THURSDAY, March 4 — Politicians and activists in Greater Lansing are speaking out against former three-term Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero after he was accused of sexual harassment. The overarching takeaway: Nobody seems totally surprised.
“If people knew Virg, they wouldn’t find it shocking at all,” said Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner, who served alongside Bernero during his four terms on the commission from 1992 to 2000. “I just don’t find the allegations particularly shocking. Though, I’ve never been in social settings with him where it was appropriate — or even inappropriate — to grab people.”
Two former Lansing women accused Bernero of sexual harassment and unwanted touching this week. One said Bernero groped her in downtown Lansing in 2010. Another said Bernero made unwanted sexual phone calls to her in 2004 while he was a state senator.
Bernero said he didn’t recall the incidents but labeled his alleged behavior as “unacceptable and wrong.” He apologized for "any pain” caused to the women or his family, also noting that he and his wife, Teri, underwent marriage counseling after he left office in 2017.
“I don’t believe that we should be defined by our past mistakes,” Bernero told City Pulse.
But political insiders aren’t sure that Bernero’s mistakes are totally in the past. And some aren't quick to offer forgiveness as the former mayor eyes a fourth term. Some spoke to City Pulse under the condition they remain anonymous. Others were an open book.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” said one high-ranking Democratic insider. “We haven’t heard it all. I’m not sure this is the death knell just yet, but I also think there’s much more to the story.”
“As a woman and a woman of color, it is personally difficult and painful to hear these accounts of their experiences,” said Lansing City Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley, who also plans on running for mayor this year. “These women need to be listened to, heard and treated with dignity and respect. It took incredible bravery for them to come forward and tell their stories.”
Mayor Andy Schor formally announced his reelection campaign one day after the allegations surfaced. He also told City Pulse: “This story isn’t about me. It’s about the brave women who came forward and the terrible behavior by the former mayor. They deserve our attention.”
Spitzley also took it a step further, calling for a formal investigation — possibly by the City Council of a potential abuse of power. Bernero was mayor during one of the alleged incidents.
“I am always concerned by allegations of abuse of power by any government employee or elected official,” she said. “These types of allegations raise concerns by the public about the fairness of the system and make it harder for elected officials to engage the public, which I feel is extremely important to running an effective government. Again if there are accusations of abuse of power by a city of Lansing official, they need to be taken seriously and investigated.”
It’s unclear if the City Council carries the legal authority to investigate the claims. Council President Peter Spadafore didn’t respond to questions from City Pulse on the topic this week.
“The allegations are very serious in my opinion,” said Council Vice President Adam Hussain. “Sexual harassment of any measure can’t be tolerated, whether in private or public. My heart goes out to those impacted by these actions. I am amazed at their strength and know that their strength will help others that have similar experiences to come out and reclaim their power.”
And Lansing isn’t too unfamiliar with how to handle offensive conduct from politicians.
Last month, the Ingham County Democratic Party — following the City Council — passed a resolution that formally admonished Councilman Brandon Betz after he sent a series of profane text messages to the co-leader of the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter. Party chairman and Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said a similar move won’t be necessary for Bernero.
“While the report of the actions are disturbing, Bernero holds no current office so it is less likely our membership would want to weigh in. His fate is already in the hands of the voters,” he said.
Grebner agreed: “What Brandon did was like, flat-out insane. I think that’s sort of different.”
Others aren’t so willing to silently stand by, including long-time City Councilwoman Carol Wood.
“Anyone who uses their power to sexually harass an individual is despicable. In this day and age — and with everything that has come out over the last couple of years — I just don't accept the excuse of 'I should have known better,’” Wood told City Pulse.
County Clerk Barb Byrum said she also wasn’t surprised to hear the claims against Bernero, recalling a time when Lansing’s “Angry Mayor” berated her for co-sponsoring a fundraiser.
“He proceeded to yell and swear at me about a clearly political subject matter from his city of Lansing phone to my state legislative phone and, after some time had passed, I ended the call,” Byrum said. “As a human, I knew that I had done nothing to incur such verbal abuse. While the verbal abuse directed at me was not sexual in nature, it is not difficult for me to believe that he may have sexually harassed individuals. It is no secret that Virg Bernero has a temper.”
She added: “Everyone deserves to speak their truth, and abuse should never be tolerated.”
Black Lives Matter activist Michael Lynn Jr. — who is suing Schor and the city for racial discrimination — also weighed in on the possibility of a head-to-head matchup between Schor and Bernero.
“It’s going to get real nasty in Lansing,” he said last night on Merica 20 to Life. “No. It’s not good behavior. The difference in the two candidates is accountability. Virg has been very open.”
He added: “Whatever it is that you are doing, you always got a chance for redemption. I’m not excusing either one of those behaviors, but I’m always going to hold open for accountability.”
Commented former Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, who served during Bernero’s tenure: “I think that for any candidate for office, accountability sometimes looks like you don’t get reelected.”
Calls to unions and labor leaders — including the usual endorsement poweplayers in Lansing mayoral elections — weren’t as fruitful. The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 333 didn’t return calls. Officials at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 665 and the Lansing Labor Council declined to comment altogether.
Bernero also didn't respond to additional calls and text messages this week regarding the criticism.