Mayor for life?

By Mickey Hirten

Virg Bernero finds out that successfully leading a city, as he has done in Lansing for more than eight years, doesn’t readily translate into higher office

There are some political jobs that are a perfect platform for higher office. But mayor isn’t one of them.

Running cities is a job for fighters, grinding out budgets, fixing the roads, battling with unions, fighting for funding. You need a thick skin because you’re on the street mixing with the real people. It’s retail politics and you’d better love the job.

All of which applies to Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and explains why after briefly flirting with a run for the 8th District seat to be vacated by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, he stepped away, leaving the Democratic bid to someone with less baggage.

(Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, who had expressed interest in the nomination, announced Tuesday she will not be that someone. Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing said after Rogers’ announcement that he has started gathering signatures to run but would not do so if the Democratic Party coalesced behind another candidate. Schertzing was not available for comment Tuesday.)

The qualities that make Bernero a strong and effective mayor don’t necessarily resonate outside of the city. He fights with the Council and pokes at neighboring governments. He may talk a regional game and with a level playing field would embrace it. But cities like Lansing are always playing defense, and mayors like Bernero keep a chip on their shoulder to defend their people and fight for a share of the spoils.

Among the Democrats considering a run for Rogers’ seat, undoubtedly Bernero had the strongest name recognition. Certainly he’s well known in Ingham County, ran for governor in 2010 and uses television and radio appearances skillfully. He has lots of opinions and shares them readily. Too readily, perhaps. What works for voters in Lansing city doesn’t play as well in Livingston County or the northern tier of Oakland County, which along with Ingham County make up the Republican gerrymandered 8th Congressional District.

During the campaign for governor he pushed for better education for those in state prisons, promoted green technology and had a 10-point environmental program. He called for a tuition freeze at state universities and wanted better health care and nutrition for children in schools. Incredibly, these positions scare some voters in rural and suburban communities. They play much better in cities like Lansing, where issues are framed by the more progressive influence of universities, unions and state government.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee polling on candidate favorability and matchups immediately following Rogers’ announcement didn’t convince Bernero that this was his year to run for the 8th District seat. Other than the terse announcement reaffirming his fealty to Lansing, the mayor has been silent on the open seat.

Bernero, who stepped up for the Democrats’ underfunded governor’s race, has been jammed by his party, which was actively recruiting Byrum. Roll Call, which covers Congress, reported on its website last Friday that high-ranking Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., met with Byrum to encourage her candidacy.

They believe a Democrat can capture the seat against either of the Republicans who have declared for the primary: former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and Rochester Mayor Bryan Barnett. Republicans are perceived as vulnerable on the social issues, providing Democrats an opportunity with independent and moderate Republicans.

This is woman’s work — hence, the Byrum love-in and Bernero dump; so much for loyalty. At least for the nearterm it limits his political options. He’s a three-term mayor with no meaningful challengers. He can probably win a fourth term, even a fifth term. There is no obvious alternative.

Congress, other than the prestige, is a grind. Consider the exodus from Washington from Michigan alone: Rogers, Dave Camp, Carl Levin, John Dingle. Bernero has worked the legislative side of politics as an Ingham County commissioner, a state representative and state senator. There he was one voice among many. As mayor he sings solo, which he likes. He’s forged a strong record, helping build a better Lansing. As a freshman Democrat in what undoubtedly will be a Republican-controlled House, Bernero would have had no clout, plenty of frustration and the need to engage in nonstop fundraising. The 8th District is enough of a swing district that the seat will be vigorously contested every two years. Holding a seat or deflecting challenges is expensive. Asking for money is one of the most distasteful jobs in politics.

In a Dome Magazine interview last summer with Jack Lessenberry, Bernero said of his bid for governor: “You know, in some ways this (being mayor of Lansing) is probably a better fit for me. I’m a hands on kind of guy.”

Indeed. And he will be for a while.