For political junkies, the impending Virg Bernero-Carol Wood 2009 mayoral showdown is a match made in heaven.
This is what we sign up for: a first-class showdown between an incumbent and his chief political adversary. For local politicians, it’s quite the opposite, but I’ll get to them in a minute.
First, let’s set the stage:
In one corner there’s Virg. Now the United States’ “Angriest Mayor,” Lansing’s first-term chief executive took his “here’s my raw uncut emotional guttural opinion I don’t care what you think” shtick to the big stage to rave national reviews.
His verbal steamrolling of that poor Fox News commentator was an instant YouTube classic, drawing cries from Alaska to Florida for a “Virg For Any Higher Office, Please” campaign.
We in Lansing know our boisterous mayor doesn’t need such encouragement to reach for the higher political peg, but I digress.
In the other corner, there’s Virg’s No. 1 pain in his butt, Councilwoman Wood. If Virg is go-go-go, Wood is slow-slow-slow. Anxious to tediously examine every angle before signing off on everything from Francis Park to the Lansing City Market, Wood represents the City Council’s “anti- Virg” contingent.
You might remember two years ago when Bernero put up Gina Nelson to run against Wood for her at-large Council seat. Whatever small chance Nelson had to win completely evaporated after the heinous murder of Wood’s mother, community activist Ruth Hallman.
As an alleged serial murderer ran loose around the city, Lansing’s appreciation for Wood soared.
Then Wood, in what was widely viewed as a referendum on Bernero, watched her allies Eric Hewitt and A’Lynne Robinson knock off a pair of alleged Virg sympathizers for seats on Council.
Later this year, if both Bernero and Wood out-poll Lansing School Board member Charles Ford and any other primary election candidate, the general election will be a true clash in conflicting styles, visions and personalities.
Bernero has an office on the City Hall’s 9th floor. Wood’s is on the 10th. But they might as well be on opposite ends of the city for the pains they take to stay away from one another.
It’s one side or the other, and nobody knows this more than local officeholders who are, by and large, ducking for cover.
Unless they have a long-standing allegiance to the incumbent mayor, nobody wants to get caught in the crossfire. That includes state lawmakers and county officials. With the notable exception of state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (who served with Bernero in the state House) and, a chief Bernero ally, Ingham County Clerk Mike Bryanton, there aren’t a lot of locals jumping on either candidate’s bandwagon.
“I am Switzerland,” said one local official.
“I know both of them and I like both of them,” said another county elected official. “I really wish it hadn’t come to this. It puts a lot of us in a tough spot.”
“I’m really too busy doing this job to get involved in that,” said a third, grinning as she turned her face away.
On City Pulse’s radio show (7 p.m. Wednesdays on 88.9 FM The Impact), state Rep. Joan Bauer, a former Councilwoman whom Wood backed, declared her neutrality, saying she has to work with both candidates.
Do you blame any of them? Both Wood and Bernero supported many of those who hold office today. They’re not anxious to alienate themselves from either one. What happens in future campaigns? On future public policy issues?
If Wood loses, she’s got another two years on the Council.
But if a key pol as so much gives a penny to Wood’s campaign, Bernero has a reputation of picking up the phone and asking “What are you doing?” — and not in such a polite way. This doesn’t stop at elected officials. Unions and other folks who do regular business may feel pressured to pick a side.
Bernero will paint himself as the pro-business progressive who’s all about bringing economic development at any cost.
His most recent campaign finance report shows that his appeal is regional, even statewide. The $65,000 he’s raked in is coming from Okemos, Lansing, Delta Township, Ann Arbor and the traditional Lansing political action committees.
Wood is diving into the neighborhoods for support, counting on her community connections to strike a chord with the struggling, grouchy homeowner who’s appalled and embarrassed by Bernero’s seemingly outlandish antics.
I, for one, will be pulling up a frontrow seat for this one, but I’m lucky. I’m a journalist. I’m supposed to remain neutral.
(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.)