Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Gov. Snyder’s failed Democratic opponent is still fighting

Virg Bernero’s passions are two things many people think are out of date: cities and manufacturing

LANSING — Some people barely remember now, but Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had a Democratic opponent three years ago: Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. Mr. Bernero fought hard and campaigned his heart out, but lost overwhelmingly in a year that featured one of the all-time biggest midterm GOP landslides.

But what if it had been different? What would a Governor Bernero be doing about Detroit’s crisis?

“I wouldn’t be doing it today, because it would have been done already,” the mayor said, chatting in his comfortably cluttered Lansing office. “I would have had a sense of urgency about Detroit. I would have given them [city leaders] 90 days to get their act together, and then if they didn’t, I’d send in an emergency manager.”

But it wouldn’t have been Kevyn Orr. Governor Bernero would have sent himself.

“I would have gone down there and gone to work,” he said. Asked how the governor of the state could also serve as Detroit’s emergency manager, he said: “Oh, I’d appoint some guy. But I would be doing the real work myself.

“Look,” he added, “What could be a more important job than fixing Detroit? What could any governor do that’s a higher priority than that?”

The energetic, cheerful mayor paused briefly. “If you fix Detroit, what you have done to Michigan is take the flagship of our cities and made it work again. That would turn around the entire state. And again, what higher priority could there be than that?

“If you haven’t fixed the greatest city in Michigan, you aren’t going anywhere,” he said.

Mr. Bernero’s campaign for governor may not have gone anywhere, but he still is remarkably upbeat. The son of a poor Italian immigrant, he’s always been intense, and cheerfully acknowledges it. “You know, in some ways this [being mayor of Lansing] is probably a better fit for me,” he said. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy.

“I wanted to be governor, but I have things to do as mayor,” he said. “A mayor has more authority to act and do things than a governor does, and I think being mayor does suit my temperament.”

So does politics. Mr. Bernero has been such a fixture on the Lansing scene, it is hard to believe he is only 49. He became a legislative aide soon after he graduated from Adrian College. He was elected to the state House at 35, the state Senate two years later.

After fewer than three years in the Senate, he left to run successfully for mayor of Lansing. He won re-election in 2009 and ran for governor the next year. His main opponent in the Democratic primary was then-House Speaker Andy Dillon.

The unions backed Mr. Bernero, who easily won the primary. But it wasn’t his year. Mr. Snyder was a new face with a huge campaign war chest.

Independents flocked to him, believing he was a can-do moderate. Hundreds of thousands of Democrats sat out the election. In the end, Mr. Snyder got 58 percent of the vote to Mr. Bernero’s 40 percent.

“It was not to be,” shrugged the mayor, who has a nice view of the Capitol dome from his office. “I work with the governor, and have nothing bad to say about him personally. We have an excellent working relationship.”

He paused. “But when it comes to economic development and the cities, manufacturing, he just doesn’t get it. His biggest problem is that he seems to see things as an accountant, which he is.

“I think he made a big mistake early on by killing the movie industry in Michigan,” Mr. Bernero said, referring to Governor Snyder’s decision to cancel virtually unlimited state tax credits for film makers.

“Economic development takes time,” Mr. Bernero said. “And it was happening. Filmmakers were starting to build studios here. This was taking off. Plus, you can’t put a value on seeing George Clooney walk down your street.”

Yet Mr. Bernero’s real passions are two things many people think are out of date: cities and manufacturing. He is perhaps proudest of the role he played as mayor to save General Motors.

He rallied other mayors to support the federal GM bailout in the dark days of 2009. Since then, he has worked successfully to keep GM as a major manufacturer in Lansing.

His political ambition is to become co-chairman or vice-chairman of manufacturing for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That, and to raise consciousness about cities.

“Cities should be our centers of life, of culture, and employment,” Mr. Bernero said. “They know that in Europe, but we’ve forgotten it here.”

Michigan has an added drawback, he noted, in that cities have a hard time annexing territory. “Lansing should be a city of 400,000. Grand Rapids, a million. Detroit should be one of the nation’s major metropolises.“

Mr. Bernero is running for mayor again this year. “I shouldn’t say this, but knock on wood, I think I may have only token opposition,” he said.

He doesn’t seem to have lost any fire in the belly for the job. His only other passions seem to be his wife, Teri, a school administrator in Lansing, and his two daughters.

He has heard from a lot of people who say they now are sorry they didn’t vote for him for governor, especially after the right-to-work bill Governor Snyder supported was rammed through the Legislature last year. But Mr. Bernero is joining with other Democrats to back former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer in next year’s gubernatorial election.

“You never say never, but I don’t think I’ll ever be governor,” he said. Normally, he added, his next step would be Congress, but gerrymandering has stuck Lansing in a solidly Republican district.

He smiled. He doesn’t think being a junior member among hundreds of other congressmen would be that much fun, he said.

In the job he has now, he said, “I’m never bored.”

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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