You could call Ben Hassenger an alternative candidate for mayor.
Not just because he’s a political outsider, but also because he does things like host a campaign stop at Mac’s Bar … during a Mustard Plug show, at which his band, The Cartridge Family, played.
“I admit I don’t have a lot of experience in politics but I’m an honest person who wants the city to blossom. This city runs in my blood,” Hassenger said.
Hassenger is now the third candidate to announce a bid for mayor joining Councilwoman Carol Wood and attorney and Lansing school board member Charles Ford. But don’t expect to hear him on the radio or show up at your door in a suit, eager to come into your home and talk politics.
“Lansing needs a new voice — some government officials are out of touch,” he says. He wants to break the stereotype of stuffily dressed government officials who look unapproachable.
“I want to be more for the city than a stuffed suit. I know people try to talk to the government but they’re often tossed aside,” he said.
So, who is this guy?
Hassenger, 25, was born and raised in Lansing and lives in Old Town. He attended Lansing Community College for a few years after he graduated in 2002 from JW Sexton High School. But before he could complete his degree, he got the urge to leave Michigan.
“I think it’s something everyone in their early 20s goes through,” he said of wanting to leave the town he grew up in. He moved to Syracuse, N.Y., for a while to play music with a friend, but ultimately, he learned that the East was not for him.
“I realized how much I missed Lansing and all of the good people here and Midwest hospitality in general. I had to get out of there,” he said.
Hassenger returned to Michigan last fall and started setting up a campaign to run for mayor.
The idea came to him while he was driving around the city a few months ago with a friend. Hassenger saw a yard sign with the phrase “Anyone but Virg.” The poster visually displayed the frustration many Lansing residents feel about Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero (who has yet to announce his reelection bid), he said, and their desire for him to be out of office. But Hassenger and his friend questioned the poster: Do people really want anyone but Virg as Lansing’s mayor?
And then, a campaign was born.
“I’m anyone,” Hassenger, who uses the same phrase as a campaign slogan, said during a recent chat at Mama Bear’s Caf in Old Town.
He initially joked about the possibility of running for mayor. He let the idea marinate for a while and realized that it really wasn’t all that bad.
And, perhaps, his chances aren’t so slim. Hassenger won City Pulse’s Top of the Town award for Best Lansing Mayoral Candidate for 2009, which boosted his confidence and reaffirmed his decision to run. (Mistakenly, however, we chalked up the win to Hassenger’s father, also named Ben, who’s a prominent local musician.) Hassenger beat runners-up Wood and former head of the Old Town Commercial Association, Jamie Schriner-Hooper. He is appreciative of all who voted for him because it has helped get his campaign rolling.
Hassenger hasn’t filed any official paperwork declaring his candidacy. He says he could just pay a fee and register to run for mayor, but he wants to do it the “proper” way and collect signatures to get his name onto the ballot. He feels that it is important to make sure the public is behind “this zephyr of change and truly supports” him.
Hassenger claims he has a very comfortable pile of money set aside for the campaign, which is the result of a structured settlement from a medical pain study that went awry. However, he has received much interest from his “many supporters” (on his campaign MySpace page, he has 22 “friends”) concerning how they can contribute financially to his campaign. He plans to hold fundraising concerts and dinners, which he will personally cook (he says he has studied the culinary arts).
Hassenger created a Facebook group to get the word out about voting for him in the Top of the Town Best People category. And Hassenger’s MySpace page (www.myspace.com/benhassenger2009) provides some good insight into the candidate. A slogan on the pages reads, “Turning pipe dreams into pipe realities,” and among his heroes he lists Tavis Smiley and musician Chuck Ragan.
He believes that the Internet will be an important element in his campaign but realizes the importance of face time with Lansing residents.
“I need to meet people and take this campaign to the streets. It’s really going to be a grassroots campaign,” he said. Hassenger is willing to talk to as many Lansing residents as he can.
But he hasn’t done any of the traditional door-to-door campaigning so favored by politicians — he thinks it’s lame and intrusive and doesn’t want to interrupt the “Leave It to Beaver concept of the family dinner” — except for that question and answer session at Mac’s Bar back in November.
He says that he wants to learn what people love about the city and improve on the things they dislike by promoting change. He will also be a strong advocate for shopping local.
If Hassenger does not win the election he is going to stay active in the community. “The issues the city is faced with aren’t escaping anytime soon — they need to be explored,” he said. Hassenger said his future plans include learning about how he can further help the city and continuing to play in local bands, The Cartridge Family and Frank and Earnest.
“If I lose I’ll be really upset but it won’t ruin who I am, and all I can do is be who I am,” he said.