Dec. 9 2009 12:00 AM

A longshot, but not impossible



Could Virg Bernero really be the next governor of Michigan? Our Virg Bernero?

There’s a line of thought in state political circles that it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The camera-ready Bernero can spin a populist message over the television airwaves as clear and as smooth as any politician in Lansing — in City Hall or the Capitol.

There’s also a line of thought that our twice-elected mayor doesn’t have a chance of winning the Democratic nomination in summer 2010, let along the whole enchilada. The over-eager Bernero doesn’t have the deep-pocket connections to raise the kind of money he’d need to get his face on TV.

Besides, the thinking goes, Bernero’s flirtation with the state’s chief executive post has further developed his reputation as an abrasive political ladderclimber who steamrolls FOX News interviewers when given a chance.

Both lines quickly developed after Bernero, 45, announced last week he was "seriously considering" a gubernatorial run only weeks removed from a 62 to 38 percent mayoral beating of Councilwoman Carol Wood. Sources indicate that Bernero had a heart-to-heart in Washington with members of the Barack Obama team, who are concerned that Lt. Gov. John Cherry is too tied with big union and unpopular incumbent Gov. Jennifer Granholm to a win a general election.

Bernero earned a reputation among working men and women earlier this year by standing up to national criticism that the state’s spoiled autoworkers somehow deserve to stomach job losses, deep pay cuts and benefit concessions.

And with Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon much too conservative for most mainstream Democrats to swallow, Bernero is instantly receiving serious consideration.

Lansing public relations guru Kelly Rossman-McKinney said she understands the two lines of thought and has her two feet firmly in both camps on the "Virg ’10" issue.

"There is an aspect of Virg with his ’Angriest Mayor in America’ reputation and his ability to articulate those mes sages that is very powerful potentially. He could be marketed pretty well across the rest of the state," she said.

"On the other hand, he’s seen as a political opportunist that is now slapping the face of the voters who put him in office. They are not happy."

Bernero could have sidestepped the "job-hopper" stigma, to some extent, had he waited a month or two for a "Draft Virg" movement to form. He could have been seen as a reluctant candidate in that case, she said. However, confirming that he’s seriously considering a run puts his trustworthiness and credibility on the line.

Longtime Lansing political figure Joel Ferguson said he thinks voters will forget about Bernero’s change of heart quickly, if they’re thinking about it at all. First, the issue only resonates with a small number of Lansing residents: Less than 20 percent bothered to vote in November.

What gives Bernero a "puncher’s chance," Ferguson said, is that he’s great on television. Voters can relate to his message of improving the lot of the middle class while punishing "Wall Street fatcats," said Ferguson, an MSU trustee and a former National Democratic Committee member.

The challenge, Ferguson said, will be if Bernero can raise enough money to get on TV. There’s not a lot of money for politicians in general. But if he can tap into the same supporters, in-state and nationally who gave him $350,000 for his mayoral re-election bid, Bernero has a shot at succeeding termlimited Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Bernero is going to have trouble, however, picking the pockets of organized labor groups, said retired local UAW political director Bruce McAtee. Those union groups who haven’t already signed on with Cherry, a proven commodity in the labor movement, will have problems with Bernero’s heavy-handed dealings with certain city employee unions, he said.

Cherry is a likeable personality who appeals to the Average Joe because he is one, McAtee said. He’s a hunter and former dog breeder who lives in a modest house in Clio. The more people get to know Cherry (once the gubernatorial race really gets going next year), the more people will like him.

Bernero may sound appealing when he rants and raves on the cable new net works, but does that equate into being a good mayor?

He hasn’t been able to work with half of the City Council and he isn’t exactly the poster child for common ground. Does that work when a governor is trying to woo Google into the state, McAtee wondered?

"Virgil doesn’t get a free ride for his behavior. He’s not a calming presence, and I don’t think people, in the end, agree with his style of behavior," he said.

Dennis Denno of the Denno/Noor polling company helped run Virg Bernero’s 2003 mayoral campaign and said Bernero’s problem has been knowing when to "turn off " the fighter message.

"Virg has an appeal to people. He can be seen as the fighter for Michigan’s families, but at times it becomes too much," Denno said. "My advice would be to continue the message as a fighter, but to be able to turn it off at certain times and to know the crowd."

That said, Denno said if Bernero can get his name known outside of the city of Lansing, he has a 20 percent shot at pulling off a successful gubernatorial bid. Denno’s polling shows that Cherry is not running away with the Democratic nomination in the minds of voters. There is an opportunity if he can raise around $500,000 relatively quickly to prove he’s a real contender.

Dick Posthumus, a former Republican lieutenant governor, struggled in 2002 to get his name known to the general public during his eventual loss to Granholm. Denno said Cherry may face the same issues.

Former Michigan Republican Party Executive Director Jeff Timmer said he’s not so sure. Say what you will about the last lieutenant governor to mount a gubernatorial campaign, Posthumus still crushed then-Sen. Joe Schwarz in the Republican primary 81 percent to 19 percent.

Cherry has a large head start on everybody else on the Democratic side with his entrenched labor support, Timmer said. Bernero will have a nearly impossible shot to knock off an "accomplished, smart" campaigner whose been positioning himself for eight years for this opportunity.

Timmer said simply, "The odds are greatly against anybody other than John Cherry winning the nomination."

(Kyle Melinn is news editor of MIRS, a Capitol news service. E-mail him at