically well connected" who think "being rich is the best qualification for standing up for hard-working people" and jabbed at the "blow-dried politicians" who he says got Michigan into this mess in the first place.
He threw out the red meat for angry, down-on-their-luckers in his first four policy positions, too: Putting a two-year ban on home foreclosures, cracking down on excessive credit card fees, freezing college tuition increases and tax restructuring.
In other year, Ruff said Bernero probably wouldn’t get a lot of traction. This year, though … .
"This is an usual year," Ruff said. "This is one of those years that could produce a Ross Perot or a George Wallace. It’s a fragile Michigan mentality right now. People could latch onto a firebrand radical from the left or the right. The atmosphere for a populist is more ripe than it has been in other years."
From a practical standpoint, observers agree that Bernero needs the proper team to run a statewide race. Running for Lansing mayor and running for governor are two totally different things.
So far, he’s hired Chris Caswell, a former Cherry fundraiser, to bring in donations, and Patrick McAlvey, who managed his mayoral
re-election campaign. Jamaine Dickens, who worked for Detroit Mayor
Kwame Kilpatrick before "Kilpatrick" became a dirty word, is doing some
public relations and media coordination, too.
isn’t saying how much money he’s raised since he formed his exploratory
committee on Dec. 23, other than, "The response has been great."
He only had $16,500 in his mayoral account from the $375,000 he raised last year
for re-election, which he could transfer over. But it’s not a lot,
especially considering Dillon is rumored to have raised $1 million
doesn’t mean Bernero is late to the game, by any stretch, McLean said.
In fact, after Cherry vacated his position as Democratic frontrunner,
"the ball game just switched to another stadium," she said.
"It was an afternoon game and it just changed to an evening game."