As mentors go, Lansing attorney Teresa Bingham has had a pretty good one: Anita Hill.
“Not only was Anita Hill my law professor,” said Bingman, who earned a J.D. from the University of Oklahoma in 1988, “she remains a very good friend. I call her Anita Faye.”
Bingman’s friend has been back in the news because of Joe Biden, who has been criticized for his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearing in 1991 at which Hill accused the conservative Supreme Court choice of sexual harassment.
Bingman herself is in the news now because Lansing Mayor Andy Schor hired her, at $63,000, to coordinate his administration’s effort to improve racial equity and justice in Lansing. Her role, she said, is to draw a “roadmap” for the city.
Her personal roadmap, from a small-town upbringing through various roles as a prosecutor and state assistant attorney general while involving herself in Black Lives Matter initiatives, will come into play.
Bingman, who turns 57 this week, grew up rural Perry, Oklahoma, population 5,126. While a small town, though, she said it was not provincial.
“Although we had very few African Americans and people of color, we had a very close-knit town,” she remembered. “People would think a rural town in Oklahoma — how could a Black person possibly fit in? Well, we fit in.”
Bingman praised the education she and her six siblings received on their way to all attending college. It was also her opportunity to “establish relationships with people of different races, mostly Caucasians.” The people of Perry “were very open and engaged in talking about our differences and using those differences to become stronger.”
Which is exactly what she expects from her adopted home, Lansing.
“Some of my friends often say, ‘Teresa, you act like you’re still living in Perry, Oklahoma, small town.’ That small-town upbringing has benefitted me in a way to where I believe in the power of a community coming together and working together for positive change. I believe in open dialog among people in the community, regardless of their race, cultural situation or their background. This roadmap will consist of all those views.”
That roadmap will not be drawn by her but by an advisory committee that Lansing Mayor Andy Schor appointed. Most are African Americans, but among the 40 or so members “we do have some diversity and some very strong, talented, gifted voices.”
She has come to know many of them since arriving in Lansing in 1997, brought here by her marriage and her husband’s choice of Michigan State University to pursue a degree. “I came here kicking and screaming. I just have to be truthful about this.”
Her husband, Lloyd Bingman, who is a minister at Union Missionary Baptist Church, earned his Ph.D. in educational administration at MSU. While he did that, Mrs. Bingman put her law degree to use as an assistant attorney general under Jennifer Granholm, for which she gives some credit to Anita Hill.
“She called me and said, “Teresa, you have your first female attorney general. I have friends who know her. She’s an amazing person. You need to send your resume.” She followed Hill’s advice and was hired. No doubt her background as an assistant district attorney in Cleveland County (home of the city of Norman and the University of Oklahoma’s law school) and later general counsel for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control helped her win the job.
When Granholm went on to be elected governor, Bingman followed her into the executive branch to serve as a top legal adviser and eventually a Cabinet member.
Her law and order experience came through when asked about her thoughts on defunding the police (the subject on Thursday of the second of three Zoom listening sessions the city is sponsoring). Asked if fewer officers on the street was in anyone’s best interest, Bingman replied: “I don’t think so.”
“I know the importance of public safety in communities. Taxpayers expect the police to protect them,” she said. Moreover, Bingman believes “most police officers are committed to doing their job well. They respect the public, they obtain the necessary training and they make every effort to do their job well. While we have seen police misconduct throughout the nation, that does not comprise the majority of the police, so they should not be judged by the acts of a few.”
She was skeptical at first about defunding because “how can you take all the money from public safety?” But she said she has learned that “this defund word is different — there are different definitions of defund depending on who you talk with.” She pointed out, for example, the Lansing Police Department has a social worker. “We’re very interested in talking to the community and hearing how they define defund.”
Bingman is aware that efforts to adjust racial justice in Lansing may become a political football if former Mayor Virg Bernero takes on Schor, which Bernero acknowledged last week he his considering. Schor succeeded him in 2018 after Bernero dropped out of the running for an unprecedented fourth term. While Bernero has avoided criticizing Schor publicly in general, he has called him out over hiring practices that Bernero contends have reduced a Black presence in City Hall. (Schor, not surprisingly, begs to differ.)
“We have to get out of a political stance in order to make this process successful. If anyone chooses to use this for political reasons, it’s a mistake. Mayor Bernero had an opportunity to have his own roadmap to address racial justice and equity. It was an issue back then, it remains an issue now.
“While we may not be able to guard the entire process against politics, we will certainly remain focused on our goals.”
Bingman might find herself out of step with calls by the local chapter Black Lives Matter for eventually shifting half the police budget to social equity and justice causes, but she bridles at being cast as a middle-of-the-roader on racial issues.
“I may sound moderate, but I don’t describe myself that way,” she said, adding she is a “very reasonable, very common-sense type of person.”
“Black Lives Matter is a very powerful movement nationally, and I’m proud not only to support that movement, but I’ve been involved on the national level” in helping draft a plan to educate youth about law enforcement and “how to effectively change policies, practices and procedures.”
Will that satisfy local Black Lives Matter leaders, who have stridently called for Schor’s resignation?
“If they call for my resignation, I can’t prevent them from doing that. But here’s one thing I know: I’ve made a commitment to follow through on this assignment. I plan to stay here and I plan to continue to focus on inclusion.”