Nov. 9 2016 11:24 AM

Mayoral forecast: Unsettled conditions as three fronts collide

The answer is, yes. The presidential election is over and, yes, we're already moving on to the 2017 mayoral race.

Consider this your political forecast for the city of Lansing. Today, the sun is hopefully shining because Hillary Clinton's text messages and talk of Donald Trump groping women have blown over.

But like the weather, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is a topic we can't help talking about because he can't help himself from being a topic of conversation.

The good, the bad, the ugly. For Bernero, it's all been on display since he put his hand on the bible in 2006. Nearly 11 years later, the question Lansing residents have started asking themselves, now more than ever, is one that Lansities likely will talk about until Nov. 7, 2017.

Are we tired of him?

"America's angriest mayor," whose epic verbal thrashing of a FOX News anchor earned him a Lansing Brewing Co. label?

The seemingly untouchable incumbent whose prior three mayoral runs yielded 22, 24 and 43-point blowouts and a proclamation from a City Pulse columnist that Bernero would be "Mayor for Life"?

Supporters, opponents and those yet making up their minds don't really know, yet.

Bernero

"People love Virg's passion, and there's no doubt that he loves this city, but there is a feeling that I'm hearing from people that it's time for a change," said Jonathan Lum, president of the Allen Neighborhood Center.

The word is out. Union leaders started gauging state Rep. Andy Schor's interest in the job months ago. Judi Brown Clarke's meteoric elevation to Lansing City Council president after taking office in 2014 has her being mentioned as a more formidable challenger to Bernero than past City Council presidents Harold Leeman or Carol Wood.

A City Pulse poll conducted Oct. 18-20 by Practical Political Consultants bears that out. In a hypothetical three-person race, Schor topped Bernero 46 to 34 percent with Brown Clarke at 19 percent.

The 134-voter sample size is admittedly small, generating an 8 percent margin of error, but the PPC researchers shared two takeaways:

— The response rate of the 2,000-person robo-poll was "reasonably high" considering a new four-year mayoral term isn't being decided for another year.

— While the results are far from definitive, they are illustrative of what would appear to be a competitive race going into 2017.

DiSano Strategies' Sept. 6-7 survey of 363 Lansing voters showed Bernero at 36.5 percent, Schor at 35.5 percent and Clarke at 28. But when put in a head-to-head with Schor, Bernero loses 59 to 41 percent. He's only up 53.5 to 47.6 percent in a head to head with Brown Clarke. The city's nonpartisan August 2017 primary election would winnow down the field to two finalists in the November General.

Schor
To an outsider, the poll results may be shocking. Come January's swearing-in, only Ralph Crego, who served 18 years, and Gerald Graves, who served 12 years and eight months, will have sat in the mayor’s chair longer. That's a notable accomplishment for a politician whose knock against him when taking office was that he was a lily pad jumper —county commissioner, state representative, state senator and mayor all within five years.

So what is happening?

The mysterious Feb. 25 departure of former City Attorney Janene McIntrye and her $160,000 payout had tongues wagging. Several missing documents related to her employment fueled further skepticism. A split Lansing City Council wanted an independent attorney to sniff around, but the necessary five "yes" votes couldn't be found.

The Lansing State Journal paid for volumes of Bernero and McIntrye's emails, but it couldn't find anything conclusive. McIntrye's attorney privately used the specter of sexual harassment as part of some legal strategy, but nothing came of that.

"It was a dirty cloud and we couldn't get to the bottom of it," said Councilwoman Jodi Washington. "That whole episode cost the city a quarter of a million dollars. A quarter of a million dollars. That's taxpayer money and we don't have that to throw around."

Bernero's defenders questioned whether the prolonged McIntrye episode was nothing but exaggerated theater kicked up by longtime or recent Bernero adversaries looking at making political hay over the firing of a city official who maybe wasn't up to the job.

They questioned whether City Council had the authority to launch an investigation into a matter in which any public information already showed no evidence of nefarious behavior. In the public and private sector, sometimes high-ranking officials don't work out and there is often a financial price to pay when it doesn't to prevent costly, prolonged litigation.

Take the sudden firing of Board of Water & Light General Manager J. Peter Lark and his $650,000 settlement roughly a year prior as another example. Bernero's handpicked BWL Board claimed Lark's handling of the nearly two-week Christmas 2013 blackout spurred his firing.

The reason was suspicious considering the mayor's feet were planted in Lark's corner for months after the ice-caked trim limbs fell on power lines. Why was Bernero Mr. Lark's most strident defender one day and allowing his BWL board to pay Lark for four years to sit home the next?

Brown Clarke

All we know is Lark's pocket was sufficiently padded. The agreement is confidential and the city doesn't do five-year contracts anymore. Again, a lot of smoke, but no fire, if anything was burning in the first place.

Still, there is plenty for Bernero to run on. He orchestrated the massive revamp of the hulking downtown BWL power plant into the Accident Fund's glittery headquarters as well as the gradual rebirth of downtown, Old Town and REO.

It's not about how violent crime is down in Lansing or how the city is balancing its budget without noticeable drops in service despite the housing market crash and falling state revenue, which is something his supporters would like to hear more about.

"I think he's done an excellent job during very challenging conditions," said Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar. Asked if she felt Bernero deserved another four years, she responded, "Yes."

Bernero hasn't announced his intentions to run for a fourth four-year term, but he's certainly positioning himself for one. Whether it’s the opening of Hillary Clinton's downtown Lansing headquarters, the annual Allen Street Farmer's Market fundraiser or the grand opening of a REO Town business, Bernero is there … with Schor nearby.

Bernero held an Oct. 13 fundraiser in the Outfield Lofts at Cooley Law School Stadium, a "Grand Slam" ticket costing $1,000.

He's already got $150,000 in the bank. Even in conversation, Bernero conceded he's heard the chatter about Schor and Clarke and said he's confident, regardless.

But numerous neighborhood leaders conceded that even though they support Bernero, he's in political trouble next year, and for various reasons.

Kat Tyler, president of the Northtown Neighborhood Association, was a Bernero fan in his first few years. He often stopped by gatherings, became more acquainted with members and their issues. But that's faded over time, she said.

His on-again, off-again approach to personal relationships has gotten old, as has the decline in the city's police and fire presence, Tyler said. She said she understands there's only so much money to go around, but she's sore about the visible decline in programs and still agitated that her power was out nine days in the last cold days of 2013.

"When he started off, he was making changes and improvement. I just think he got sidetracked about what was better for Lansing. That's unfortunate," Tyler said. "Now, I think everyone is over him."

The loss in city revenue has Lansing streets deteriorating faster than they can be repaired. Michigan Avenue devolved into a moonscape until upset business owners pushed for immediate action, which Bernero & Co. took.

Yet, Sharon Rodocker, a leader of the East Battenfield Neighborhood Association, said "our city streets are horrendous," and she's sore that the Scott Sunken Gardens is slated to be moved to make room for a BWL substation.

While generally happy with Bernero, she's not sold on the mayor's strategy of opening the door to the medical marijuana shops peppering Cedar Street, among numerous other neighborhoods in town.

Bernero claims the medical marijuana businesses have filled vacant storefronts and reduced violent crime because patients no longer need to feed a shady black market for their medication. But residents question why these loosely regulated shops are selling "medicine" to questionable-looking clients at seemingly all hours of the night.

The "pot shops" may emerge as an issue next year. Bernero's open-mindedness to considering selling the BWL likely will come up, as will Lansing massive unfunded health care costs and pension.

But Bernero's personality may become the largest issue.

Mike Redding, president of the Churchill Downs Community Association, said he understands the public is frustrated that the lower tax base has equaled "crummy sidewalks and roads." City voters pushed through five-year, 4-mill property tax in 2011 increase to keep police levels from dropping further.

The BWL took a proactive approach with its lead service lines so the city isn't a "disaster" like Flint. So all and all, Bernero "has done a fair to good job."

That said, "As an individual, in Mike's opinion, I believe he's vulnerable. I think there's a hint of bullysness that I don't feel should be there."

And therein lies what Schor said he hears more about from community leaders and regular Lansing residents.

"There are people who feel that he has been a bully," Schor said. "That's what they're telling me. I've heard a lot of stories. It's not just the stories that people are telling me, but what I read in the City Pulse."

Stories of Bernero’s blowing up at other community leaders in and around Lansing are a dime a dozen, which can be interpreted as being a take-charge leader who doesn't take guff from anyone. His wild, gregarious personality can be attracting and endearing … until you've angered him, for reasons you may or may not know, at which point he becomes non-responsive and personally chilly.

He's never gotten along with Wood or Washington on the City Council. Rather, he's gone out of his way to build relationships around them as opposed to with them, which gives Washington the freedom to share how she really feels.

Washington cites the federal housing discrimination complaint against her and some other Council members that was orchestrated by the Bernero administration, which is is limiting what Lansing can do with federal low-income housing units in Lansing.

"People are just tired of Virg's antics," she said. "This 'angry mayor' bit is old. His reputation of throwing tantrums for not getting his way, threatening people. I think the man has lost any vision, moral compass, statesmanship. It's just time to move on."

Given numerous opportunities to share her opinions of Bernero, Clarke declined to go there. The former Olympic track star and wife of Judge Hugh Clarke would only say she's had a "tremendous number of people who have come up to me" about not seeking a second Council term and running for mayor instead.

"The things I have heard is that people are looking for leadership that is collaborative, that is listening, that works in partnership with Council, that works with others," Clarke said. "We need someone who is looking for partnerships as a way to move forward and right now that is not happening.

"The ability to leverage and relationship build has been strained for years and we can't afford that."

Bernero defenders, however, say his take-charge, my way-or-the-highway approach is a reason Lansing has seen more than $2 billion in private investment under his watch, that he's plowed the way for developers to revamp dilapidated or ugly vacant land.

How many other cities or mayors can claim the creation or retention of 12,500 jobs at a time when $80 million in city budget deficits needed to be erased — and during a deep recession? Bernero's spokesman, Randy Hannan, rightly boasts that the mayor has led Lansing "through the toughest times since the Great Depression."

That said, new questions emerged earlier this autumn about whether he's taken things too far. In September a federal lawsuit was filed over the city's handling of the Red Cedar project near Frandor. While the Mayor's office claims Christopher and Leo Jerome's suit charging Bernero with being complicit in some racketeering scheme with winning bidder Joel Ferguson is "sour grapes," that may not be hashed out before Nov. 7, 2017.

Such headlines are not stopping Clarke or Schor from being approached about running for mayor next year. For her part, Clarke said she won't make decide until after she discusses it more with family and friends.

"I'm certainly intrigued and I have a lot of primarily support, but will that translate into money and bodies?" she said. "I'll be doing my due diligence and hope to have a response after the holidays."

Schor isn't denying his interest in the post. But he has been keeping focused on helping other Demorats get elected statewide as finance chairman of the House Democratic Fund as well as winning his own third term.

Interestingly, Schor found himself with a pair of nominal primary challengers this spring, giving him a reason to campaign and dot Lansing with his yard signs for much of the year. Bernero supporters grumbled that Schor used the opportunity to position himself for mayor, considering every stitch of Lansing north of Interstate 496 and huge swaths of south Lansing are in Schor's state House district.

Making Schor's ascent more real is the odd fact that Schor's political resume looks strikingly similar as Bernero's before he beat Tony Benavides in 2005: Multiple years as a legislative staffer, 10 years on the county commission and what will amount to five years in the Legislature, all five in a Democratic minority.

As Bernero had to leave before his legislative term was up, so would Schor.

Bernero took office as mayor at age 41 — Schor's age now.

The city's major players know the score. Possibly the city's biggest municipal election in decades is coming, as signalled by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, a longtime Bernero backer.

"There is a perception out there that the Chamber of Commerce is automatically going to endorse the mayor, but we will be taking a serious look at Andy, Judi or any other candidate who decides to run," said Steve Japinga, the chamber's government affairs executive. "It will be a very fair process using our criteria and guiding principles about who is best to continue to serve or to serve the residents of Lansing."

The labor unions, some of which are in city negotiations, hesitate to say much now. Sources claim their leaders have reached out to Schor, but whether that is concrete support that will move Schor to the roughly $250,000 he'll need to wage a winning campaign or a way to leverage something from the city as part of contract talks is yet to be seen.

Bernero was the champion of organized labor during the 2010 gubernatorial election, when he was the Democratic nominee (losing by a lopsided margin to Republican Rick Snyder).

Either way, the political forecast for Lansing next year has a 75 percent chance of being stormy, 100 percent if either Schor and Clarke or both challenge the sitting mayor.

As for what the city's political landscape will look like a year from today, that's anybody's guess.

"Between now and Election Day, he has a lot to show us," said Melissa Jeffries of the Coachlight Commons Neighborhood Association. "He'll need to prove that we can trust him for another four years."