War chests?

By Neal McNamara

Going into 2009, the money fueling the campaigns of the mayoral candidates were decidedly lopsided, with Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero in a strong lead.

It was one hell of a cheese party.

In one corner of the room, located in a haut monde ballroom on the 23rd floor of the Book Tower in downtown Detroit, Marjory Basile, a lawyer specializing in trademark litigation, talked Whitecaps baseball with Jennifer Sabourin, a labor law specialist. Kevin J. Moody, a Native American law expert, stared out a window while sipping a 1787 Chateau d’Yquem and popping cubes of sage Derby into his mouth.

At the center of the ballroom — next to an ice sculpture of Dick Voss kissing Madeline Albright, designed by Albert Kahn — was a single sheet of paper. It was a sign-in sheet, of sorts, with lines for your name, address, place of employment and the amount of money you wished to donate. Next to the sheet was a fishbowl. At 9:34 p.m., there were 14 names on the sheet and in the fishbowl were 14 individual checks for $100 made out to the reelection campaign of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

As the night wore on, things got a little crazy. A few cheese wheels were knocked to the floor by bankruptcy attorney Donald Hutchinson (his wife, up in Birmingham, didn’t bother to wait up for him that night) and managed to roll and smash through a few picture windows; there were empty wine bottles everywhere.

But by 3:51 a.m., the attorneys of Miller Canfield, with offices in Detroit, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Tokyo, Chicago and elsewhere, had filled their duty. The sign-in sheet and fishbowl were full: The list of names on the sign-in sheet had swelled to 43, and 43 checks for $100 each had been produced.

Well, it didn’t happen quite like that.

It’s fun to imagine, but the way the campaign to re-elect Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero received 43 $100 donations from 43 different Miller Canfield attorneys (plus $1,000 from the Miller Canfield PAC earlier in the year), most of whom live near Detroit or Ann Arbor, on Dec. 20, 2008, was probably a lot less glamorous.

“It’s not uncommon for the firm to hold a little event,” Bernero explained of the contributions. “Or come to an event to make it, like, a group thing where they invite the clients or their partners to contribute. They have a long history of doing that.”

Still, it demonstrates the power of Bernero’s campaign, drawing hefty donations from well outside the Lansing area. (A Miller Canfield spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for exactly how all those attorneys donated money to Bernero’s campaign.)

Heading into the 2009 mayor’s race, Bernero has a war chest of over $65,000, with $56,350 of it raised in 2008, according to records his campaign filed with the Ingham County Clerk’s Office. Bernero hasn’t officially declared, but he says, “Yeah, it’s a good guess; I’ll probably end up running.”

Challengers who have announced are At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, Charles Ford, an attorney and school board member, and political upstart Ben Hassenger. Wood and Ford have officially filed to run. A nonpartisan August primary will reduce the field to the two top vote getters, who will face each other in the November general election.

Wood and Ford have set up campaign committees called, respectively, Elect Carol Wood and Charles Ford for Mayor. Hassenger has not filed. The deadline for filing for mayor is May 12, and the first deadline for filing fund-raising reports is June 4.

Wood, seen as Bernero’s most likely challenger in November, came into 2009 with only $3,105. That amount was raised all at once during an Oct. 29, 2008, fundraiser by her City Council campaign committee, mostly in bits and pieces of $20, $50 and $100.

According to state campaign finance law, transferring money between candidate committees is allowable.

Ford started 2009 with zero. In 2008, he was the sole donor to his school board re-election campaign committee, and it was just a loan for $1,103.01 to pay back Insty Prints, the Michigan Bulletin newspaper and Web site designers Addis Enterprises.

Hassenger has said before that he has some money set aside from a settlement.

Asked how much money would be needed in this campaign, Bernero said “$200,000 to $300,000.”

“Campaigns are expensive,” he said. If 2008 was any indication, Bernero probably won’t have too much trouble hitting the mark. As miller Canfield’s total donations of $5,300 shows, Bernero does well among lawyers: in all, they gave him $10,725 last year or 18 percent of his total haul. Other law firms that gave to Bernero include Plunkett and Cooney ($1,000) and Foster, Swift, Collins and Smith ($1,500). And, yes, those firms do work for the city. As City Attorney Brig Smith put it, “Each of these firms has done extensive business with the city over the years.”

A field of environmental consulting and design firms are Bernero’s next biggest group of contributors. Tetra Tech, a California-based company with an office in Lansing, gave $2,500 over the year and Lansing-based C2AE gave $700. But the most interesting firm to donate was White Plains, N.Y.-based Malcolm Pirnie, which gave $1,125. Two of the donations were from company employees in Illinois and one from New York.

Retired Malcolm Pirnie engineer David Smith, of Aurora, N.Y., which is a suburb of Buffalo, said he didn’t specifically remember why he gave $250 to Bernero’s campaign, but he said that he generally likes to support “good government.”

“I believe in good governments that are doing something positive for the people,” Smith said.

Lansing Public Services Director Chad Gamble said that Malcolm Pirnie had actually just received its first large contract (it has done smaller jobs for the city) with Lansing for this year’s work on the Combined Sewer Overflow project, which is worth about $100,000. Interestingly, this year is the first time in 15 years that Tetra Tech, didn’t get all parts of the CSO contract, Gamble said; Malcolm Pirnie and another firm, Fishbeck Thompson, underbid it by a millimeter.

Gamble said that both Tetra Tech and C2AE have been doing CSO work since the project started and have done work for the city for years before that. He estimated the two companies, combined, have done between $15 million and $20 million for work during his time in the Public Service Department.

Other contributions to Bernero include $1,000 from the Government Consulting Services Inc. PAC; $1,000 from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan PAC; $1,000 from James Stajos, owner of the American Eagle store in Lansing; and $1,000 from developer Sam Eyde.

He also got some bucks from Lansing department heads: $750 from Personnel Director Terri Singleton and $625 from Parks and Recreation Director Murdock Jemerson. And Alys Alley, the daughter of Police Chief Mark Alley, gave him $125.

“People give for any number of reasons,” Bernero said. “But I think it’s because we’ve made progress in this city. We cast a wide net; people hear what’s going on in the city of Lansing.”

So, how does Wood, who does not have the state and national recognition of Bernero (but hasn’t sought it, either), catch up? How is her campaign going to catch up?

Wood campaign manager Bill Morris says that Bernero’s projection of $200,000 to $300,000 is a little high in this economy.

“We don’t want to necessarily hit a cap on what we do. Two hundred to $300,000 on a campaign at this time, when we’re losing jobs and the economy is bad … may be a little high for a campaign,” he said.

Morris declined a request for how much money has been raised so far in 2009, but he did say that three fundraisers have been held. Bernero said he didn’t know how many fundraisers his campaign has held this year.

The money that came into Wood’s campaign last year was a mix between neighborhood activists, local politicians and the kinds of people that like going to City Council meetings such as city worker and Bernero administration critic Carl Calille ($50) or Anita Beavers ($50), head of the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association. In her corner, Wood had some union support, like James Bitzer ($150), business manager of the local International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and IBEW business manager Ron Byrnes ($50). For local politicians there was former mayor Tony Benavides ($100) and Ingham County Commissioner Debbie DeLeon ($50), among others. There were also some crossover donations between the Bernero and Wood campaigns, like Lynne Martinez, head of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition, and Board of Water and Light head J. Peter Lark.

When asked if the Wood campaign would seek funds from heavier hitters — like corporations, PACs and labor unions — Morris said the campaign would sit down and listen to them (and, he conceded, in Lansing you “have” to have union support), but the “special interests” the Wood campaign is interested in is families and neighborhoods.

“We want our campaign to reflect exactly the style of money management that our administration will reflect,” Morris said. “Let that be the proof of what we intend to do.”

Campaign finance highlights

Virg Bernero Miller Canfiled (law firm, including individual attorney
donations) - $5,300 Tetra Tech segregated funds (environmental
consulting) - $2,500 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan PAC - $1,000
Government Consulting Services Inc. PAC - $1,000 AT&T PAC- $1,000
Plumbers and Pipefitters Local PAC - $1,000 General Motors Corp. PAC -

Carol Wood Stuart Dunnings (Ingham County prosecutor) - $50 Debbie
DeLeon (Ingham County commissioner) - $50 James Bitzer (business
manager, bricklayers and allied craftworkers union) - $150 Ron Byrnes
(IBEW businss manager) - $50 A’Lynne Robinson (Third Ward Councilwoman)
- $50 Tony Benavides (former Lansing mayor) - $100 Brian Jeffries
(At-Large Councilman) - $100 Eric Hewitt (First Ward Councilman) - $50