What a difference 10 days make.
Two Fridays ago, Virg Bernero appeared to be off and running for a fourth term as mayor of Lansing.
Then, Monday, the Lansing political world shifted. Bernero pulled out, citing family reasons.
Here’s what I’ve learned from numerous sources, mostly not for attribution:
— He really did pull out for family reasons.
— Councilwoman Judi Brown Clarke will undoubtedly run, with an announcement expected as soon as today. (She will be the guest on this week’s edition of “City Pulse Newsmakers” on My18 TV at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. It will also be available at lasingcitypulse.com)
— Lansing Clerk Chris Swope is mulling whether to run for mayor.
The timing of Bernero’s announcement caught even close associates off guard, but not the decision itself. They knew he was torn about seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Indeed, you didn’t need to be close to him to have heard rumors.
But his odd press release 10 days ago seemed to settle the matter. I say odd, because it offhandedly said, “I am prepared reapply (sic) for my job.” You’d think such an announcement would not be done in a sloppy press release issued late on a Friday, the worst news cycle as people launch their weekends. Strange timing for a pro like Bernero.
The thrust of the press release was classic Virg, though: It attacked state Rep. Andy Schor, who was a few days away from formally announcing his candidacy. Bernero went after Schor for bringing onboard PR guy TJ Bucholz as his spokesman, because Bucholz also represents a dark-money group opposed to Bernero. “This news is especially disheartening after the nasty, hate-filled presidential campaign that has divided our country,” Bernero declared.
The attack dripped with hypocrisy, given Bernero’s personal association with Capitol Region Progress, itself a dark money group whose attacks on opponents brought local politics to a new low.
But it also signaled the kind of campaign Bernero thought he’d have to run — and that may have been what finally pushed him to decide against running.
If getting elected again was going to be a cakewalk for Bernero, I think he would have run. But it promised to be anything but. His opponents were prepared to spread outlandish innuendo about Bernero, none of which I’m going to give credence to by repeating here.
Bernero decided against putting his family, particularly his wife, Teri Bernero, through it.
One source close to Bernero told me that Teri Bernero made it clear that she did not want another campaign that would be a major distraction from her career. An accomplished educator, she is the director of the Pathway Promise and HOPE/Promise Scholar programs for the Lansing School District. She has ambitious plans for those programs.
“It’s her turn,” my source told me.
On top of that, the Berneros are caring for his 91-year-old father, who has serious health issues. I know from personal knowledge that the mayor is determined to keep his widowed father at home as long as possible, an ever-increasing challenge. Bernero is a hard-working mayor whose load was incompatible with bearing his share of that responsibility.
Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer — who sat out a race for attorney general for family reasons — summed it up for me: “The city of Lansing will not be at Virg’s side when he is on his death bed. His family will.”
Bernero’s decision leaves the mayor’s race as Schor’s to lose. The establishment is free now to fall in behind Schor — and most will, despite concern by some that he is too prolabor. He’s the odds-on favorite to be the next mayor, and the smart money will go to him, especially given his sterling reputation as honest, personable and industrious.
That doesn’t mean he is home free. Brown Clarke, as an African American woman, has appeal. But her negatives are strong: a late start in the fundraising game, a thin public record as a one-term Councilwoman and very possibly a thin skin, evidenced by the fit she threw over a harmless illustration of her in this newspaper that she and her husband, Judge Hugh Clarke, saw as making her look like a “Sambo.” That overreaction was a wake-up call for many people who do not want another mercurial personality running the city.
Moreover, Brown Clarke could have a Bill Clinton problem. There's a perception that Judge Clarke aspires to be co-mayor. The Clarkes will try to paint that view as sexist, but those familiar with Judge Clarke find the co-mayor scenario as entirely plausible, given that he hardly hides his show-biz-mother ambitions for his wife. Judge Clarke obviously has his supporters — they put him on the school board and elected him judge after former Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed him to fill an open seat. He can be charming. But he can also be overbearing, which could make him a liability if the co-mayor label sticks.
Her biggest problem, though, may be her dismissal from MSU as the women's athletic coach two decades ago in the wake of an NCAA probe. Rumors were rampant that Bernero planned to use that against her. Whether Schor will is a good question.
As for Swope, he’s a plausible candidate: He’s got nearly 12 years of experience in City Hall as clerk, compared to zero for Schor and three-plus as a part-timer for Brown Clarke. He has strong name recognition and lots of friends who would help him raise funds. But he can’t run for both clerk and mayor, and he’s a realist — witness his decision not to run for Ingham County clerk when former state Rep. Barb Byrum, a stronger candidate, jumped in. Moreover, being mayor is heavy lifting, and this may not be the right time for him, given his part-time role in his husband’s expanding business, Bradly’s Home and Garden. At 49, he has time — and if Schor wins, Swope could run to replace him in the state House of Representatives, with an eye on the Senate down the road.
A final thought on Bernero’s exit: He gave interviews to everyone in town except City Pulse, despite endorsing him four times for mayor and once for governor (one of two newspapers to do so). His gripe, I’m told, is he thinks reporter Todd Heywood is unfair to him. That’s been going on for two years, even though in all that time, he and his spokesman, Randy Hannan, have yet to present a serious case that Heywood’s reporting is inaccurate. They just don’t like his questions.