For Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, an unequivocal “No” to questions about his involvement with the shadowy political provocateurs at Capitol Region Progress really couldn't be simpler … if it were true.
This is the organization that periodically wades into reelection campaigns of candidates Bernero perceives as his enemies. It produced advertisements suggesting that Adam Hussain, who is seeking a City Council seat now held by A'Lynne Boles, is a puppet controlled by his mother and administration critic, City Councilwoman Jody Washington. It has staged — perhaps violating Federal Communications Commission disclosure rules — the robocalls attacking the mother and son. Last year it orchestrated a sophomoric and ultimately losing campaign against Ingham County Commissioner Deb Nolan, another perceived foe of the mayor. And it also attacked Bernero's long-serving Council antagonist Brian Jeffries.
Last week, Bernero grudgingly acknowledged that he agrees with the message of the secretive tax-exempt 501(c)4 corporation, but not necessarily the tactic. Yet refusing to state that neither he nor his cronies are contributing to Capitol Region Progress is tacit acknowledgment that he is involved. In fact, at least one prominent local business has told City Pulse that it was pressured by the Bernero administration to contribute to the group. The mayor did not respond to phone and text messages offering a chance to clarify his position.
What he has provided is carefully parsed to obscure a real answer.
A year ago he responded to City Pulse queries with this response: “As to Capitol Region Progress, I’m not a member or an officer of the organization and I don’t direct their efforts, but I do appreciate their advocacy for a stronger Lansing region,” he wrote.
Last week he responded to City Pulse questions about his ties to the group with this statement: “Capitol Region Progress has been active in city elections for the past four years, so it is no surprise they are involved in this cycle. While I may not agree with all their tactics, I appreciate that they support a pro-jobs, pro-growth agenda and they care enough about metro Lansing to oppose candidates who they believe are an obstacle to progress.”
No one expects an elected official to be a “member or an officer” or direct the actions of a group that operates in the political shadows.
What the mayor doesn't address is his easy ability to influence attacks against his opponents.
In the genteel world of Lansing politics, the pointed and personal ads produced by Capitol Region Progress may seem jarring. But seriously; some perspective please. Politically, they are pretty tame.
The Capitol Region Progress advertisement that rankled the sensibilities of some in the city was a flier showing Washington as the puppet mistress pulling Hussain's strings. Other than the cliché, isn't it really reasonable to suggest that their political views of Bernero would be the same? Washington was strident opposing raises for the mayor, Council members and other city officials which took effect in July. Pay for the positions had been frozen for 13 years.
Washington picked a fight with Bernero when he addressed the Hash Bash marijuana legalization rally in Ann Arbor in April. And she has criticized the administration's lack of transparency.
All of which is fine. Diverse views are healthy and are the foundation of governmental checks and balances. But politics even in Lansing is a contact sport, and Bernero plays to win.
But he ought to acknowledge that he's behind campaigns to help him advance his agenda. He has a broad and sustained mandate from voters to govern Lansing, and in most ways the city is progressing. Downtown Lansing is stronger than a decade ago with more housing and a broadening business base. Bernero is pushing for a casino, which if it happens would accelerate development. Lansing weathered the Great Recession, with lower budgets, fewer employees and no real decline in services. His willingness to consider the sale of the Lansing Board of Water & Light as a way to pay off the city's crushing pension and healthcare debt, and perhaps invest in other improvements, is bold when compared to the tepid interest by Council members in such a move. In short, the mayor is doing what people elected him to do.
What's more disturbing than the content of Capitol Region Progress campaign ads is the secrecy that surrounds the organization.
Bernero could take a forceful stand against the soft, untraceable money that is corroding our politics. And he could do so with minimal risk. His silence on who is funding a campaign that so clearly benefits him alone only emboldens this tactic and empowers those with money to shape the political landscape.
Bernero was a loser in the money game that fueled Rick Snyder's gubernatorial campaign. And the governor was open about his financing; it was his money.
Is it really necessary for Bernero and his supporters to use anonymous money to win elections? He is winning and can win on his record.