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Wednesday, March 3,2010

Who says college students don’t vote?

by Kyle Melinn

Do you even bother sending Christmas cards anymore? With the crush of the holidays and everything?


Penelope Tsernoglou did. In fact, the East Lansing resident wrote out dozens to Michigan State University students living in the Brody complex.


Tsernoglou isn’t a student or a MSU employee. She isn’t even an alumna. She graduated in 2001 from that other Big Ten school about 80 miles east of here.


But running for county commissioner can inject the ambitious with a little extra ho, ho, ho. The 30-year-old Tsernoglou had that. Even if only seven souls out of 1,659 registered voters from East Lansing’s Precinct No. 1 voted in the 2008 August primary for county commission.


That’s seven people.


At the time, then-Commissioner Marc Thomas was running unopposed. School was out at the time, too. But seven? Seven people voted in that entire precinct. In November 2008, 1,659 students voted for Thomas, but that was with Barack Obama and John McCain running for president.


Tsernoglou, 30, was running in the Democratic primary to fill a vacancy in the 8th District on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners during a special February election when nothing else would be on the ballot.


Still, since kicking off her campaign in September, the first-time candidate made a point to visit Brody every day as part of her door-knocking, constituent-meeting routine. With only one write-in candidate interested in the seat in the general election, the winner of the Feb. 23 primary would, realistically, be the next county commissioner for the area.


The effort seemed a lost cause. Early internal polling showed Tsernoglou down 3-to-1 to favorite Bob Alexander, the Democrats’ twice-nominated congressional candidate. This go around, Alexander was campaigning the same area again, with the benefit of having had mostly liberal East Lansing voting for him twice.


"The whole thing was hopeless," said Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner, Tsernoglou’s boss at Practical Political Consultants. "I told her to give up."


Tsernoglou did not. Instead she ran what Grebner called "one hell of a campaign," knocking on doors, canvassing neighborhoods and ginning up excitement among the voters in the 8th District, basically everything in East Lansing north of Brody between Interstate 127 and Abbot Road.


She’s done this before, after all. She was the campaign manager of Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann’s successful re-election and chairs the Ingham County Young Democrats, among her deep resume of election activities.


By noon on Election Day, Feb. 23, Tsernoglou’s efforts in Brody did appear hopeless. Only six people in Precinct One had bothered voting.


"Everyone knew me and they knew I was running for county commission," said Tsernoglou. "It was just hard convincing them to vote and that this election should matter to them."


Tsernoglou unleashed a massive get-outthe-vote effort. Twenty volunteers chased dozens of students out of their dorm rooms to Butterfield Hall to put in their vote.


When the polls closed, the final number of students voting had reached 87, only 4 percent of Brody’s registered voters. It was lower than any of the other five precincts. Precinct 3 had 383 voters and Precinct 4 had 280 voters. Tsernoglou sat at Dublin Square during her celebration party preparing herself for a loss.


She was shocked when the final results were tallied. Tsernoglou 492, Alexander 470. Peter Dewan 191 and Lee Reimann 112. Tsernoglou won by 22 votes. The final results from Precinct 1? Tsernoglou: 87. Everybody else: 0.


"I actually thought my campaign volunteers had added the numbers wrong," she said.


Alexander released the following statement after the defeat:


"Many voters said they had a difficult choice as each of the four candidates did a fine job of presenting their skills and experience. Penelope and her campaign maximized her advantages on campus and in the neighborhoods and earned her victory."


Good thing she didn’t listen to Grebner, who hurriedly congratulated her and then talked with the other county commissioners to make sure he and Tsernoglou don’t sit on the same committees, to avoid any appearance of conflict once she is sworn into office.


All the while, Grebner just shook his head. Who would have thunk it? Brody’s late Christmas present put Tsernoglou over the top.




UAW endorsement for Virg?


According to sources within the labor movement, a UAW endorsement of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero’s bid to be the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee is all but assured, with an announcement coming as soon as this week.


Bernero’s passionate defense on the national cable news circuits of the auto industry and blue collar workers during the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler last year has not been forgotten by UAW brass, even if Bernero’s history with local city employee unions isn’t as sterling.


Remember last September, the local Teamsters union protested Bernero’s proposal to water down city employees’ retirement benefits by bouncing an inflatable rat outside of his re-election campaign headquarters?


Organized labor is still split on what to do between Bernero and former Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, whose
standing with labor also is very good. The unions would like to stand
behind a common candidate to help prevent the party from nominating Andy Dillon, a political moderate who has clashed with traditional labor unions since first winning his House seat in 2004.


The
fear is that with both Kildee, who is exploring a run, and Bernero in
the race, the traditional Democratic groups will split up their vote
and clear the way for Dillon, who has support among the "chai tea
party," the intellectual, moderate white collar folks, who voted with
Democrats the last two election cycles.


A recent EPIC/MRA poll shows that after a short bio of all four Democratic candidates is read, Dillon leads with 24 percent. Alma Wheeler Smith, the most liberal candidate of the field, comes in second with Kildee at 14 percent. Bernero is right behind at 13 percent.


Interestingly, if Dillon ends up being the Democratic nominee, some segments of labor may throw their support behind U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who has strong relations with the Teamsters, if he is the Republican nominee.


Also,
do not forget about potential independent gubernatorial candidate Joe
Schwarz, who earned the UAW’s endorsement in his successful 2004
congressional run.


(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. His column appears weekly. E-mail him at melinn@lansingcitypulse. com.)

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