It was muggy last Saturday morning as At-Large Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Carol Wood held court at a sort of "coffee talk" campaign event at Grumpy’s Diner along Pennsylvania Avenue.
A campaign worker said that the idea of the event was get some face time between Wood, voters and those who have supported her over her career on Council: the kind of folks who care deeply about their neighborhoods and eradicating red-tagged homes and potholes.
But for all the criticism the administration of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, election watchers and opponents have lobbed at Wood — she stands for nothing but opposing Bernero, her communication skills are shaky and she isn’t a leader — the Grumpy’s event did little to combat any of it, or showcase her strengths.
She seemed to know most of the attendees by name. That’s good — she remembers people she’s only met once — but there were some people there that she already is involved with on a regular basis, anyway. (First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt, an ally on City Council, was there, for example.)
In talking to the residents at Grumpy’s, she was verbose and indirect. If Wood makes it past the August primary to face Bernero, there will likely be a debate or two, and with the mayor’s oratory skill with staying on message, the Councilwoman will need to improve to even have a chance.
One older gentleman asked a question and after a long, and at times confusing answer, Wood asked, "Did that answer your question?" The gentleman answered, "Somewhat."
She was so involved in the details of her answer that she couldn’t simplify it to make sense. And most voters, unlike Wood, aren’t parked week after week in the gallery at City Hall following the often mind-boggling progression of an issue from a threeperson committee to Committee of the Whole to the floor for a vote (with a few stops and insertions and spins added in by the administration or any number of Council members).
Then there’s the big issue: What are the issues? What’s the message? One only has to see her in action at Council meetings to see that she is deeply invested in neighborhoods. Indeed, she has said she hits as many as five neighborhood association meetings a week. If there’s a person in the city who seems to have the pulse on what’s happening, street by street, it’s Wood. But beyond that, it is difficult to discern what her campaign is really about.
After a question lobbed her way b y a campaign staffer about the proposed sale of the North Capitol Avenue parking ramp to Lansing Community College, Wood’s answer touched on everything from appraisals, tax incentives, consolidation of police precincts and city assets. At the end, Wood said she’d not be supporting the proposed sale — the same exact deal Council rejected in September — but along the way her supporters Ford didn’t get a concrete explanation why she wasn’t supporting the deal.
But there were good moments, too. Wood worked the audience like a priest during handshake time, walking up and down the rectangular tables to be face to face with whomever she was addressing. She cracked jokes and gave a good overview of what she called "wraparound services" for schools, meaning renting out office space in underenrolled or vacant school buildings to float the cost of keeping them open.
Emily Bourne and Wendy Rohen, 20-something residents of the Colonial Village neighborhood, were at Grumpy’s to find out about neighborhood council funding. They also found that they liked what Wood was saying.
“It’s refreshing to see someone listen to the people as a public servant, not a public figure,” Rohen said.
She has a throwback vision for the city: schools where teachers know all the kids in one family, a downtown that flourishes but not at the expense of the neighborhoods, and making sure that "in getting downtown, you don’t feel like you’re going through a war zone." Public safety, public service and a transparent budget process and more open government are high on her list of priorities, but as yet, concrete plans for increasing all of the above haven’t been disseminated.
As for the other candidates, Bernero hasn’t officially declared yet, but he did tell a City Pulse reporter, "Yeah, it’s a good guess; I’ll probably end up running,” and last Tuesday his campaign changed its name from "Virg Bernero for Lansing Mayor" to "Virg Bernero for Lansing." That might mean that, as one source suspected, a future in statewide politics for Bernero is possible, just not in 2010. Those slots have all been penciled in, and with some Democrats hesitant to lose a long-shot election, all cards are close to the vest.
But wait, there’s more. Two more, actually. Lansing attorney and school board member Charles Ford is in and is raising money — he just had a fundraiser on Sunday — and he said he’s planning an open house for his recently opened campaign headquarters on Washington Square. He has plans to expand the community policing model to approximately 10 precincts, depending on what his team’s research shows is best. Smaller, more well distributed precincts (what Ford called "field stations") would be staffed by officers on foot, bike and in patrol cars. The aim, he said, would be to increase the visibility of officers in neighborhoods. He’s got plans for education, increasing services for the city’s homeless and diversifying the local economy.
And then there’s Ben Hassenger, a local musician and Old Town resident. Hassenger, not to be confused with his father, also a local musician named Ben Hassenger, says he’s running to show
the city it’s not a bad place to be. Asked about his platforms, he
wasn’t certain yet, but he used the big buzzwords — hope, change, etc.
At 25, it isn’t surprising that Facebook and MySpace are facilitating
most of his visibility.
There’s one thing he knows for
certain. He doesn’t disagree with downtown development, but he said
downtown is really a “business sector.”
"But where do you hang
your hat at the end of the night? At your home, with your neighbors,
your community,” he says in stressing the importance of neighborhoods.
And he can summarize his campaign in just a few words: “Let’s reinvent the city.”