Feb. 22 2017 09:53 AM

Rep. Andy Schor pitches a gentler style in bid for mayor of Lansing


Schor lives on the Grand River on Lansing's west side with his wife, Erin, and children Ryan, 12, and Hannah, 10.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

After a long day as a minority voice in Michigan’s Republican-controlled Legislature, Rep. Andy Schor likes to unwind with a book before bed.

The problem is, power struggles from Norse mythology (fabulist Neil Gaiman’s “The Greatest Hits,” borrowed from the library) don’t sound like much of a break from politics.

Andy Schor and former state Sen. Gary Peters schmooze at Schor's wedding in 2001. From 1997 to 2002, Schor "learned a lot" while serving as a staffer for Peters, now Michigan's junior U.S. Senator.
Courtesy Photo

Saturday night, Schor got into the story about the lusty giant who offered to build a wall around Asgard to protect it from its enemies, asking for the sun and the moon and a goddess to grab as payment.

Big infrastructure projects seem to bring out the worst in people.

“He tried to con them and got conned,” Schor said. “Norse mythology is all about cons and power.”

Other Norse sagas must hit closer to home for a 41-year-old Democrat who’s just announced a primary run against Lansing’s potent three-term “mayor for life,” Virg Bernero.

“The stories of Thor are fascinating,” Schor said. “Thor is made out in Marvel Comics to be a nice guy. Thor is a jerk. He was arrogant, he was the most powerful god, he did whatever he wanted.”

Schor didn't explicitly compare Thor to Bernero, but he's made it clear that swinging a hammer isn't his style. Until the specifics of his "vision for Lansing" take shape, Schor's pitch consists mainly of a promise to bring a more collaborative, less combative style to the internal and regional challenges the city faces.

Settling into Lansing

Sunday afternoon, Schor took advantage of unseasonably warm February weather to run three miles through his Moores River neighborhood. In a couple of hours, his family was due at Advent House Ministries on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, to serve food to poor and homeless people.

In a quiet interval, he and his wife, Erin, sat on the couch for a chat in their westside home, perched on a bluff overlooking the Grand River. Somewhere in the vicinity were their two kids, Hannah, 10, and Ryan, 12.

Schor grew up on Long Island, about an hour and a half from New York City, at the edge of the suburbs, just short of the vineyards and the ultra-rich Hamptons.

“I feel as if I’ve always been a Democrat, although I might not have known at the time,” he said.

His dad was a diamond distributor and his mom worked at a nursing home. She was laid off when the employees tried to unionize and the owners retaliated by firing the entire staff.

His parents were independent voters. “I’m pretty sure they voted for Reagan and Clinton,” he said. “Now they’re Florida Democrats. They really don’t like the Republicans in Florida.”

Being a moderate Republican in New York, like former Gov. George Pataki, is like being a moderate Democrat in Michigan, Schor explained.

“We didn’t sit around the dinner table and talk about politics,” he said. “I got it from school.” Twentieth-century American history interested him most. He still has his fourth-grade history textbook.

His parents wanted him to study law, but he wasn’t keen on the idea. He majored in history and political science at the University of Michigan, but he doesn’t have a crush on any particular historical figures.

“I do better with people I know,” he said.

One such person is a friend, former boss and role model, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who was a state senator for Michigan’s 14th district when Schor was at U of M.

Schor met Peters when he took a semester off from his senior year in Ann Arbor to be a paid staffer on the Clinton-Gore campaign.

“I learned a lot from him,” Schor said. “He was the one who taught me that you have to look at how a policy will affect your constituents.”

When Peters’ home turf of Oakland County was considering pulling out of the Detroit water and sewer system, Schor advised him to support the move, because it would save his constituents money.

Peters told Schor that many people in Oakland County formerly lived in Detroit and feel that they paid into the Detroit water and sewer system. “They are not thinking of Southfield; they are thinking of where they came from and don’t want to hurt Detroit,” Peters told him.

Schor is sworn in as state representative for his first term in 2013.
Courtesy Photo

They agreed to disagree, but Schor absorbed a lesson in taking his constituents’ point of view.

On a visit to Washington last week, Andy and Erin Schor visited Peters and got a big hug, but Schor’s run for Lansing mayor will add an interesting wrinkle to their friendship. Peters’ wife, Colleen, is from Waterford, where Bernero was raised, and helped Bernero’s aunt, Betty Fortino, run for office in Waterford.

While working for Peters, Schor came to appreciate the understated, working-class charms of Lansing. He lived in an apartment on Main Street — now Malcolm X Street — not far from the Capitol and walked or rollerbladed to work.

“Ann Arbor was nice but it feels a little pretentious,” he said. “[In Lansing] you find people working at the plant, at MSU, the Capitol, the insurance industry, IT — it’s a good mix.”

He married Erin in 2001. They met in 1995 at a U of M student government meeting and started dating within a month. Erin went on to do a master’s study in public policy and now works for the Community College Association, also based in Lansing.

Cats and dogs

In 2002, Schor embarked on a 10-year run as an Ingham County commissioner. He admits the office can be “wonky,” but it wasn't without its thrills.

In 2003, Schor’s first year as county commissioner, animal rights protesters marched outside the county courthouse to protest the practice of euthanizing animals from the overcrowded county shelter or selling them to MSU for research.

One sign read, “Andy Schor will kill your cat.”

The trouble subsided when the commissioners cut out middlemen dealers in the sales to MSU, an advisory board was formed and animal control advocates were given a voice in shelter hiring.

Most county concerns weren’t as hot to the touch. Schor already had an affinity for issues like public safety, health care and parks, and enjoyed learning about unfamiliar areas of governance such as the judiciary and budgeting. He was the commission’s law enforcement committee chairman in his second year.

Hawk Island Park, now a county gem, had just been reclaimed from a gravel pit and turned into a wooded pond with a swimming beach. Schor and the commission put in a popular splash pad, dog park and community-built playground.

“I love the parks,” Schor said. “I’m proud of what we did with Hawk Island.” As mayor of Lansing, Schor said, he would do more to promote and make accessible Lansing’s many neighborhood parks. In the late 2000s, when budget constraints hit Ingham County, Peters fought hard against a push to close Hawk Island.

Regionalism was a recurring theme of Schor’s tenure on the commission. In addition to championing regional assets like Hawk Island, Schor supported putting a consolidated 911 dispatch center in Lansing.

Both Schor and Bernero supported — in a milestone of Lansing-area regionalism — the 2006 county takeover of Potter Park Zoo. Bernero came to the board with the plan to rescue the small but nationally accredited zoo from succumbing to city budget shortfalls and becoming a “petting zoo.”

“There was a lot of intricacy because you had employees moving from a city to a county work system, different retirement, different work pools,” Shor said. “We had to go to the ballot for a millage. There were a lot of parts.”

Schor heard from a lot of rural county residents who didn’t like the takeover, but the zoo wasn’t the most controversial regional project he worked on.

Schor said his toughest fight as county commissioner was convincing the county’s small townships to pay for sheriff’s patrols, a service paid for by local millages in cities like Lansing and Mason.

“We hit hard times and told the townships they’d need to pay,” Schor said. “They did not like that. I held eight or nine hearings and hundreds of people came from the townships.”

Out of 14 townships, only one (Williamstown Township) approved a millage for patrols.

“They were so mad at the county they contracted with Meridian Township [to get the patrol services),” Schor said. As time passed, out-county patrols were reduced through attrition.

Schor got a closer window into municipal finance, economic development, transportation and other issues while working for the Michigan Municipal League from 2005 to 2012.

“I learned a lot about running cities,” Schor said. “It’s complicated. You have sewer and water, public safety, budget pressures.”

Schor has a particular interest in supporting corridors like Lansing’s South Cedar Street, Michigan and Pennsylvania avenues. Having represented large chunks of Lansing’s south side as county commissioner and as state representative, Schor is sensitive to a widespread feeling “the city ignores them.”

While at the League as an assistant director for state affairs, he helped develop the Corridor Improvement Authority, a tool he hopes to apply as mayor of Lansing. Owners of buildings in struggling urban corridors can freeze their taxes for one to 10 years and use the savings to improve the building. “Communities use that tool now,” Schor said.

He is submitting a bill that would devote 5 percent of the money from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Commercial Revitalization Program toward urban grocery stores in downtowns and corridors.

“It’s not just about downtown,” he said. “People on MLK are saying, ‘we need something walkable.’”

Trading headaches

Schor swapped the minutiae of county politics and the Municipal League for a different set of headaches when he ran for state representative and won for the first time in 2012.

Schor felt he knew enough about the legislative process from his years with Peters to believe he could make a contribution, but with Republicans entrenched in the majority, Democrats wouldn’t be able to set the agenda.

“You know it going in,” he said. “But being in a safe seat in the minority means you can work effectively with the other side of the aisle to get important things done as long as they’re not too partisan.”

Schor’s proudest moment in the House was the 2013 passage of the Healthy Michigan initiative, the state’s version of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

Schor and then-state Rep. Kate Segal negotiated on behalf of the Democrats with the governor and Republicans in the House and Senate.

“I had been in office eight months, and I said that was the most important vote I make in my career,” he said. “And it very well may have been. I thought we might get 300,000 people [signed on to the plan], but we know now that it’s 650,000 people.”

Last week, Chris Priest, deputy director of medical services for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, reported to the Legislature that the Healthy Michigan plan had reduced uncompensated care in the state by 47 percent.

“That’s huge,” Schor said. “People are not going to emergency rooms and are going to their primary care doctors. The business community loved it. These are people who are not missing work.”

More recently, Schor worked with Republican lawmakers to craft a bill that softens zero tolerance expulsion policies in schools. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law in December.

“Kids are getting thrown out of schools for bringing butter knives, hunting knives — without intent,” Schor said. “I was able to have conversations with the Governor’s Office, our Republican colleagues and the committee chair, and get to a place where everybody agreed.”

Capitol to curbside

Schor’s bid for mayor of Lansing fits the Capitol-to-curbside pattern he’s followed so far, as he zigzags from working for Peters to the county commission to the Legislature and back to local government, if he’s successful.

Schor lights candles for Holocaust survivors at a 2015 ceremony at the state Capitol, as he has done every year since he took office.
Courtesy Photo

What would it take to break the pattern? Schor said he hasn’t given “a minute’s thought” to national office.

The same day in March 2014 that longtime U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers announced he wasn’t going to run, Schor got a call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asking him to consider running for Congress.

He laughed into the phone.

“That is a recipe for failure to me,” he said. “I’ve got my wife and two kids here. Running for Congress, for me, means being away three days a week and the other four days a week doing everything I can to keep my job — if I win.”

As a young boy, Andy told his mother he wanted to be a U.S. senator, according to a story his mom told reporters when he was elected to the state House.

Schor doesn’t remember saying that.

He pointed to a mayor he admires, Detroit’s Mike Duggan, as a role model.

“He insists he’s not going to run for governor, and I believe him,” Schor said. “He keeps coming out high in the polls but he really wants to make Detroit better. I look to that and that’s where I am.”

While his campaign is short on specifics so far, Schor is ready to assume the “bully pulpit” and tout the city’s assets, especially its schools.

“People move to Lansing, they buy their home, meet their spouse, have their kids and say they need to move out because of the schools,” he said. “We need to promote the great job they’re doing. That’s a big piece of placemaking for here in Lansing and taking that next step toward being a great city.”

He cited his own kids as examples. Hannah is in Chinese immersion at Post Oak Elementary and is playing King Louis in the school play, “The Jungle Book,” supported by the Disney Musicals in Schools program. Middle schooler Ryan is in the new tech program at Everett.

“And it goes on, through the International Baccalaureate Program,” Schor said. “You have to go to the International Academy in southeast Michigan for the nearest one.”

Shoddy work

It was after 3 p.m. and Schor’s family was due for its volunteer stint at Advent House. (The Schors declined to get their photo taken there.)

Later that night, the Norse sagas awaited him.

Don’t look for the book at the South Lansing Library until it’s due, though. Schor is the type of person who finishes a book once he has started it. It took him 10 months, but he plowed all the way through Gaiman’s epic “American Gods” last year.

“I get a lot of books from the library,” he said.

As he gathered the troops and headed for the garage, Schor cheerfully dropped a spoiler-filled wrap-up to the story about the wall. To get out of paying for the giant’s growing wall around Asgard, the trickster god Loki waits until the wall is almost done, turns into a female horse, seduces the giant’s mighty workhorse and cuts the greedy giant out of the picture. (He wanted the sun and moon, remember?)

The gods finish the wall themselves and it turns out to be shoddy work.

Maybe they should have regionalized the project among the Nine Realms, like the Potter Park zoo, the trail system and the libraries.

“We have a wonderful library system,” Schor said with a grin. “I wish East Lansing was a part of it. That’s another issue we ran into at the county commission.”