A full back-page advertisement in City Pulse can cost more than $1,400. It’s no cheap feat to label former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero as “America’s Horniest Mayor” — especially in text this large. So, who’s bankrolling the first mudslinging attack ad of the mayoral campaign?
Michigan Deserves Better is. Lansing political consultant Joe DiSano, owner of DiSano Strategies, is behind the fund. And he expects more such ads to come.
“Nobody wants to go back to the years of Virg Bernero in Lansing,” DiSano said. “We just got rid of Trump. This just isn’t at all what this city needs right now.”
Bernero, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth term, has announced he is taking on Andy Schor, the incumbent who replaced him in 2018 after Bernero sat out the election in 2017. Lansing City Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley has also announced, as have four lesser known candidates, Arielle Padilla, Jeffery Handley, Larry Hutchinson Jr., and Melissa Huber.
The ad responds to two accusations of sexual harassment leveled against Bernero two weeks ago. It also lists individuals and their business ties who donated to Bernero’s fledgling reelection campaign before the allegations surfaced.
Michigan Deserves Better — not to be confused with the Super PAC with an identical name — is a tax-exempt social welfare organization registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. DiSano said he is president, guided by a board.
He refused to disclose funding amounts or name donors but noted that “no money is coming in from outside the area.” DiSano also said the group has no ties to Schor or his reelection campaign.
The IRS doesn’t require Michigan Deserves Better to release its financial activity. And while the group can promote “social welfare,” as described in federal law, that does not allow for direct (or indirect) support or opposition to any candidate for public office. However, a 501(c)(4) organization may engage in “some” political activity, as long as that is not its “primary” activity.
“I was galvanized when I heard Virg was going back into politics. The moment I became completely angry was when he tried to play a game of guess-the-accuser in a radio interview with Michael Patrick Shiels. It was the most smug, misogynistic conversation,” DiSano said.
Two women told City Pulse that Bernero sexually harassed them while in office. One said he “groped” her in downtown Lansing in 2010, when he was serving his second term as mayor. The other said Bernero made a series of unwanted and sexually charged phone calls to her in 2004, while was a state senator.
Bernero initially labeled the behavior as “unacceptable and wrong,” while pointing out he did not recall either incident, and apologized to both women. But three days later, he flatly denied the survivors’ stories during a radio interview. He also proferred a baseless conspiracy that Schor had somehow encouraged the two women to make up the stories and present them to City Pulse.
Bernero agreed last week to work with the executive director of the Firecracker Foundation — which deals with survivors of sexual trauma — as he continues to face public backlash from the accusations. Still, he continued to deny the accusations at a Black Lives Matter forum last week.
“I’m sorry for anybody that I’ve hurt, and I mean that sincerely. I’m sure that I’ve offended people with my words. I can’t really apologize for something that I did not do. I believe in a culture of consequence — and not in a culture of cancellation,” Bernero said, tripling down on his denial.
Among those listed in the recent attack ad are local and out-of-state business executives, Bernero’s neighbors on Cambridge Drive, lobbyists and more. And so far, none of them are shying away from their continued support — even after the latest harassment allegations.
“My support is completely based on what I know about Virg’s past and what I’ve seen him do for this city,” said Realtor Paul Brown, who donated $2,100 as Bernero assembled his campaign last year. “Obviously, I don’t condone any type of sexual harassment and I won’t be making any future donations if the truth comes out and those are the actual facts. I’d never condone that.”
He added: “I would’ve liked to have seen the current mayor a bit more active in the city. There were times when I thought Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was more of a mayor than Andy Schor. Virg has been active in our community and deserves a fair shot of responding to these claims.”
Joe Manzella II, an executive at Quicken Loans, said he doesn’t have any regrets about his $1,000 donation to the Bernero campaign — even after his name was mentioned in DiSano’s recent ad. He also said Bernero’s willingness to apologize and “own” his mistakes make him redeemable.
“When we talked, he told me that he wants to get back and do some good things. He also said he was a different man than he was a few years ago, so I felt very comfortable with that idea that people can be redeemed through humility, saying sorry and truly meaning it,” Manzella said.
Asked about Bernero’s subsequent denial, Manzella responded: “Oh. Well, that’s a bummer.”
Others on the donor list were careful to separate themselves from their companies. Elizabeth Jones, for instance, said she’s “essentially an accountant” for DTN Student Rentals. The company made a $2,000 donation, but it’s no reflection of her personal beliefs, she added.
Edgar Harden, the CEO of Capitol National Bank, said he donated $500 to both Bernero and Schor’s campaigns last year. He was also undecided whether he would keep them coming.
“They’re still only allegations. I guess we’ll wait and see what happens,” Harden said.
Messages left with other corporate officials at DTN Student Rentals were not returned for this story. Other Bernero donors included on the advertised list — including Paul Frick, William Demmer, Sagar Seth, Kevin Scott, Jane Hourani, Michael Marks, Eardment Mackenzie, Steve Calverley and Van Martin — didn’t return voicemails and emails from City Pulse this week. Bernero also didn’t respond to a request for comment about advertisement.