Today, Lansing At-Large Councilwoman Carol Elaine Wood will throw herself onto the fire that is the 2009 race for mayor of Lansing. Her entry into the race is particularly inflammatory because of her relationship with Mayor Virg Bernero, which could at best be described as adversarial.
(Correction: The print version of this story should have said that
Gov. Jennifer Granholm was elected in 2002. We regret the error.)
But if, for just a moment, Lansing residents and those of us who follow city politics could put aside the rivalry between Wood and Bernero you'd find a woman who has invested a large portion of her life into public service here. If city politics weren't so hot, Wood's running for mayor would seem like a no-brainer.
She’s put in over eight years on City Council and before that she worked for many years alongside her mother, Ruth Hallman, who was murdered over the summer of 2007, as an activist mainly in the Genesee neighborhood. She’s been a Democrat since 2006, but before that a Republican — a switch that has left her open to criticism as an opportunist in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. She considers herself an independent voter. (City elections are nonpartisan.)
Wood's credentials, though, just aren't that simple. She is also seen as polarizing and negative, blamed by some as the reason Bernero has trouble getting his proposals through Council. Some fear that she'll take Lansing back to the dark ages by forestalling development downtown.
But Wood's thesis for running, she says, is to bring dignity back to the many pockets of neighborhoods around town — not just downtown — and take city services like snow plowing and fixing roads to a higher level. All while the city, state and country are facing a tanking economy.
"I think we have to have accountable development; and it can't be in spite of or instead of doing things in the neighborhoods," Wood says. "People are paying their taxes and think the streets aren't being plowed often enough, or the streets aren't being swept. These are meat and potatoes issues."
Wood has hired Bill D. Morris, 41, to manage her campaign. Morris said he is not affiliated with any local political firms but did work for the Barack Obama campaign in Shiawassee County. Before that, Morris said, he worked in the education, nonprofit and human services sectors, but he declined to name a specific organization. He says that he has been a longtime friend of Wood and Ruth Hallman.
Neither Wood nor Morris would talk about how much money the campaign has raised, and campaign filings won't be out until July. Some say she'll need to raise in the neighborhood of $100,000. She says she'll seek endorsements from labor groups and from those "meat and potatoes" voters concerned about things like missing stop signs and potholes. Several labor leaders reached would not comment for this article on whom they'd support.
"Of course you want to see everyone working and see all the houses fixed up and all the economic development — those are all the things we wish for," Wood said. "I think that one of the things I've learned from community work is that it's making a difference one house at a time. A job at a time. A storefront at a time. Then you add to those and you keep adding those.
"It's counting each of those small success along the way to a larger goal."
As far as her chances to win, it's up to the fire of a mayoral campaign between two perceived rivals to decide.
"I really don't know what her chances are," says Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting. "Both she and Virg are so polarizing; it's so tough to tell. It may be a question of who people dislike more."
Grebner sees the race, so far, as between only Bernero and Wood — Lansing School Board member Charles Ford, who recently announced his run for mayor, is "not a real candidate."
"They're very different people. Virg is so pushy and Carol is so opinionated," Grebner says. "The city is divided into two camps. I suppose there's a third camp, which would like them to both go away, but that's not a possibility."
Early years and activism
Wood, 58, was born in Lansing and raised in a house on Lapeer Street, right near where it ends at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, across the street from Grace Lutheran Church, the neighborhood polling place and site of her announcement today. She left Lansing for Alaska following her 1968 graduation from Sexton High School, but she returned to Michigan and eventually purchased a home on Lapeer Street right next door to her mother.
Wood grew up in a strict household with her younger siblings Carleen and Chuck, under her mother, which contributed to her leaving for Alaska. Looking back through an old Sexton yearbook, Wood (then Hallman) doesn't appear among the many pages of photos of students participating in social clubs and after-school activities — the yearbook lists her as being involved in a production of “The Mouse that Roared,” and a member of the “girls' league.”
“She was nice,” remembers Elsie Guy, a Sexton classmate who was in Wood's homeroom class. “She got along well with everybody.”
She stayed in Anchorage for a few years, working for the local school district and attending college at the University of Anchorage. She never completed a degree; instead she met Jeffrey Wood, with whom she would eventually start a family. On March 14, 1970, in St. Louis, the couple married. They would eventually have two children; Christopher, who lives near Grand Rapids, and Jason, a sergeant in the Air Force who lives with his daughter in Florida.
Jeffrey and Carol Wood divorced in 2001, according to court records, because of irresolvable differences. At last check, Jeffrey Wood was living in St. John’s, but he could not be located to comment for this article.
A plane crash on Mother’s Day in 1972 that claimed the life of her sister made Wood reassess the physical distance between her and her family. So, she moved back.
Shortly after that, Wood began to get involved in community activism.
Hazel Bethea, who took over the Genesee Neighborhood Association after Hallman’s death, recalls meeting Wood for the first time in 1974 at a land committee meeting at Grace Lutheran Church.
"One guy attending ran a store, a deli," Bethea recalls. "He introduced us. The land committee notified the landlords about different problems in the rentals."
Bethea says that in her early days of working for the Genesee Neighborhood Association, she and Carol would work on the community newsletter.
"Back then we had a quite a few drug houses," Bethea said. "Working together, as a group, they were eliminated and we got them down to four or five. We used to get on the landlords about them."
And although Wood is on Council, which she treats like a full-time job, she’s still involved in neighborhood activities.
Anita Beavers, the head of the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association, has nothing but cheers for Wood.
"As an individual, I admire her. She has been a strong supporter of our neighborhood association," Beavers said. "She gets answers for people and finds solutions. I admire her ability to work with different people and find solutions."
Grace Middaugh of the We Care Neighborhood Organization indicated that her group's experiences with Wood have been positive. She says that Wood seems more concerned about the city than Bernero.
Beverly Miller, of the North Lansing Community Association, recalled that when the Spiral Video Dance Bar opened in her neighborhood, neighbors were opposed to it because of noise concerns and turned to Wood for help. Harold Leeman at the time was the First Ward Councilman, but it was Wood who acted as an intermediary between neighbors and Council, Miller says.
Miller wouldn't offer support for Wood as a mayoral candidate because her organization is not permitted to endorse a candidate, but did say that Bernero "does not come around" the neighborhood.
Kenetha Gibson, president of the Walnut Neighborhood Organization, prepared a written statement when asked for comment for this article.
"I met Carol when the northwest area of Lansing was dealing with drug houses and problem houses and their owners. At the time, I was more involved with the neighborhood watch. Together with Officer Bob Tucker, we all conversed with ideas on how to go through proper channels and nip the problems in the butt. Carol has always been a true gem when it comes to dealing with anything neighborhood-wide; she always handles every request and question and the issue with the utmost respect and handles them properly," Gibson wrote.
At the very least, Wood is very good at corresponding with her constituents.
"I've written e-mails to Council, and she's always responded right back," Brian Baer, head of the Foster Your Neighborhood Organization. "She's one of the few Council members that responds right back."
On a recent day, Wood’s end of Lapeer Street was particularly dismal. It was overcast, and the only people out were a group of smokers standing outside of Grace Lutheran Church. Lawns and sidewalks were lined with filthy banks of half-melted snow and littered with bits of trash.
A group of women standing outside one home several down from Wood’s didn’t know much about the Councilwoman — except to ponder whether it was the same woman whose mother was killed a couple years ago. Another woman, two houses down from Wood’s, answered her door by sticking a weary eye up to the window of her door, asking, “What do you want?” She too was not familiar with Wood.
Lynne Martinez, head of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition, the headquarters of which is across the street from Wood’s house, did not want to comment for this article. She did, however, inform a reporter that he had knocked on the door of the late Ruth Hallman’s house. The porch light was on and an American flag was wrapped up in its pole protruding from the house — the vacant house has been kept the same as the day Hallman was killed as a memorial — and looked as if it could be occupied.
Hallman was fatally bludgeoned on July 26, 2007 — Wood’s birthday — in broad daylight in her home and died several days later at Sparrow Hospital. It has been speculated that convicted murderer Matthew Macon, a man alleged to have been responsible for serial killings that summer, killed Hallman, but he has not been charged with the crime. Hallman’s death still brings tears to Wood’s eyes, but some skeptics say she uses her mother’s death for sympathy and political gain.
“If I could have my mom back and walk away from this and never hold an elected office again, I would,” she says.
It was in 1997 that Wood launched her first political campaign. She was vying for the Fourth Ward City Council seat and faced off against the Rev. Michael Murphy. Murphy, a minister of St. Stephen's Church with deep ties to the community, bested Wood, but not by much — Wood carried 48 percent of the vote to Murphy’s 51 percent.
“Carol Wood was one of the most outstanding candidates I’ve had to run against,” said Murphy, who eventually went on to become a state legislator and will shortly move to Washington to head a church that may count Barack Obama as a congregant. “I won the race in 1997, but it wasn’t by very many votes.”
Murphy and Wood went on to become friends, and he supported her when in 1999 she ran for, and won, an At-Large seat on Council, to which she was re-elected in 2003 and 2007 (despite opposition by a Bernero-backed candidate). Murphy described Wood as having two sides: caring and compassionate, and “tough.”
“She can be a formidable candidate, or opponent,” he said. “Carol makes herself available to people. She returns telephone calls, she shows up at different events — I think that’s the mark of a leader. She has those qualities of personality that people respect. If she runs for mayor, I think it would generate great interest in this city. I’m talking about from people inside the city, people that live here in the city of Lansing.”
When Wood took her seat on Council in 2000, she replaced Ellen Beal. Beal had run against former Mayor David Hollister in 1997 and was seen as a member of Council who would go against, or at least question, the mayor. Before Wood’s first Council meeting, a story in the Lansing State Journal described the demise of a City Council that had challenged Hollister. Ironically, it's Wood all these years later who is looked at as the mayor's Council adversary.
In 2002, after Gov. Jennifer Granholm was elected, it was clear, say those involved in city politics at the time, that Hollister would get a cabinet position. It also happened that Wood was seeking to be Council president in 2002. But whoever was elected Council president in 2002 would succeed Hollister as mayor under the terms of the city charter.
It came down to Wood, with only two years of city government experience, and Tony Benavides, with more than 20 years. In the end, Hollister asked Wood to cede her votes from fellow Council members to Benavides. She agreed.
"I don't know if she wanted to be mayor that year," Benavides recalls. "She loved her position. I think that she thought that she could be more effective there than mayor. I know that she had aspirations someday."
Some say that there were hard feelings between Benavides and Wood after that year — that she made dealing with Council tough for him. But the former mayor has nothing bad to say about Wood.
"I absolutely support her 100 percent" against Bernero, said Benavides, who beat Bernero in 2003 to complete Hollister’s term but lost to Bernero in 2005. "The thing is this: You have this situation where she is right in the middle of everything. She knows exactly what's going on in the city. Everybody has to understand we are not going to be all things to all people and Carol can't be all things to all people. I had my lumps, if you will, being mayor. And she will have hers. I think that Carol definitely has a following and definitely would be a person people could trust and support."
It was also around 2002 that Wood began doing private consulting, which was officially incorporated as a business in 2006 and dubbed CEW Consultant. Wood did public relations between neighborhoods and larger entities in the communities. She was hired by Ingham Regional Medical Center to act as a liaison between the neighborhood and the hospital. She did public relations for Lansing Community College's dental program. Roberta Peterson, the interim vice president for academic affairs, said that Wood worked between 2002 and 2005 promoting the program, which provides low-cost dental screenings and cleanings, and was paid in the thousands for the work — Peterson said she could only recall one year, in which Wood was paid $4,000. Paula Cunningham, who was then the president of the college, recommended Wood for the job. Peterson said Wood did good work, and the contract was ended because of budget cutbacks. Wood also did work for the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, but a representative from the school could not be reached to find out the details of her work there. Wood says that she has ended private consulting.
Larry Meyer, a former Councilman who chairs BoarsHead Theater’s board, recalls working together with Wood on housing and neighborhood issues. Things got tense back then, Meyer said, but not as tense as recently.
"There always has been a fuss up," Meyer said of large issues that have come before Council. "Not to the level it has been lately. But those things are a birthing process."
At the beginning of last year, it looked as if it was going to be a tough one for either Bernero or Wood. It turned out to be a mix of both.
In 2007, Wood and At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries and two newcomers, First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt and Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson (who beat Bernero-backed incumbents Bill Matt and Harold Leeman, respectively,) were perceived as anti-Bernero. The rest of the Council — Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Kaltenbach, Second Ward Councilwoman Sandy Allen, At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney and At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar — were supposed to be pro-Bernero. To say that there exists a 4-4 divide on Council would be to oversimplify the politics, but it works to illustrate the Wood versus Bernero split on two major issues from last year: Frances Park and City Market.
The Frances Park issue boiled down to the Council’s having to approve the city's grant application to the state Department of Natural Resources for upgrades at the park, including a pathway extension that would allow park-goers entering from the east to not have to walk in the street on Moores River Drive.
Grant supporters on Council — the four members considered in Bernero’s camp — saw it as a no-brainer park improvement. But Wood and the rest of Council saw it as a breakdown in communication because not all nearby neighborhood groups were notified of what the grant would do.
The final 4-4 vote killed the grant application, which led to a meltdown at City Hall. Bernero and Hewitt ended up in a screaming match in Robinson's office, and Frances Park boosters cried in the aisles of Council chambers.
The issue is still a sore spot for the neighborhood.
"There were many people in our neighborhood who were disappointed in regards to the Frances Park issue," said Thaddeus Owen, president of the Moore's Rive Drive Association. "I think (Wood) dropped the ball on that one with not letting the city pursue the grant application."
City Market, on the other hand, was much more dire. The project, which would have developer Pat Gillespie buy and tear down the existing Lansing City Market and replace it with mixed-use buildings, was seen as a major step in downtown development: the city gets a new market with the money Gillespie pays for the old one, housing for moneyed young people looking to move downtown, and more offices and retail across the Grand River from the new home of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America in the redone Ottawa Power Station.
At the end of May, almost two months before Council would eventually approve the City Market project, Wood and other Council members started asking questions about the development agreement. It was these questions — and the question of whether some Council members should have been able to answer their own questions — that led to a near-meltdown on vote night.
It was during the tumultuous few weeks leading up to the final vote on City Market that Bernero rolled out the "with us, against us" talk. He painted Council members questioning the development agreement as working against the city's future before eventually sitting down with them to make the deal work. Robinson said at the time, however, that it was a "new day for Council," working with the administration, although down to the wire, to hash things out.
It is from these two instances — even though there's a lot of other minutiae — that some citizens could glean that Wood is either an obstructionist or just really into details.
Former Councilman Leeman recalls Wood and Jeffries as acting as a team with a limited strategy.
"Carol and Brian would stir things up — if they didn't have the votes to defeat it. But they didn't have an endgame," Leeman recalls. "You don't just stir things up for the sake of stirring things up."
"She needs to understand her positives and negatives. So does the mayor. He can relate to the people downtown. But can he relate to the people in the wards?"
"Questioning does not mean 'no,'" Wood says. "I support economic development, but I expect economic development to be accountable. What I am saying by that is that when a promise to us is made for a development — and developments mean growth — that that's exactly what we should be seeing."
And Carol Wood administration would be "arm-in-arm" with City Council.
"First and foremost, there has to be — and under my administration there would be — a much better working relationship with all Council members, even the ones you don't agree with," she says. "Because you end up getting better ideas when you're open-minded."
Wood is pledging to keep her upcoming campaign clean. Indeed, in her public differences with Bernero — who has not officially announced he's running for mayor again — she has not gotten personal, whereas the mayor severed PR woman Kelly Rossman McKinney’s city contract after she delivered Ruth Hallman’s euology.
"Let's debate the issues. Let's look at what we've supported, what we haven't, what ideas we've brought forth," Wood says. "Mudslinging is not the way I want to run a campaign, nor will I do it."