This story was updated Feb. 2.
The mayor’s loose cannon strikes again, and other memorable Bernero blow-ups
“Bernero calls the casino opposition ‘full of bluster and bullshit’ then calls Jim Nye ‘a piece of crap.’ Seriously.”
That was a Twitter post by Kelly Rossman-McKinney on Thursday morning as Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero was delivering his annual State of the City preview speech at the Lansing Center.
Rossman-McKinney, CEO of the local public relations firm Truscott Rossman, said it costs $150 a person to attend the Bernero political fundraising event and includes “folks like me,” major developers and attorneys. Truscott Rossman is not involved with any advocacy related to the casino proposal, she said.
“I was stunned,” Rossman-McKinney said Monday. “The way he specifically referred to Jim Nye in front of hundreds of people. You know our mayor. He gets pretty worked up — and he was really worked up about the thing. It was undignified and uncalled for.”
And Rossman-McKinney just tweeted the profanity. Bernero admits to calling Nye, the spokesman for the tribes opposing Lansing’s downtown casino plan and a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, “Chief Chicken Little” for his role in advocating against the city’s plans.
“I would say people were uncomfortable,” Rossman-McKinney said. “I don’t think they were amused by it. Some people who aren’t used to Virg were a little stunned. Even I was a little stunned, and I’m used to Virg.”
While he denies allegations that he also said he’s being attacked with “bows and arrows,” Bernero’s gaffe Thursday morning is the latest in what many Lansing-area residents already know: that he’s prone to make off-the-cuff remarks about opponents and he’s prone to get vulgar.
However, the Chicken Little episode may be the first time Bernero’s been publicly accused of making racist comments. He apologized Monday night after his State of the City speech for any harm the comment has caused, but he denied it was premeditated racism.
“I was stunned,” Bernero said after Monday night’s State of the City speech when asked about the racial slur allegations. “I don’t believe I said anything racist. My wife taught me that if she feels hurt, then I owe an apology. My apology is heartfelt. To those I offended, I apologize.”
Before taking the stage Thursday morning to address the several hundred people in the audience — which sources say included young children — Bernero said “someone plastered” a makeshift target on his back “as a joke.”
He said his intention was not to be racially insensitive. “That was not intended as a title, but to say he’s the lead opponent, or lead naysayer — the guy who is leading the charge — the lead Chicken Little saying the sky is falling. I don’t see how that is racist. I grew up reading Chicken Little.”
Nye sees it differently. He wasn’t at the breakfast, but was “contacted by about 10 people who were all there.”
“I am deeply offended. … I think it is disgusting. I should be able to do my job, represent my clients and advocate for their position without being attacked for being Native American.”
Nye is the official spokesman for the Saginaw Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Nottawaseppi Band of Potawatomi Indians, which oppose the city’s casino plan. He has been a consultant for Native American issues for more than 12 years, he said, and owns his own firm in downtown Lansing. “That’s the thing: The mayor knows who I am,” he said, adding that he’s never had a personal relationship with Bernero.
Bernero and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians announced the proposed downtown casino. Bernero and tribal leaders are suggesting Nye’s counter-attack is a chapter in the high-stakes lobbying and public relations effort accompanying the project.
Aaron Payment, Sault Tribe chairman from 2004 to 2008, defended Bernero in a phone interview Monday night.
“What I think happened is they goaded him,” he said. “The term ‘chief’ is used in English vernacular so frequently: chief lobbyist, chief opponent.”
Payment said he called Bernero on his cell phone when he read media reports of the incident.
Yet Payment said had he been there, “I would have been uncomfortable. I would have had to go to Virg and say: ‘Do you realize what you said?’ Virg has a reputation for saying things off the cuff.”
MLive.com reported Monday that Sault Tribe Chairman Joe Eitrem, who did not return calls for comment for this story, said in a statement: “I would ask people to see this episode for what it is: it is nothing more than the operators of other casinos desperately trying to stop a new competitor and thousands of new jobs and economic benefits for the Lansing region and our tribe.”
Through the years
Rossman-McKinney not only witnessed Bernero’s latest flare-up: She was the target of one in 2007. Here’s a look back at some of Bernero’s publicly controversial behavior:
2006. Bernero calls City Councilman Brian Jeffries a “pathetic piece of shit” for blocking the nomination of Bob Tresize to head the Lansing Economic Development Corp. Jeffries accepted Bernero’s apology.
2007. Bernero calls Democratic state Rep. Joan Bauer’s office in a “temper tantrum,” City Pulse reported, because she helped raise money for Councilwoman Carol Wood’s 2007 Council campaign, Bernero’s arch opponent.
2007. Bernero allegedly threatened retribution to two Old Town merchants for displaying campaign signs in their windows supporting former 1st Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt. (See 2009 below.)
2007. Rossman-McKinney loses a contract with the city after Bernero found out she gave the eulogy at Ruth Hallman’s funeral, Wood’s mother.
2009. Bernero and Hewitt exchange vulgarities in the hallway of the City Council chambers over improvements to Frances Park that Hewitt opposed. Bernero called Hewitt “the dumbest motherfucker I have ever seen” and a “piece of shit,” and Hewitt responded by calling Bernero a “wop-headed guinea motherfucker,” Hewitt, who is half-Italian himself, told City Pulse in December.
2012. Bernero admits to calling the opposition’s spokesman of the city’s casino plan “Chief Chicken Little.”
What are we to make of Bernero’s latest comment? And how many times have observers explained the behavior as “Virg being Virg?”
Democratic political strategist Todd Cook, who has only read media reports of the latest incident, said the “Chief Chicken Little” comment is out of sync with Bernero’s record on diversity issues. “No doubt Virg is a very passionate politician. He makes no bones about it,” Cook said. “When it comes to lots of other communities and diversity, he’s been very, very good. Whether it’s LGBT, race — he is very good on it.”
Rossman-McKinney has a slightly different take.
“It’s consistent overall with his angriest mayor” persona, Rossman-McKinney said Monday. “At the same time, I think it eclipsed that, even for him. It’s one thing to be angry. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to be rude, especially when it’s uncalled for. You can still disagree with respect and dignity.”
Meanwhile, despite the furor over his remarks last week, when Bernero gave his State of the City address Monday night, he departed from his prepared text with a comment some might think demeaning.
Saying the audience may have seen a new Cadillac in the lobby, he added in Henny Youngman fashion, “Unfortunately, so did my wife.”