What would the media do without Virg, a force of nature endlessly good for a story? Here Thomas Morgan reports on deadline how Bernero captured City Hall the first time. Given his colorful character, it seemed only fitting to put him on a tabloid cover that in another city he might have shared with the likes of LaGuardia and Koch.

When Virg Bernero walks into his new office on the 9th floor of City Hall in January, he will have completed a 32-month quest to become mayor of Lansing.

Bernero, 41, went from finishing 18 points down to Mayor Tony Benavides in the 2003 primary to winning in a landslide Tuesday night.

A senior adviser for the Bernero campaign said the campaign's strategy didn't change much from two years ago. What did change, however, are the issues and the state of the city.

"The biggest shift we saw was a sea change in the issue environment, from a positive look about Lansing to a much more pessimistic outlook by voters," the adviser said.

A poll commissioned by Bernero in February of this year showed Benavides with a 41-35 lead over Bernero. At about the same time that poll was conducted, the Lansing School District closed five schools due to high costs and declining enrollment. A few weeks later, General Motors announced it would shut down its Verlinden plant. At the same time, the city struggled to shore up a $6.8 million budget deficit, with Benavides and the City Council battling every step of the way.

Also in the spring, the sour contract negotiations between the administration and the UAW Local 2256, which represents 300 city workers, became public after Benavides' budget called for $2.5 million in labor concessions. On April 18, a crowd of 100 city workers and their families descended upon City Hall to protest the labor cuts.

Two days later, with a gray cloud hanging over Lansing, Bernero formally announced his candidacy.

"To a degree, we didn't have to do anything to capitalize on it," the Bernero adviser said of the city's condition. "We really didn't have to say much to take advantage of that."

But take advantage they did. Within months of declaring his candidacy, Bernero landed all of the major endorsements, including every labor union, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Education Association.

With those endorsements came big money. According to the latest campaign finance reports released at the end of last month, Bernero raised $266,785 while Benavides raised $203,940. The actual fundraising gap was even wider; Benavides and his wife, Carmen, were the mayor's biggest contributors, pumping in nearly $80,000 of their own money this year alone.

The negative chain of events within the city combined with Bernero's groundswell of support appeared to inflict tremendous political damage to Benavides: By June, a poll showed Bernero with a 41-27 lead over Benavides. That lead widened even further by the Aug. 2 primary, in which Bernero outpaced Benavides 46 percent to 27 percent. Former state Rep. Lynne Martinez and city worker Dale Abronowitz were eliminated.

"Two years ago, Virg was perceived as too aggressive and with too much energy to the point of making people nervous," the Bernero adviser said. "Two years later, those perceived liabilities became assets."

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