Three Democratic Ingham County commissioners are facing primaries in their respective re-election bids this summer after organized labor put together at least a partially successful recruitment drive.

Commissioners Deb Nolan in the Okemos-based 12th, Brian McGrain in the East Lansing-based 10th and Carol Koenig in the East Lansing-based 9th all found themselves crossways with the Lansing Labor Council after at least three high-profile votes created a split within the commissioners’ otherwise congenial Democratic caucus.

Now, Nolan said she feels there are a group of “Independent-Thinking Democrats” and a group of “Do Anything Labor Says” caucus that’s grown out of the Lansing Labor Council’s muscle flexing. Commissioner Mark Grebner concurred with Nolan’s assessment.

“They’re angry at anyone who doesn’t toe the line,” said Grebner, adding that organized labor tried unsuccessfully to get primary opponents for Commissioner Penelope Tsernoglou and Dianne Holman.

While Commissioner Todd Tennis said he supports organized labor, he said Nolan was oversimplifying things. He said he doesn’t jump every time the Lansing Labor Council says jump, but he does explain his vote to union leaders before and after votes as he does with any other interested constituent.

Yes, Nolan, McGrain and Koenig have primaries, but that may be more of a communication problem than a philosophical one.

“I’ve heard some commissioners say that labor never told them why they opposed the dissolving of the road commission, for example,” Tennis said. “But did they ever call and explain why they did support it?” 

Ingham County officials, like every local government leader in Michigan, have looked under every rock for savings, which has generated at least three critical votes in labor’s eyes.

The first was dissolving the road commission. Organized labor didn’t come out strong against the idea at first, but after concerns were expressed about the security of employees’ pay and benefits after a transfer to county government, the UAW, among others, came out against the idea.

Grebner and Nolan suspect that the union turned on the issue because Road Commissioner Chairman Jim Dravenstatt-Moceri didn’t like his position being phased out and told his labor allies as much.

“Honestly, it’s simply a raw power play on Dravenstatt-Moceri’s part and the Labor Council is supporting it,” Nolan said.

Dravenstatt-Moceri, a Lansing Board of Water and Light employee and the assistant business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, is now running for county commission in the new 6th District, made up of parts of Holt and south Lansing.

Tennis said he understands why Nolan thinks that way if she didn’t speak with Dravenstatt-Moceri about her concerns. In reality, there were some collective bargaining issues involved.

Then there’s the controversial lawn-mowing contract with the city of Lansing. Labor was agitated Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero didn’t call back several seasonal employees this year and was hoping the county board, which is contracting with Lansing to cut its parks’ grass this year, would send “Virg” a message by canning the contract.

The commission ended up deciding to wait until the contract expires before making any final decision, but the delay was not seen as a win by organized labor.

And then there’s the pension issue. County Comptroller Mary Lannoye is pushing the county away from its current pension/defined benefit system to a “hybrid” system that keeps a piece of the pension system but allows employees to invest into their retirement through a defined contribution system.

The idea is to cut costs and save money, but employee unions are concerned they’re going to get a more expensive product that doesn’t pay out as well. A final vote hasn’t been taken but commissioners did take a gut check vote on the issue several weeks ago.

Organized labor, thinking certain commissioners blew off their concerns, found former union official James Ramey to run against Nolan, Lansing Schools Education Association official Tim Russ to challenge McGrain and Irene Cahill, a Teamsters 580 member and supervisory steward, to face Koenig.

Observers concurred Koenig has the toughest challenge, but all of the three will need to campaign.

One Lansing politician opined that the primaries are a “dangerous game” in the sense that McGrain, Nolan and Koenig may feel bitter about a perceived summer away from family and other personal hobbies. In turn, they may tell labor to stick it next time their vote is needed on an issue.

“Labor may lose them forever by doing what they’re doing,” the observer said.

That’s Kathy Rodgers

It didn’t take long to get feedback from last week’s column on the Lansing Township Supervisor race, in which I mistakenly called supervisor candidate Kathy Rodgers by the first name of another local politician with the same last name. 

To be clear, Kathy Rodgers is running for Lansing Township supervisor. I apologize for the confusion.