Dec. 29 2010 12:00 AM

Reflections on the gubernatorial campaign, a budget hole, fish and pencils.

Illustration by Vince Joy
What did you take away from the campaign?

The wonderful experience of seeing the state and meeting people from all over the state. I had incredible grassroots support and the support of my family, of course. It was an unbelievable, incomparable experience that can only come from actually running for statewide office. It was an incredible experience and of course very challenging. We lost the election — it was a national political mood that played out here — but I’ll live to fight again.

You talk about the national mood. Is there anything you regret or would have done differently?

Hit the lottery (laughs). We were outspent 5-1, that hurts. I don’t feel, because of the money, that we got the message out, “Who is Virg Bernero?” I think a lot of people who voted either did so because they were mad at Democrats or they had an inaccurate image of me because of the ads that were run by the Republicans. They had this picture of me as this wild spendthrift because of that tank over there.

The fish tank and pencils advertisement?

Yes. It’s ludicrous. The truth about that fish tank is that’s one of the first things I would have cut. But I found out it was maintained by Preuss Pets, a firm that moved here from Haslett. Rick Preuss invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of his money into the city, took a risk on us in Old Town and is now a banner business down there. I just didn’t have the heart to say, ‘Come and get this fish tank out of here.’ I was not going to do that — it would have been a slap in the face to him. For weeks the Republican Party had guys down here at our Finance Department, and all they came up with was fish and pencils. Think about that. They had three guys in our Finance Department for weeks scouring everything we’ve spent, every dime since I took office, and all they found was fish and pencils.

What did you want people outside of Lansing to know about you?

I would have been happy if they just knew the job that I have done here. That’s all. If they just had an accurate picture, because the job the Republican governors told people was, ‘Oh, I spent money on fish tanks and pencils’ — in other words, I’m a spendthrift. Or that I’m not managing the city well.

They talked about the unemployment rate — well, look at the state’s unemployment rate. We’re fighting the tide, having tremendous economic successes, and that message never got out.

But it’s OK. One of the reasons I don’t feel so bad is that I’m heartened by the fact people weren’t saying, ‘Man we know Virg Bernero and we’re going against him.’ They don’t know me. They had an inaccurate picture of me, they were mad at Democrats and they went with a guy that they really knew nothing about. Nothing was said except that he was a businessman. So they voted for a businessman instead of a politician, that’s all. I don’t take it personally.

Would you do it again in four years?

Impossible to say.

Two year-end reports about the city just came out and offer two very different pictures of Lansing: job creation and a $15 million budget gap. How do you reconcile those two?

This is the (budget) process we go through every year. I have not had the luxury of great economic times. This is a time of pruning. We’re planting new seeds, we’re seeing new growth, but we also have to continue to prune. The pruning process can be painful. That’s not to say we don’t have priorities. Our priorities are public safety, economic development, jobs — everything else comes after that. I’ve called for better regional cooperation. We should be looking at a lot more mergers but it’s hard to get other governments to do it. There’s a lot of turf protection out there. Everything in this budget is on the table. You name it, it’s on the table. The reality is that’s life — the only constant is change. Yet my team has been able to deliver. Will it be a challenge? Absolutely. We’ll do it in new ways. We’ll do it in ways that people never thought of. There will be fear, there will be pain, there will be gnashing of teeth, there will be wringing of hands — I guarantee you.

Some might say you’ve been cutting each year for the past five years — that the easy stuff to cut has already been done.

It is the hardest year — no question about that. It’s important to note that we haven’t been just whittling away at the same stick. We have been creative, we have been in the reinventing process and we have been very strategic. We haven’t just cut 20 percent across the board.

Can you offer any specifics?

Not really, no.

So what does 2011 have in store for you, for the city?

Well, I’m excited. Stay tuned — there will be some surprises.