City Councilwoman Carol Wood has announced her candidacy for mayor. She is the second announced candidate — Lansing attorney Charles Ford has entered the race as well. Wood is well known as Mayor Virg Bernero’s chief protagonist on Council and is seen as his most likely challenger when the mayoral election is reduced to two candidates after the August primary. Wood, a long-time neighborhood activist, has produced no discernible vision for the city other than a reminiscence of Lansing neighborhoods back in those good old days. But that her candidacy is viewed as credible suggests the mediocrity of our politicians and the paucity of our vision as residents.
The man she would replace has been an imperfect mayor. Bernero's volcanic temper — there have been at least two expletive-filled rants at Council members — and his apparent “with me or against me” perspective on political issues, make compromise difficult. His antagonism turns off potential allies. And while I have generally supported him, his decision to effectively turn two low-cost city golf courses into weed-choked, cow pastures was a severe disappointment.
But the mayor has got the big things right. He has emphasized downtown development, and his successes may yet turn downtown, and the city, around. The potential remaking of the riverfront through the the Accident Fund’s new headquarters, the redevelopment of the City Market, the emphasis on tech businesses, and various downtown housing options suggest the potential for a Lansing rebirth.
Unfortunately, he has been a poor salesman for his vision; his earnest, rapid-fire, high-school-valedictorian speaking style suggests little connection between his words and real concern for the issues. Imagine the support the mayor could garner if he spoke with the same power and passion he displayed defending autoworkers in his recent rebuttal of a Fox interviewer’s right wing talking points.
Which brings us to the Wood challenge. According to a recent City Pulse profile, Wood is a former Republican who never finished college. She has no chief executive experience for any sizeable business or political enterprise. She was a widely respected neighborhood activist with the Genesee Neighborhood Association. She has been a City Council member since 1999. Her speaking style is, to put it charitably, uninspiring. Her reputation rests on her responsiveness to citizen calls, an understanding of the minutiae of the city budget, and a call to the apparently halcyon days of Lansing neighborhoods. In announcing her candidacy, she said: “We all understand we’re in a tough economy and there are hard decisions to make, but it can’t be at the cost of what Lansing is, and that’s its neighborhoods.” While it is a bit of a simplification, Wood’s philosophy can be distilled to this: more regular snow plowing will lead the city to a greater future. There is a case to be made for better city services but you get no sense she sees the issues facing Lansing. And Wood has hardly been immune from her own jaw-dropping failures. Her “no” vote last year on a grant application that would have provided additional funding for upgrades to Frances Park was a spectacular misjudgment.
There is nothing in her public pronouncements or City Council performance to suggest that this is someone with the vision, experience or the intellect to reverse Lansing's fortunes and there is certainly nothing to suggest she can inspire us. That she is regarded as a serious mayoral candidate as opposed to anything more than a solid, capable, Councilwoman is a sad commentary on our expectations for the mayor's office and a sad commentary on what we view as satisfactory qualifications for the position.
But City Pulse reports that, at least for now, Wood and Bernero are polling neck and neck. Again, this is a reflection on Lansing residents' disturbing lack of understanding of history and economics. But the debasement of our political discourse is everywhere on display. One need do no more than view City Council meetings every Monday, where the public comment period has been hijacked by a series of cranks, kooks and fools — the "regulars" — who rail, largely in ignorance, at Bernero's supposed perfidy. I hope that Lansing residents will begin to seriously analyze the issues and the candidates. But I am not sanguine on that prospect.
(William Pettit is an eastside Lansing resident. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(This column was corrected March 5, 2009, to add the last two paragraphs, which were inadvertently left out of the original.)