On the agenda at Monday night’s Lansing City Council meeting were two “mayoral presentations.” One was for the Lansing Rotary Club for its sponsorship of Lansing’s sesquicentennial celebrations, and the other recognizing Boy Scout Troop 111 for “100 years of scouting.”
The presentations are the kind of meat and potatoes public appearances that gives a mayor an opportunity to smile in front of television cameras with a group of locals, be it city boosters or good-hearted Boy Scouts.
But Monday’s mayoral presentations were not given by Mayor Virg Bernero, but his chief of staff, Jerry Ambrose. Once upon a time, hizzoner usually did the honors himself, but his attendance at Council meetings became rare last year when the mayoral race heated up. The mayor is not required to appear at City Council meetings, though a representative from his office is supposed to be present — and recently, Ambrose has filled that role.
It’s been a little over a month since Bernero was sworn into office for his second term as Lansing mayor, and he has decided to take a shot at running for governor. His decision poses the question: How will he continue to run the city?
When asked Monday evening at his official announcement to run for governor at the Lansing Center if he planned to be away from the city a lot, he said simply, “I do.”
But Bernero says that he will defer to his department heads to run the city and that he will never be out of reach if a problem arises.
“I have a great team of experienced professionals at City Hall,” he said Monday night. “I’ve never got into departments and ran them personally, but I run the city through department directors.”
Bernero could not quantify how much time he would actually spend on the campaign trail, saying, “I’ve never been part of a statewide campaign before. I’m still in the learning process on that.”
In Michigan’s history, only two mayors have ever run for governor and won, and they were both mayors of Detroit. Bill Ballenger, a former state legislator and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said that a mayor of a city other than Detroit has never been governor. The last person to do it was former Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy, who was elected in 1936 and served a twoyear term. Hazen Pingree went from being mayor of Detroit in 1896 to being governor for two terms. Ballenger said that Pingree actually tried to remain mayor while being governor, but the issue was taken to court and Pingree had to relinquish being mayor. Michigan governors in the past 30 years have held statewide or federal elected office: Gov. Jennifer Granholm was formerly state attorney general; preceding her was John Engler, who was a state legislator, and before that James Blanchard was a congressman.
“There’s nobody I can think of that’s been a mayor who has even really run for governor for either party, at least not since WWII,” he said.
Ballenger said that a mayor having liege over a relatively small geographic area could limit recognition on a statewide scale. Plus, the duties of being mayor are local, though Bernero has gained popularity nationally as a personality on cable news networks and YouTube.
If Bernero is busy trekking around the state trying to bolster his profile, what duties here in Lansing could he be missing?
Former Mayor David Hollister said that a mayor, in his opinion, has two major duties: foremost is to provide a vision for the city, and second is to assemble a competent team of department heads to carry out that vision. Hollister said that Bernero has already done both.
Administratively, Hollister said, it is the mayor’s duty to ensure the health and safety of the city, deal with city property and maintain the city’s budget. Whenever there’s a public safety issue — a fire, murder or weather emergency — the mayor is always notified. In fact, Bernero noted on Monday that as he was traveling around announcing his campaign — he stopped at a Detroit chassis plant Monday morning and a Grand Rapids fire station in the afternoon — he was kept abreast of an approaching snowstorm.
Said Hollister: “You’re never out of connection with the city. You never have a day off. Even if you take a day off, you never have a day off. You carry a beeper or a phone, and you can be reached 24/7.”
At this point in the governor’s race, Hollister said, Bernero will be taking on a significant additional workload, but it will not get “marginal” between his city duties and his campaign efforts until close to the August primary.
Between now and August, the most major city government-related task for Bernero is preparing the city budget, which is already projected to have a $12 million gap between revenues and expenditures.
Ambrose said that right now the focus is on the budget, but that does not mean the mayor needs to sit beside him with a calculator figuring out how to solve the deficit. Ambrose, who is also the city’s finance director and served for 20 years as Ingham County controller, said he and his team will do the number crunching, but that the mayor sets the parameters for the budget.
“The fact that (the mayor) is not going to be in the office as much doesn’t make him any less the mayor,” Ambrose said. “He’s the chief executive officer of city. The responsibility for the city operating is his. He gives us direction, he holds us accountable, he sets expectations and gives us parameters, and that is not changing. We’re always accessible when the mayor calls.”
Murdock Jemerson, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said that the mayor has never been involved in the day-today operations of his department, but sets a direction for the department. Jemerson said that in the absence of the mayor, Ambrose would give direction.
“The mayor is definitely involved,” Jemerson said. “He provides direction and leadership for the city, and that includes all the city departments.”
Randy Hannan, Bernero’s deputy chief of staff, has been a close ally of Bernero’s for much of his political career, designing communications and campaign strategies. Hannan said that he will be part of the Bernero’s gubernatorial campaign — as he has been in campaigns in the past — but only in his spare time and on vacation days. He said he and Ambrose will “run the shop” but that the mayor will always be in touch, especially with mobile technology.
“You’ll never see a more hands-on guy than this,” Hannan said, referring to the mayor. “And modern technology makes this whole enterprise go along.”
Some Lansing residents are questioning Bernero’s decision and whether he’ll still actually be mayor.
“I thought he said in his platform he was going to be mayor and that was that,” said Linda Stevens, owner of Lansing Art Glass on Michigan Avenue. “Why is he just turning around and running for governor after becoming mayor?”
Cassie Burchall, an employee at Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee Co. on Michigan Avenue, wondered how the mayor would juggle his elected duties and a gubernatorial campaign.
“I think he’s trying to help Lansing grow with his plans to revitalize neighborhoods,” she said. “In terms of being mayor and running for governor, I don’t know how you would juggle both. There’s both good and bad things.”
Council Vice President Kathie Dunbar and At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney did not think the gubernatorial campaign would hurt the operations of the city.
“We are still the legislative body in this whole process,” Quinney said. “What he does or what he has done has not affected our actions as such.”
When asked whether she thinks the mayor should still receive a salary if he’s out campaigning, Dunbar said it would be unquantifiable.
“Why not? I mean seriously, how many days a week do I work as a Council member? Do I get to choose which times during the day I work at my other job? Yeah, I’m flexible with that,” she said. “You can’t say how many hours a day he works for the days he’s here.”
“Even though he may not be here — and that’s whether he’s campaigning or vacationing or on city matters outside the state or outside of the city — he’s still kept up to speed with what’s going on. So, I guess in that capacity he’s still working,” Quinney said.
(City Pulse intern Brandon Kirby contributed to this report.)