Two former Lansing area women who have accused Virg Bernero of sexual harassment are speaking out again this week after the former three-term Lansing Mayor minimized and denied the incidents last week.
Woman A alleged to City Pulse last week that Bernero “groped” her in downtown Lansing in 2010. Woman B said Bernero also made a series of unwanted and sexually charged phone calls to her in 2004. They’ve each decided to speak under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, but their stories have been independently verified by witnesses through City Pulse.
Bernero initially told City Pulse that he didn’t recall the incidents but labeled his behavior as “unacceptable and wrong.” He apologized for “any pain” caused to the women or his family, also noting that he and his wife, Teri, underwent counseling after he left office in 2017.
But Friday, speaking to radio personality Michael Patrick Shiels, Bernero denied the allegations, suggesting the women were liars and chalking the claims up to attempted “character assassination” and “toxic politics.” He also doubled down on the baseless claim that Mayor Andy Schor orchestrated the allegations, also noting last week that “If these charges were true, I wouldn’t vote for me.”
“With his previous statement, there was at least a slightly open door to lead us to believe he might have changed,” Woman A told City Pulse in response this week. “I was bothered by his statement that he did not remember because it made me wonder if this was such a commonplace occurrence or if he felt that entitled that he never thought twice about groping or harassing women. Even though I was bothered, I didn’t think about speaking out again until he changed his tune. His interview and his quick 180 shows us that he is still a danger to women.”
Woman A doesn’t live in Lansing. She also told City Pulse she was unfamiliar with the election.
“This is not a political attack,” she said. “Whoever the mayor is at the end of the election doesn’t impact me. I came forward because men like this do not deserve to be in power. I want Lansing to be a safe place for women to work. To make it safe for women, men like Virg Bernero have to be held accountable. Men like Virg have to be stopped before they harm others. It’s not character assassination when the accusations are true descriptions of your character.”
Bernero also released a campaign video over the weekend with his wife in which he described “losing focus” on his family and “making mistakes” near the end of his third term. He said their marriage has since been “rebuilt.” They’ll celebrate their 34th anniversary this year.
“We have shared lots of ups and downs,” Teri Bernero said. “If you’re married or in a long-term relationship, you know that it takes commitment, communication and, most of all, love. I love my husband and I know he loves me. Our marriage is stronger than ever because we took time and effort to work on it. We are not going backward, only forward. I know brighter times are ahead.”
Bernero also further solidified his longstanding intention to run against Schor in November.
“If you send me back to the Mayor’s Office, I promise we’ll get Lansing back on track,” he said.
During last week’s interview, Shiels also appeared to attempt to uncover the the identity of the former Lansing news anchor who also made sexual harassment allegations against Bernero. At one point, he asked Bernero: “You can gleam enough from that. Do you know who she is?”
The second woman accusing Bernero of sexual harassment labeled Bernero’s recent denial as “proof that this is intimidation and a setup for retaliation.” She also told City Pulse that she has absolutely no political interest in the 2021 mayoral race, noting that she had to search on Google to find out the name of the current mayor, Andy Schor.
“And frankly I find some things about him just as problematic,” Woman B told City Pulse.
Bernero told Shiels: “I think the truth will win out here. They think that they’re going to scare me out, embarrass me out or push me out of this race. Or better yet: They want to see the return of the angry mayor. They’re hoping they can push my buttons. I’m not angry. I’m resolved. I’m resolved to defend my good name and resolved to get Lansing back on track.”
He also doubled down in a statement to City Pulse: “I am glad that victims of abuse feel increasingly empowered to speak out. But not every charge is accurate. I cannot stand by guilt by association. I apologize to those who have been offended by my tone, language or style.”
Meanwhile, several politicians and activists told City Pulse they aren’t sure that Bernero’s mistakes are totally in the past. The overarching takeaway: Nobody seems totally surprised.
“If people knew Virg, they wouldn’t find it shocking at all,” said Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner, who served alongside Bernero during his four terms on the commission from 1992 to 2000. “I just don’t find the allegations particularly shocking. Though, I’ve never been in social settings with him where it was appropriate — or even inappropriate — to grab people.”
Added one high-ranking Democratic insider: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. We haven’t heard it all. I’m not sure this is the death knell just yet, but I also think there’s more to the story.”
Schor formally announced his reelection campaign one day after the allegations against Bernero surfaced. He also told City Pulse: “This story isn’t about me. It’s about the brave women who came forward and the terrible behavior by the former mayor. They deserve our attention.”
Lansing City Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley, who is planning to run against both of them for mayor this year, took it a step further, calling for a formal investigation (possibly by the City Council) of a potential abuse of power. Bernero was mayor during one of the alleged incidents.
“As a woman and a woman of color, it is personally difficult and painful to hear these accounts of their experiences. These women need to be listened to, heard and treated with dignity and respect. It took incredible bravery for them to come forward and tell their stories,” she added.
Added Council Vice President Adam Hussain: “The allegations are very serious in my opinion. Sexual harassment of any measure can’t be tolerated, whether in private or public. My heart goes out to those impacted by these actions. I am amazed at their strength and know that their strength will help others that have similar experiences to come out and reclaim their power.”
And Lansing isn’t too unfamiliar with how to handle offensive conduct from politicians.
Last month, the Ingham County Democratic Party — following the City Council — passed a resolution that formally admonished Councilman Brandon Betz after he sent a series of profane text messages to the co-leader of the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter. Party chairman and Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said a similar move won’t be necessary for Bernero.
“While the report of the actions are disturbing, Bernero holds no current office, so it is less likely our membership would want to weigh in. His fate is already in the hands of the voters,” he said.
Added long-time City Councilwoman Carol Wood: “Anyone who uses their power to sexually harass an individual is despicable. In this day and age — and with everything that has come out over the last couple of years — I just don’t accept the excuse of ‘I should have known better.”
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said she also wasn’t surprised to hear the claims against Bernero, recalling a time when Lansing’s “Angry Mayor” berated her for cosponsoring a fundraiser.
“He proceeded to yell and swear at me about a clearly political subject matter from his city of Lansing phone to my state legislative phone and, after some time had passed, I ended the call,” Byrum said. “As a human, I knew that I had done nothing to incur such verbal abuse. While the verbal abuse directed at me was not sexual in nature, it is not difficult for me to believe that he may have sexually harassed individuals. It is no secret that Virg Bernero has a temper.”
She added: “Everyone deserves to speak their truth, and abuse should never be tolerated.”
Calls to unions and labor leaders (including the usual endorsement power players in Lansing mayoral elections) weren’t as fruitful. The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 333 didn’t return calls. Officials at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 665 and the Lansing Labor Council declined to comment altogether.