Exclusive Interview

Is Lansing ready for four more years of Virg Bernero? He seems to think so.

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Another election season is quickly approaching in Lansing, and two likely challengers are already gearing up for the campaign trail, sights set on blocking a second term for Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. Among them: Former state legislator and three-term mayor Virg Bernero.

Though both Bernero and City Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley have declared a definitive interest, neither has actually filed to run with months to go until the April 27 deadline. But this week marks eight months until the primary election. The next several weeks could help voters determine how they’d like to set Lansing’s political landscape for at least the next four years.

Bernero, a former Ingham County commissioner, state senator and state representative, succeeded Lansing Mayor Tony Benavides in 2006, going on to serve three terms as mayor. His brazenly unapologetic leadership style earned him the title of Lansing’s “Angry Mayor” and both praise and criticism before he stepped away from politics to “reinvest” in his family in 2017.

As a consultant for the cannabis industry and executive director of the Capital Area Manufacturing Council, Bernero, 56, has quietly kept himself invested in Lansing’s momentum. But next year, Bernero could be fully back in action. In a lengthy interview with Managing Editor Kyle Kaminski, Bernero declared a “strong” interest this week in reclaiming the mantle from Schor.

Q: Are you running for mayor next year?

A: I’m strongly leaning that way. I’m hearing from a lot of community members that want me to re-enter, and I’m sort of preparing for that eventuality. I’m concerned about where the city is headed, and our challenges are great, but I think they’re surpassed by our possibilities and our potential as a city. I have a proven track record, and I’ll stand by it, good and bad. I think it’s mostly good. And I got to admit that I’m excited at the prospect of coming back and leading the city through what’s promised to be some very challenging times.

Q: Walk me through what changed since you decided against a fourth term? What changed?

A: I had to prioritize my family, and I’ve done that. I don’t regret it. I celebrated 33 years of marriage with my wife, Teri. I’m a new grandpa; I have a 6-month-old and a 6-week-old grandchild. Over the summer, I said goodbye to my father, Giulio, who passed at 95 years old. I don’t regret the time that I’ve been able to spend to really reinvest in and rebalance my personal life. My family had really taken a backseat to political needs and the needs of the city. So, I reinvested, reprioritized and rebalanced. I feel very good now about where that is.

The city is facing the greatest challenges since the Great Recession. I’m deeply concerned about the city and the people that I love. I think there were troubling signs before COVID, but now the city budget is a pending disaster. I’m deeply concerned about Lansing families that are at the low end of the economic ladder. Food security is a growing problem, especially with schools closed and grocery prices rising. I see concerns in public safety and policing. Violent crime and shootings are on the rise. I think there’s a need to build on the community policing ethic that is longstanding in Lansing and to improve training. There’s also a need for absolute transparency in the Police Department, as has been evidenced by Anthony Hulon’s death in the city lock-up. We need a vision for the post-COVID economic recovery that is going to have to be bold. Now, more than ever, in the COVID and post-COVID economy that’s coming, we’ve got to end the go-it-alone mentality and focus on regionalism.

It is time for one Lansing. We sink or swim together. And when I say Lansing, I don’t mean in the confines of the city. I’m talking about the region. If we’re not successful in convincing everybody that we’re all swimming in the same direction, then I don’t know how well we’re going to survive beyond the pandemic. The old economic system is falling away, and we have to figure out how Lansing fits in. Regionalism will be about our survival and thriving in our new economy.

Q: Many people have described a sense of “Virg Fatigue” that struck Lansing toward the end of your third term. Regardless of whether people loved or hated you at the end, it seemed the city was ready for a fresh mayoral administration when Schor took office. Did you get that sense?

A: I never got that sense. [Here, Bernero rambled a bit about various accomplishments during his three-term tenure, including the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s removal of residential lead lines and the conversion of the Ottawa power station into the Accident Fund headquarters — “one of the greatest economic transformations in Michigan history,” as Bernero described it.]

I’ve got a proven track record. I never got the sense of any fatigue. I was not fatigued, and we need that kind of bold leadership now. I’m saying that people are hurting, that unemployment is on the rise. There’s a lot of bright spots, and I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. Lansing has a bright future, but we have severe challenges and we’re going to need bold leadership, and it’s not going to happen by just sitting around and waiting for something to happen.

Q: Many residents and regional leaders — even so-called Progressives — have sort of bristled at your “Angry Mayor” style of governance. Lansing might have been moving in the right direction, but to many you were seen as too mouthy, too in-your-face. Have you mellowed?

A: On national TV, I was angry about our auto workers being left behind and people suggesting that we should just allow the auto industry to fade away. And I turned that anger into results. I turned it into hard work, which is what I do. And as far as my style, I was able to get things done. Mellowed? I’ll leave that for you to determine. Of course, grandkids have that effect.

There’s a stylistic, image thing — a perception — and then there’s reality. The reality is I worked very well with regional leaders. We accomplished a lot together. I’ll put my record up against the current mayor anytime. They called me an angry mayor because I made a national splash to try to save the auto industry. And I make no apologies for it. I tried to work. I’m a guy that gets results, that gets in and rolls up my sleeves. And I really think at a time like this, when we’re going to have some historic economic challenges, we’re going to need that kind of leadership.

Q: There’s a difference between a take-charge approach to governance and being a bully. You called then-Councilman Brian Jeffries a “pathetic piece of shit” two months into your first term. Is that sort of bullheaded approach something that you think we really need in our next mayor?

A: Not everything is perfect. There are pluses and minuses. You try to do what is right in the long run. I just read a thing about Harry Truman. His approval rating was 22% when he left office. And yet now, he’s one of the most popular presidents. I took a lot of heat, but I think my decisions — like that beautiful new driveway at Groesbeck Golf Course — stand the test of time.

The city is not in a privileged position where we can just keep doing the same thing the same way and everything’s going to work out fine. It’s not going to be that way. We have a lot of challenges and again, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. I’m optimistic, I think we have tremendous assets to be leveraged, but we’ve got to begin working together and we have to be more bold.

Q: Whom are you counting on to drive support at the polls? Do you think you can leverage enough support from the business community or the chamber or union leadership? I think it’s worth noting that most of the major unions are actively pouring cash into Schor’s campaign.

A: I’m not getting into campaign strategy. My track record speaks for itself. Time will tell.

Q: Lansing has three cops on paid leave after a violent arrest involving an unarmed Black man on Baker Street. We also have a man who was choked to death in the basement lock-up beneath City Hall, and a mayoral administration that won’t sit down for an interview on the topic. What needs to be changed at the Lansing Police Department? What would Mayor Bernero do?

A: This is a crucial issue. The homicide of George Floyd —it changed the national dialogue. It awakened a lot of people who didn’t realize the extent of just how bad it was for people of color, who often live in fear of policing. There’s a dichotomy out there in terms of how people view policing. In my 12 years, I built on Lansing’s long tradition of community engagement and community policing. I came into a pretty professional department, where some changes had already been made, and we continued to build on that. We put body cameras on our police officers. We all agreed that would lead to more accountability and transparency.

Lansing was not perfect by any means, but ahead of the curve. Because of a death in the jail and subsequent protests, Mayor David Hollister led some reforms. Those may seem tame now, but it led to the independent police investigator position in the city. It led to us tracking racial demographics in our tickets. I built on those reforms and the key is community engagement.

I can’t say that enough: community engagement. Diversity in recruitment. Constant training and accountability. We need transparency. That, and some reform at the state level with regards to officer immunity. Sometimes, it can be difficult to try to hold officers accountable because of the way the state law is written. And then of course, we need more investment in mental health from the state. At the mayoral level, transparency is key here. We need community and police on the same page. The police can only be effective if they’re seen as an extension of the community. If they’re seen as an occupying force, then we’re only doomed to more failure and disappointment.

I think Lansing is a cut above. That’s not saying that we’re perfect. You can never rest. You have to do constant training. You’re constantly looking to diversify the department and hiring, but I’ve met many of our officers. I’m convinced that these are good people who went into policing to do good. We have to build that trust and that faith with the community that we’ve had in the past.

Q: That’s a lot of high praise for a Police Department that you claim still needs reform. It could be argued that any of the problems we’re facing this year weren’t necessarily born under the Schor administration. You had three terms to put safeguards into place. Did you do enough?

A: It’s never enough. It’s a constant effort. I worked with the former chief to implement policing reforms. Things like the ban on chokeholds? We did that years ago. We’re ahead of the curve. But when you’re putting a badge and a gun on somebody and putting them in the community, there has to be constant training. It has to be a constant commitment to accountability and transparency. In this administration, there are some real lingering questions with transparency.

And by the way, I also left a plan to eliminate the city lock-up. I think that Lansing should get out of the jail business. The plan I left for this new city hall would not have included a lockup. We don’t need a lockup. It’s a liability. Those cells are small. That facility is just outdated. I think we should be buying into possibilities of working together with Ingham County to find a solution.

Q: Schor is also supportive of efforts to close the city’s lock-up. It’s easier said than done. But like any other issue, you’ve had more than a decade to get it done while Schor has had three years.

A: I wish I could have gotten that done. My plan, which I left with the Schor administration, was that the new city hall would not include a lock-up. These reforms started years and years ago. I built on what Hollister did. It’s Andy’s job to build on what I did. Do you see how that works? I didn’t spend 12 years pointing out what Hollister didn’t do. Instead, I just built on what he did.

Q: Do you think Chief Daryl Green still deserves a job with the city after these recent issues?

A: I don’t have enough information to say. It starts at the top, and that’s the mayor. Under our charter, the mayor is essentially the chief law enforcement officer. I’d look to the Mayor’s Office to ensure that the Police Department remains transparent. Without being there, I don’t know.

Q: The City Council has considered resolutions on police divestment. Committees and subcommittees and task forces have formed. At the end of the day, however, divestment boils down to the mayor’s budget. Would you support efforts to reduce funding at the Lansing Police Department and, in turn, reinvest those dollars into other community supports and services?

A: Community policing is a tradition, and I would build on that budget. Would I cut the number of officers? I would not, at this time. I’ve had to make those difficult decisions before, and that can lead to changes in response times. When Lansing residents call 911, they need a response.

We can argue about what that response should be. I certainly want to see mental health resources working closely with police. I want to see better training with police. But again, having led through the Great Recession, I’ve seen what reductions in force can do to the city. You have to look at response time, and ultimately, public safety comes first. We can use better community engagement, diversity in recruitment, better training. We actually could need to spend more.

Q: Did you really just call for police investment amid the police divestment movement?

A: To do the things that a modern police department needs to do, we could certainly use an increase in the areas that I’m talking about. For the community engagement, moving upstream, providing mental health — this is why I think that to have a holistic view on policing. Police are the last line of defense. We can’t expect to use the police budget to make up for failings in all these other areas, I don’t think it is realistic. I think the demand for mental health, education and family support is real. There are repairs that need to be made to the social safety net, but I think that those dollars, especially in an urban core city, must come from state and federal resources.

Q: How would you have handled that May 31 civil rights protest in downtown Lansing differently? Would tear gas still have been used?

A: I would have been downtown. [Editor’s note: Mayor Andy Schor said he went home on the advice of the police.] I would have been there on the street with my police chief and with a number of community members. I would have organized a peace team. It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback, however, having been mayor for 12 years and been through some protests and things, I have a pretty good sense that I would have been down there.

I can’t say whether I would have authorized tear gas. We have a small downtown and any fire there could be a disaster. I would have been down there to help prevent it. My guess is that tear gas could have been avoided, but I surely wouldn’t have allowed the downtown to be torched.

Q: Schor’s administration has been repeatedly accused of racial discrimination, most recently in the form of a lawsuit from several former firefighters and other city employees. What needs to happen right now to address this? And how would you work to resolve these issues as mayor?

A: It pains me greatly the changes that have happened with regard to diversity and inclusion. I came to a city that was well known for its diversity. My cabinet reflected that. I didn’t have to have someone tell me what people of color were thinking. They were right there in my midst.

There’s a lawsuit, and the mayor will have to answer for that. But I knew these people. I saw how they were treated. What happened to Joan Jackson Johnson [an Afrcan-American woman whom Bernero appointed in 2006 to head the city’s human relations department until Schor suspended her this year in light of a federal investigation into her operations] was one of the great injustices. Others were pushed out of their positions too. It’s terrible. It’s unbelievable. And I just don’t understand it at all, but I guess there’s a lawsuit now and we’ll all see what comes to light.

Q: Among other topics that led to calls for Schor’s resignation: A proposed adjustment to retiree healthcare benefits for about 1,300 city retirees. There are some lingering uncertainties, but many are expecting to have some aspects of their coverage reduced. What must be done?

A: This is about working together. Those he unfunded liabilities were a problem when I came in, and they’re still a problem today. I negotiated concessionary contracts. That means the unions were giving things up. Each one was a difficult negotiation, because you’re asking workers to take less, but that’s what we had to do. So, we lessen the burden, but that burden is still there.

Our unfunded liabilities are real, but you want to try to affect retirees the least of all. The changes that we made mostly were about new employees and some current employees. You always want to try to preserve what has already been promised, because retirees are on a fixed income and they make decisions based on the money and benefits that they expect to have.

The answer is, you got to work together. You work with the union. I mentioned the cuts that had been made to uniform personnel while I was mayor — we worked with the unions. When the bottom fell out during the Great Recession, we just took the numbers and sat down with the unions. It took a lot of meetings, some pounding on the table and some gnashing of teeth. People were not happy, but at the end of the day, they’re realists. We saw the numbers.

And by the way, we led by example. Those were times when I cut my pay. I also cut the pay of my top people, I got rid of the city car for the mayor. We made sacrifices. The unions saw that.

Q: How do you strike a balance between making those shared sacrifices on the backs of retirees or making Lansing a less desirable place to work for new and current employees? Our unfunded liabilities don’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry. What’s your budget plan?

A: When I talk about regionalism, I’m not just whistling Dixie. We regionalized the Potter Park Zoo. We regionalized the Lansing River Trail. Virgil Bernero didn’t do that, but Virgil Bernero led those calls to make it happen. And I helped bring people together to make it happen.

There are now dedicated millages. These were resources that the city had paid. Everybody was using it, but only the city was paying for it. That’s not sustainable. Look at the Lansing Center. Right now they’re not taking in any money. This is a crisis. The Lansing Center is not properly funded. When these unsustainable things are not fixed, they create problems in other areas.

I wasn’t that bullheaded. I knew we had to make a change, but I was able to convince the county and voters to go along with us. And we made those changes. So you can’t bury your head in the sand and just hope that it gets better. We have to continue to regionalize and change. And, we may have to look at other things that we can migrate to the county.

Q: You one said Lansing should consider selling BWL. Is that still something on your radar?

A: I think that we should know the value of the BWL. I think that the Financial Health Team, which I created before the state mandated it, should know the value of the asset. We should know the value of all of our assets in the city, and we should consider them at all times.

I think the Board of Water and Light is a tremendous asset. It provides a substantial return on investment. That’s an asset that actually pays. It gives people confidence. It powers our progress and our community — including the new burgeoning cannabis industry. It’s like a home: We should know the value of that asset, maybe not to sell it but to know the true value.

Q: Let’s address the pandemic. What’s the long-term economic impact in Lansing?

A: People still want to live downtown. I think that’s a trend that’s going to continue. I think that as we evolve beyond the pandemic, maybe there’s going to be less demand for office. I think we’re going to need to look to transform some of these older office spaces into residential — a trend that Lansing really helped lead the way on, something that we were ahead of the curve on.

Q: We’ve talked a lot about Schor. Do you view  Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley as a viable candidate in this race?

A: It’s not my place to say that anybody is viable. I’ve worked with Patricia. I think she cares about the city, and I look forward to working with her in the future to move the city forward. I’m not planning on any dogfight with Patricia. I’ve worked with her and I think her heart is in the right place. I think Patricia is a smart and capable woman, who already has a big job in working with the Racer Trust, an agency that I helped to actually create through my automotive coalition.

Q: When you were mayor, you offloaded the city’s in-house economic development mission to the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. That’s a move that has since been criticized. The City Council made it budget priority this year to consider alternatives to that contractual relationship. Do you stand behind that decision today? Do you think the city should bring that back in-house?

A: I think LEAP has clearly stood the test of time and proved their viability and their great value to the city and the region. I think LEAP has also done a phenomenal job at taking state and federal dollars and getting them out just in time to help a number of businesses during the pandemic. I think LEAP has been on the front lines and it has done a tremendous job.

Q: You pressured the board at BWL to fire Peter Lark, who was former chief executive at the time. That resulted in a $650,000 payout. There’s also a $160,000 payout to former city attorney Janine McIntyre. You’ve minimized both of those payments. What do you say now?

A: I never authorized the payment to Peter Lark and never knew about that arrangement. That contract with Peter Lark was negotiated without knowledge of the city. And in all fairness, I pushed for an amendment that would’ve prevented such a payout from happening again.

Yes, I encouraged the board to fire Peter Lark. I supported his departure, and I think that has also stood the test of time. Dick Peffley has done a wonderful job, and it was time for a change. And the payment to Janine was one year of salary and was in the best interests of the city.

Q: You sat down with City Pulse at the end of your last term for an exit interview in which you graded your overall performance with a B+. Why should Lansing ever rehire a B+ mayor?

A: I think B+ is actually darn good, given the hand that I was dealt. We went through the Great Recession. We survived the bankruptcy of General Motors and its rebirth. I went to bat for our leading industry, organized mayors from around the country and proudly won the battle for GM.

That was probably my proudest moment of when I could be of service to this city, and that’s really the issue: The city I love and the people I love in Lansing. I’m not a perfect leader. I’m not a perfect man. I’m a better man, but I think I was a hell of a mayor and I led us well during some tough times. So yeah, I gave myself that honest appraisal of B+, and I think it was a B+ effort.

Now, I think we’re going to need an A effort, and I think I’m up to it. From day one, I’ve dreamed big for Lansing. I didn’t believe the naysayers. When I came in, our slogan for the city was “Believe in Lansing” because people were having a hard time even believing in the city.

The Ottawa power station is one of the great economic transformations in not just Lansing’s history, but around the state. It won national awards. It was a symbol of stagnation, and it’s now a sign of our growth and progress. LEAP is the gift that keeps on giving. I helped create that.

I helped lead the way to restoring the train station in REO Town, and we’ve got the rebirth of REO Town taking place now. I dealt with the harsh realities of the time and I called for innovative solutions, like regionalizing the zoo and regionalizing the river trail. I had to close two golf courses. I’m not shy about using economic development tools at our disposal, and I think we’re going to need all of that. We’re going to need all of that energy, and we’re going to need to come together as a community as well. We can’t afford to leave any sector of the community behind.

Comments

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K Lafler

I welcome Mr. Bernero coming back. He has my vote. Schor ran and hid during protests. Lead from the rear.

Thursday, January 28

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