July 28 2010 12:00 AM

Truckin’ through Dillon turf with his confident opponent


The three of us had just finished a Mediterranean lunch in downtown Wyandotte, a south Metro Detroit suburb. Teri Bernero had a fattoush salad with chicken while her husband, Virg, settled on a tabbouli salad with a side of onion rings. We split an order of hummus.

“Have you heard the new ad?” asked Bernero, Lansing’s second-term mayor. It is a radio spot because he says he can’t afford television ads right now.

Bernero plans an advertisement blitz in the final eight days before the primary election, at least all that he can afford. This particular radio ad conjures up the “angry mayor” side of Bernero, bashing Wall Street and cuts to education funding.

Bernero said he ad-libbed his entire script, showing up at the studio in a “pissy” mood.

He fumbled with his cell phone, trying to play the audio back, and began tapping it on the table. Then he smacked it with his left hand. He repeatedly dropped his cell phone on the booth bench and went back again to dropping it on the table.

Teri Bernero explains halfway through the cell phone punishment that the advertisement only plays when he drops his phone, almost always accidentally.

Virg added that it went off in the bathroom earlier, causing some embarrassment.

“I’m Virg Bernero and I approve this message,” the ad started with one successful smack from the hand.

With the Aug. 3 primary around the corner, Virg Bernero is confident he can win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He believes his opponent, House Spaker Andy Dillon, has no clear messages or plans for Michigan. He believes his victory rests in the power of his diverse endorsements and the ground forces of volunteer canvassers reaching the public door by door. And he believes he will win, despite less money and a faulty cell phone.

Saturday began with a UAW rally in blue-collar Taylor, in the Downriver area of Metropolitan Detroit. It drew a couple of hundred people. Unpredictable weather shuffled supporters inside and outside until the last minute before speeches were made. UAW Region 1A Director Rory Gamble introduced Bernero to a standing ovation.

“The best thing about me is my wife, Lansing’s first lady, Teri Bernero, and she is driving me around today,” Bernero’s speech started. “She’s a better driver than me, I am told.”

The next 10 minutes was filled with intermittent standing ovations and applause, as Bernero played up the working-class crowd of mostly UAW union members.

Responding to charges that unions have been sucking money out of the state, Bernero asked the crowd, “Who do you think puts money in the till? Hard-working union people, that’s who. You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Bernero promised to protect these unions, should he win the governor’s race. Though he was “preaching to the converted,” Bernero showered the crowd with praise and expressed his disdain for Wall Street.

“We are just a flyover country for Wall Street, while it’s bologna for Main Street,” he said. “This is Robin Hood in reverse. They are too big to fail, but what about you? Are you too big to fail? No — you are not.”

As the crowd frowned and nodded in approval, they waited for Bernero’s climactic charge about the $1 billion he plans to take out of JP Morgan Chase in New York: “The day I’m sworn in on Jan. 1, I’m calling up JP Morgan and getting our money back.”

The crowd rose to their feet, bursting with excitement.

UAW President Bob King, attorney general candidate David Leyton, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, secretary of state candidate Jocelyn Benson and Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano made speeches following Bernero.

Roy Gonzalez, who chairs the retiree board at the UAW Local 163 office, stood nearby for each of the speeches. He first saw Bernero speak at a health-care rally last August in Dearborn when no one knew he would be running for governor a year later. He scoffed at the notion that Southeast Michigan is Dillon territory.

“He (Dillon) loves to claim this area as his own. He can do that, but he’s full of boloney,” Gonzalez said moments before Bernero’s speech. “I’m sure Dillon is a Republican posing as a Democrat. If Andy wins I don’t know what I’ll do. What a jerk.”

Ficano warned the crowd in the middle of his speech that if a Republican is elected in November, Michigan surely would become a right-to-work state. Union members shiver at the notion of right to work, believing non-union members gain collective bargaining benefits without paying union dues.

“Mike Bouchard ... ,” he started.

Gonzalez whispered, “That asshole,” at the mention of his name.

“ ... wants to make Michigan a right to work state. We can’t promote a job killer who supports that.”

Leyton seconded Ficano’s right-to-work claims: “You have heard those rascally Republicans bring it up, but Michigan will never become a right-to-work state.”

For each of these speeches, the crowd played a balancing act of disgusted head shaking against Republicans and proud approval for the Democratic candidates.

After a brief photo opportunity and a multitude of hand shaking, Bernero climbed into the front seat of his gold Chevrolet Impala with Teri Bernero behind the wheel to make the 20-minute drive east from Taylor to Wyandotte for a speech at a Michigan Democratic picnic. The crowd here was much smaller than in Taylor, and side conversations with Bernero were a bit more charging.

Why don’t you play up Lansing more in your advertisements? Where is the union money? What is this right-to-work business? Bernero responded that he doesn’t have the money to trump up Lansing, that he is knocking on wood for the union money to come through, and that Michigan will never become a right-to-work state if he has anything to do with it.

Outside the picnic, Virg said it’s time to break for “a bite” at Michelangelos Italian Bistro in Wyandotte.

“Best cannolis in Michigan,” he said.

We made the short drive through town only to discover Michelangelo’s didn’t open for two more hours. Bernero sighed.

“We’ll go get a bite some place else,” he lamented. “But it ain’t gonna be Michelangelo’s.”

The Mediterranean restaurant was family style with a menu that ranged from hot dogs and grilled cheese to shawarma and falafel. Bernero appreciates the healthy cuisine of foreign countries.

“You eat a Whopper and it’s great until the last two bites. Then you feel sick for hours,” he said.

He and Teri are on a Bangladeshi kick, they said, and found an amazing restaurant in Hamtramck that serves what they believe to be the state’s best.

Teri Bernero joked that even if Virg loses the campaign, they will have found some great restaurants throughout Michigan.

It’s the next-to-last weekend before the gubernatorial primary election, and Bernero said in his entire political career — he was an Ingham County commissioner, a state rep and a state senator before getting elected twice as mayor —he hasn’t been in an election quite like this.

Mostly because of the nearly 40 percent of undecided voters, Bernero said it’s anybody’s game at this point, but he touted political analyst Bill Ballenger’s recent poll, which puts Bernero ahead of Dillon by nearly 14 percentage points.

“That guy (Ballenger) doesn’t even like me, but he says we’re winning this thing,” Bernero said.

Bernero particularly likes his chances against Republicans Pete Hoekstra (“He’s all Washington, he’s done nothing here in Michigan.") and Rick Snyder (“$5 million of his own money (for campaigning) and all people know about him is that he is a nerd. Imagine what I could do with only a million.”), should he make it through the primary.

As for Andy Dillon: “He has the money, we have the people. The more people learn about me, the more they like me. The more they learn about Dillon, the more they like me,” Bernero said.

Bernero is confident he can snatch two of the three major Southeast Michigan counties away from Dillon — Oakland and Macomb. He thinks a worst-case scenario is splitting those two. That will make it interesting, he said.

As Bernero’s radio advertisement finishes playing over his fickle cell phone in the restaurant booth, Teri Bernero jumps into the conversation excitedly.

“This is the best part,” she said.

“This message was paid for by … ,” a woman’s voice ends the ad.

“That’s me!” she beams.

One vote Bernero is unsure he will get is his father-in-law’s, who is a staunch Republican, Teri said.

“Is he going to vote in the primary?” Virg asked Teri.

“Yes, Virg,” she replied.

“Is he going to vote for me?” he asked.

“Yes, Virg,” she repeated.