Dec. 21 2011 12:00 AM

Disillusioned by politics and no amends with Virg Bernero: An exit interview with 1st Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt


For nearly an hour and a half Saturday afternoon, outgoing 1st Ward representative Eric Hewitt recounted the past four years on City Council, from an expletive- and name-calling-filled history with Mayor Virg Bernero to his decided alliance with Carol Wood — and how the whole process left him one jaded politician.

While some of Hewitt’s critics in the 1st Ward were disappointed when he couldn’t let bygones be bygones with Bernero — whether it was on Frances Park, the Market Place project or Red Cedar Golf Course — the 45-year-old is humbled and cognizant that not everyone agrees with his voting career. He gives himself a “C” grade; he figures his opponents would say he has a “failing record.”

“I’d personally rate myself at about a C. I didn’t get a lot of things done people don’t know about,” Hewitt said. “If going on the 1 percent of contentious votes (on Council), those who know me would probably give me a C. Others might give me a failing record, but time will tell.”

Hewitt said he “made a decision a long time ago that I wasn’t going to run.” Even though he told City Pulse last spring that he intended to run again, “I didn’t want the lame duck part of my term to start too soon.” He’s still deciding on whether to move out of the city. 

And he has “no desire at this point” to run again for political office. “I need a break. I don’t see politics as a noble cause. I had an idyllic idea about what politics is. But it’s so contentious and blatantly fraught with animosity.”

Hewitt has worked for the state since 1994 and was recently promoted at the Department of Human Services, moving from a senior financial analyst to securities analyst. The new job largely involves auditing federal reporting requirements, he said. A peculiar career, you might say, for a man who studied history, anthropology, mass media and fine art photography in college. 

Hewitt describes himself as a “social liberal, fiscal conservative. Pro-choice, for moderate control of hand guns.” He’s “not a real fan” of tax incentives that can be perceived as “corporate welfare.” He said he “straddles that fence down the middle,” referring to the economic development philosophies of tax incentives versus a “less regulatory” structure. He says emergency managers — such as Bernero’s chief of staff, Jerry Ambrose, who is leaving the city to work on rescuing Flint — could be effective in correcting the “dysfunction between executive and legislative branches,” but that he “has a problem with where they are at now” in terms of “usurping the voters.”

Hewitt said he’s a registered Democrat, voted for Andy Dillon in the 2010 gubernatorial primary and for Rick Snyder in the general: “Look who he (Snyder) was running against. I didn’t have much of a choice.” 

That’s a nice lead-in to the political story of Eric Hewitt versus Virg Bernero. Hewitt said he actually voted for Bernero in his two mayoral bids against former Mayor Tony Benavides in 2003 and 2005. “I was a supporter. Basically (that ended) when I felt I was being manipulated and played like a pawn.” As Hewitt explains it, that started about this time of year in 2007. 

Hewitt said at a breakfast in December 2007 among himself, Bernero and 3rd Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson (who also was just elected), “The conversation was not ‘What do you want to do for the ward?’ it was ‘Tell me what you’re going to do for me now,’” Hewitt said of Bernero. The impression stuck: “The only thing that succeeds in Lansing is either through reprisal or if you feel like someone owes you something,” Hewitt said.

While the breakfast might have been the first hint of animosity between Hewitt and Bernero, the “complete cut of a professional relationship” was over Frances Park improvements in 2008. A former City Pulse reporter wrote that it would “probably go down as one of the all-time greatest meltdowns in Council history,” complete with crying and a closed-door shouting match between Bernero and Hewitt. 

On Saturday, Hewitt confirmed that Bernero called him “the dumbest motherfucker I have ever seen” and a “piece of shit,” and he responded by calling Bernero a “wop-headed guinea motherfucker.” They’re both of Italian descent. “We went forehead to forehead,” Hewitt remembered.

From there, “Anything that could be done was stymied. It only hurt people in the 1st Ward.” 

When asked to comment for this story, Bernero’s deputy chief of staff, Randy Hannan, wrote in an e-mail: “Mayor Bernero wishes Councilmember Hewitt a happy holiday season and looks forward to a new year with a new First Ward councilmember.”

That new member is Jody Washington, who also is employed by the state. Washington beat Lynne Martinez in November. Bernero endorsed Martinez, but was also quick to congratulate Washington at her election night party. 

Hewitt has some advice for Washington: “Realize there’s a huge difference between being a politician and being a legislator. Always keep the interest of your residents at heart. Realize you’re one of eight people that needs to get something done.”

If he could have done anything differently, it would have been his relationship with Bernero since day one — as far-fetched as that may have been. “If I could have gone back and figured out a different relationship with the mayor, I would have. Virg Bernero has a defined hate for Carol Wood, so I don’t think that was going to be possible.”