Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

Campaign frenzy in the Motor City at Bernero's victory party

DETROIT — It was 10:15 p.m. on election night, and throughout the crowded lobby of the Atheneum Suite Hotel in Detroit’s Greektown rang those familiar phrases:

“Wall Street barons make out like bandits.”

“They redlined our state.”

“Let’s put the ‘G’ back in GDP.”

“Some people call me the angriest mayor in America, but I’m not done.”

The results were in. Virg Bernero’s campaign for governor is running strong.


Virg and Teri Bernero at the Atheneum Suite Hotel in Detroit minutes after winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Photo by Andy Balaskovitz.

After a typical Bernero-esque speech of fist pumping and promises of placing a moratorium on home foreclosures, limiting tuition increases and a stronger green manufacturing economy, Lansing’s mayor took to the floor to thank his supporters.

Only this time he was celebrating a victory.

Mingling about the lobby was Bernero’s friend of 21 years and his “original chief of staff,” Joe McDonald. He and Bernero worked together at Michigan Citizen Action, the state’s largest consumer protection nonprofit.

“We were two idealistic young guys back then,” he recalled.

McDonald was a canvasser and Bernero was the communications director when they first met. Pondering Bernero’s upcoming opponent, Ann Arbor businessman and self-proclaimed nerd Rick Snyder, he recalls Bernero’s morning briefings at the nonprofit.

“Virg would come in, this skinny Italian guy with thick glasses, and he was the original nerd,” McDonald laughed. “He was just full of energy and when he was excited he didn’t have this laugh – it was more of a honk.”

McDonald said staffers would look around and think, ‘Are you kidding me?’ with this honk.

“We were all young back then, but I liked him right away,” McDonald said.

He said Bernero has come so far because of the close-knit political relationships he formed over the years and he likes this experience over Snyder’s.

“He (Bernero) attracts good-quality, good-hearted people,” McDonald said. “And the best talent.”

“This is a great day for the state,” Sam Singh, former East Lansing mayor and world traveler, said after Bernero’s acceptance speech. “Now he has to take this magic across Michigan.”
Singh said Bernero’s strong grassroots presence helped him get this far and he would need to carry that momentum up to November.

“He reached out to people and struck a cord with those upset with the status quo,” he said.

Singh likes Bernero’s chances against Snyder in the general election mostly because of Bernero’s political experience – he was an Ingham County commissioner, a state rep and a state senator before getting elected twice as mayor – and Snyder’s lack thereof.

Once he gets his name out, he is confident of Bernero’s success in November.

“The thing about Virg is that once voters get to know him, they vote for him,” he said.

Lansing City Council Vice President Kathie Dunbar attended the victory party and reflected on the time she first met Bernero while she was a neighborhood organizer in Lansing and he was serving in the state House of Representatives. It was early 2000.

“The difference between Virg now and then?” she asked herself. “He might be a little angrier now.”

She likes Bernero’s chances as a long-time politician facing up against a “geek businessman.” There was never a doubt in Dunbar’s mind that Bernero wouldn’t beat Speaker of the House Andy Dillon.

“Dillon just doesn’t fit the party. Anyone with true Democratic values had to vote Virg in this thing,” she said.

Not everyone was as jubilant as the Bernero supporters in that crowded lobby.

Republicans Lisa Bancuck and Karen Bastien of the Saugatuck area in West Michigan were walking into the lobby after the Detroit Tigers split a doubleheader with the Chicago White Sox. They were in town for the Tigers games Tuesday and had no idea there was an election party in the lobby of their hotel until they showed up at 10 p.m., near the time of Dillon’s concession phone call to Bernero.

Not only did they not know of the party, they didn’t know the candidate.

“Virg Bernero is a new name to us, and we try to follow politics pretty closely,” Bancuck, a police officer, said.

Each of them missed voting in the primary, mostly out of apathy, because their favorite politician Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land didn’t make a run for governor. They were definitely not supportive of U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and thought Attorney General Mike Cox might be the one to win the nomination.

“We used to be into politics, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference anymore,” Bancuck said minutes before Bernero made his acceptance speech.

They looked around the lobby confusedly for another minute and left in search of other entertainment.

Teri Bernero was on the verge of tears while introducing her husband on the podium and throughout his acceptance speech. She was filled with joy while meeting supporters, but she knows the work has just begun.

“I do wish this was the November election, but we will celebrate for now,” she said.
She hopes to get the family away for a few weeks once the frenzy of phone calls and e-mails die down from the primary victory.