A fight for City Hall

By Walt Sorg

This story was corrected to say that Luke Canfora is a field representative with the national AFL-CIO, not the Michigan chapter. Also, the story was clarified to say that the Michigan Education Association PAC is not endorsing candidates in the 4th Ward race in the primary, but it will in the General Election.

The battle for control of City Hall, and the split it has created in Lansing’s political and organized labor hierarchies, has become one of the harder-to-decipher political stories of the year. And it has brought rare discord within the city’s most potent political force: organized labor.

The interrelationships and motives that have sparked the divisions are real, and complex. In conversations with candidates, local political power players and third-party insiders, here’s the best that I can make of what is happening.

The major fact in this story: the overwhelming likelihood that Virg Bernero will easily win his third term as mayor. There are two anti-Bernero factions. Some have policy differences. Others seek to return Lansing to the days of a weak mayor system that rests more power in Council and various city commissions (think “the Tony Benavides Years”).

Their plan: if you can’t beat Bernero directly, weaken him by giving full control of City Council to the Carol Wood caucus. Right now that’s five members (Wood, Derrick Quinney, A’Lynne Boles Robinson, Brian Jeffries and Jody Washington), with the other three members (Kathie Dunbar, Tina Houghton, Jessica Yorko) seen as Bernero allies. The 5-3 split is the minimum Bernero needs to impose his will on city government. The City Charter requires six votes to override a mayoral veto. In the last budget cycle, Bernero vetoed all Council amendments. Council came up one vote short of overriding, so the mayor got his way.

All three members of the Bernero wing of Council face reelection this fall. Houghton is an odds-on favorite for reelection in the 2nd Ward; Jeffries and Dunbar are joined in the at-large race by three other candidates, including a politically well-connected electoral newcomer, Judi Brown Clarke.

The at-large contest and 4th ward battle between Yorko and political operative Chong-Anna Canfora holds the key to veto proofing the Wood-Quinney “wing.”

The usually united organized labor power structure has split into three pieces as a result.

The UAW is backing the Bernero slate: incumbents Yorko, Dunbar, Houghton and at-large challenger Clarke.

The Greater Lansing Labor Council, representing over 40 unions, hasn’t issued a news release with its endorsements, but Jeffries and Canfora both say they’ve received its blessing along with endorsements from individual AFL-CIO locals representing many city’s employees.

The third leg of the labor triad, the regional PAC of the Michigan Education Association, is the Switzerland of this election, at least in the at-large race, by effectively not taking sides by backing incumbents Dunbar and Jeffries, and sitting it out in the 4th Ward until the General Election. It has endorsed incumbent Tina Houghton in the 2nd Ward.

Two weeks ago, the UAW and the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce — rare bedfellows — jointly endorsed the Bernero slate. Several insiders say the endorsements and unusual joint announcement was engineered by Bernero with the help of UAW Region 1-C President Norwood Jewell and chamber President Tim Daman. (The UAW CAP Council chairman, Art Luna, strenuously denies that Jewell intervened in the local council’s decision, saying the endorsements came from the ground up after candidate interviews conducted jointly with the Labor Council.)

Jewell, who heads up the largest membership region in the UAW, has been a Bernero fan since the 2009 debate over the GM/Chrysler bailout. Bernero became a national leader on the issue (earning the title “America’s Angriest Mayor,”) and Jewell has never forgotten.

The decision to announce the endorsement with the chamber, according to Daman, was initiated in a phone call from Daman to Jewell. Daman said his group had good relations with all the candidates, but he wanted to back a group that could expand on the labor/business cooperation that brought so much GM investment locally.

Three forces appear to have pushed the Labor Council in the other direction: policy differences over economic development and labor relations issues, tensions between the mayor and several city-worker unions, and (perhaps most important) influence from two AFL-CIO employees directly interested in the outcome: Quinney and Luke Canfora (Chong-Anna Canfora’s husband). Quinney, the union’s state health and safety director, has been at the forefront of Council battles over a rejected requirement for a Project Labor Agreement as part of the Marshall Street Armory redevelopment as well as various budget battles with Bernero. Canfora, a field representative with the national AFL-CIO, has obvious personal interest in the election.

One Bernero backer compared the effort to dilute the mayor’s power to Republican tactics in Washington: The GOP couldn’t beat Obama directly, so it instead focuses on diluting his power.

But the immediate outcome seems to be a weakening of labor’s ability to influence the election. The labor schism effectively dilutes its own political power with what amounts to a circular firing squad.

The Aug. 6 primary is unlikely to sort any of this out. The main players from both factions (along with a fourth at-large candidate, most likely Ted O’Dell) will survive to run against each other in November. It’s going to be an entertaining three months.