Virg Bernero: “Lansing's Mayor for Life.” Maybe not.
While the election is still a year away, the war drums are rumbling, and based on a small and very early poll by DiSano Strategies, Bernero would lose an election to state Rep. Andy Schor and barely beat City Council President Judi Brown Clarke.
It's not that people don't think Bernero is doing a good job. Nearly 60 percent of those responding to an automated telephone survey in early September said they approve of the job he is doing as mayor.
But these match-ups against either Schor or Brown Clarke should give Bernero and his supporters a sobering reality check. In a head-to-head race, 59 percent of those polled said they would vote for Schor compared with 41 percent voting for Bernero. Brown Clarke is the weakest of the three candidates, but she is within striking distance. She trails the mayor, 48 percent to his 52 percent. Still, pretty close.
And adding to the bad news for Bernero is that 95 percent of the 363 people surveyed identified themselves as regular voters.
That voters who think the three-term mayor is doing a decent job with the city would prefer someone else at the helm may simply reflect Bernero fatigue. He has promoted himself as “America's Angriest Mayor,” and though that may be overdrawn, there is more than a little Donald Trump's bullying in Bernero. He glibly insults Council members, nearby cities and townships and their leaders, the news media, even the state's Indian tribes. The angry shtick may have worked earlier in his tenure, but it's so yesterday.
It's no secret that the business community would prefer a more accommodating mayor, someone less antagonistic and perhaps better able to advance regional goals and programs, although it acknowledges that Lansing is doing relatively well with Bernero as mayor. Thanks largely to developer Pat Gillespie, people are moving into the urban core. Crime isn't really an issue. The city is financially stable, though facing potentially crippling pension and health care obligations. And there is enough business growth to offset business losses.
But there have been stumbles, notably the still unexplained departure of former City Attorney Janene McIntyre, costing the city upward of $200,000, which even Bernero acknowledged as a political liability. There is the fallout from the bungled Board of Water & Light ice storm response and the inept firing of its general manager, J. Peter Lark. This was another of those “It pays to be fired by the City of Lansing” incidents. Lark walked away from his job with $650,000 after Bernero orchestrated his dismissal. He then insisted on new rules to prevent big departure payouts to city officials, which he ignored when he dumped McIntyre.
Also, there is the mayor's all too cozy relationship with shadowy Capital Region Progress, whose low-road campaign tactics against Bernero foes — among them County Commissioner Deb Nolan and City Council members Adam Hussain and Jody Washington — have lowered the bar for civil election campaigning.
What is really surprising about the polling results is that they happened in a vacuum. Neither Schor nor Brown Clarke has declared for the office. Schor acknowledges that he is thinking about running for mayor, but he is focusing on the upcoming election and winning the nine House seats that would give Democrats control of the lower chamber. As for Brown Clarke, she has never discouraged talk that she might run for mayor.
While the fine points of his record have likely escaped most city voters' notice, Schor can quickly reel off a list of legislative accomplishments. Among them: Lead Democrat for Medicare expansion, mobile home regulation and revocation of tax incentives to businesses that don't follow through on their promises to communities.
As for Brown Clarke, with a single term on the City Council, her record is understandably thin. As this term's Council president she criticized Bernero's McIntyre affair but didn't follow through on threats to hold hearings on the payout or seek an investigation by the Michigan Attorney General's Office.
One of the questions in the DiSano poll postulated a three-way race in the August primary — not an impossibility. In a crowded field, Bernero (36.48 percent) and Schor (35.5 percent) are essentially tied, with Brown Clarke getting 28 percent of the vote. The margin of error on all of this is about 5 percent — that's a 10 point swing either way — so there is plenty of wiggle room.
And more important, Bernero's reelection campaign hasn't kicked into gear.
The aggressive street-fighter qualities that alienate some voters, are assets in a campaign. That and money. As an incumbent he will get campaign contributions from those pulling for a different candidate. Savvy donors cover their bets and politicians like Bernero don't forget their friends or their enemies.
Scurrying around in the gutter will be Capital Region Progress, which is stockpiling funds to support a Bernero campaign. Based on its past practices — robo-calls, mailers, unflattering photos and innuendo — and it will no doubt lower the bar for the 2017 mayoral campaign.