Let the games begin

By Walt Sorg

This story was corrected on Feb. 13 to say that Chong-Anna Canfora works for Progress Michigan, not Michigan Progress. Also, Luke Canfora works for the AFL-CIO, not SEIU.

Don’t look now, but Lansing is already in another election cycle. And it looks like it is going to be nasty.

The gloves came off 10 days ago, more than 10 months before the General Election. At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar angrily denounced fellow at-large members Brian Jeffries and Carol Wood for “dragging sensitive, personal matters pertaining to my separation into the realm of Council politics,” specifically her contentious divorce following 18 years of marriage. Mayor Virg Bernero publicly shared Dunbar’s outrage, telling a crowd of 50 at a Dunbar fundraiser that “these people [Jeffries and Wood] will stop at nothing to win” and promising to campaign tirelessly on Dunbar’s behalf, as well ward Councilwomen Tina Houghton and Jessica Yorko.

The primary target will be Jeffries, who, in tandem with Wood, has been a perpetual thorn in Bernero’s side. The beneficiary of Bernero’s efforts to defeat Jeffries will likely be political newcomer Judith Brown-Clarke, wife of District Judge Hugh Clarke Jr., who announced her candidacy for one of the two at-large positions two weeks ago.

Bernero starts from a position of political strength. He goes into 2013 as a strong favorite for a third term. He will campaign on a record of economic success in the city that has far exceeded the recoveries of the Michigan and national economies. With longtime nemesis Wood not running for mayor a second time, Bernero’s likeliest opponent is second-term Councilwoman A’Lynne Boles-Robinson (who has not announced her intentions).

If she runs, Robinson’s strongest issue could well be Bernero’s ambition. Four years ago, Bernero surprised just about everyone by running for governor within weeks of being reelected mayor. With Sen. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision against running in 2014, there is widespread speculation that Bernero might try again — but only after being safely reelected mayor. The speculation is accelerated by a December poll showing Bernero would beat Rick Snyder in a rematch with stronger numbers than potential rivals U.S. Rep. Gary Peters and former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer.

Although Robinson was reelected to Council in 2011 with 55 percent of the vote, her viability as a citywide candidate is open to question. Her 2012 campaign for the state House in the 68th district, which includes most of Lansing, ended with just 18 percent of the vote, a distant second in the seven-candidate field to Andy Schor’s 43 percent.

Already on the ballot is 93-year-old retiree Donald Krepps. Self-employed handyman John Boise is collecting nominating petition signatures. Boise ran as a write-in candidate for mayor four years ago, receiving eight votes.

Beyond the personal animus underlying the Council campaign, the debate for the four Council seats will be set by the report of Bernero’s Financial Health Team. The panel, chaired by former Mayor David Hollister, will make recommendations on how to close a $9 million budget deficit plus another $9 million in unfunded retirement liabilities. Combined, that’s about 15 percent of a budget that has already been slashed annually in response to falling revenues.

The recommendations will have a negative impact on every city resident. How they are handled and justified by incumbents Dunbar, Jeffries, Yorko and Houghton will be at the core of the campaign. (Full disclosure: Houghton and Dunbar both endorsed my candidacy for state representative in 2012.)

With three months left before the filing deadline for the August primary, Dunbar and Jeffries face at least two challengers for the at-large seats. In addition to Brown-Clarke, Lansing casino advocate Ted O’Dell has started campaigning.

Brown-Clarke is best known for her athletic achievements. The East Lansing High School alumna was an All-America track star at Michigan State University and won an Olympic Silver Medal at the 1984 Games in in Los Angeles. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in public administration at Western Michigan University. She serves as diversity director at MSU’s BEACON Center, an outreach arm of the National Science Foundation.

O’Dell is best known for his advocacy of casino gambling in Lansing. He headed up a petition drive to bring a Native American casino to downtown, collecting more than 5,000 signatures. O’Dell’s work was separate from the Bernero administration’s deal with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. O’Dell is interim executive director of the Michigan Library Association. Like Robinson, O’Dell ran for the 68th District state House seat, finishing last in the seven-candidate field with 2.4 percent of the vote.

Yorko’s reelection bid in the 4th Ward could also bring fireworks. Longtime political activist Chong-Anna Canfora is endorsed by Council members Derrick Quinney and Jody Washington, as well as several local labor leaders. A former staffer for both state Senate Democrats and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Canfora works for Progress Michigan, a liberal statewide organization closely aligned with organized labor and the Democratic Party. Her husband, Luke, is a senior field representative with the AFL-CIO.

Also in the 4th Ward race is retired Marine Corps Major Bert Carrier. The 38-year-old Iraq War veteran (helicopter pilot) is an attorney who says he is running in large part because of his love for downtown Lansing and a desire to accelerate the growth of the area.

The 2nd Ward race could be the friendliest campaign. Frank Ferro, a longtime state economic development official, is mulling a run against Houghton. Ferro cites the fractious relations between Council and the Mayor’s Office as a primary reason to run, believing he can bring a spirit of cooperation to the 10th floor of City Hall. He describes Houghton as “a good friend,” has talked with her about his possible candidacy and promised she will be the first to know if he decides to run.

(Sorg can be reached at sorg@lansingcitypulse.com)