Running Mile a Minute
Virg Bernero tries to make leap from leading city to running state
by Susan J. Demas
July 16, 2010
Sundays weren’t exactly the day of rest in the Bernero household.
Virginia’s tomato sauce would be bubbling on the stove as her five kids — Vickie, Tina, Victor, Vince and Virgil — scampered throughout their four-bedroom Pontiac home. Soon they’d be joined by 20 or 30 of their closest relatives for dinner.
“My family — it was a loud Italian family,” laughs Virg Bernero, still known as “Virgil” to those closest to him. “…My mother was the loudest voice. She was the disciplinarian. My father was quiet — a man of few words. I had to fight to be heard at the table.”
It was there that the youngest of the brood tasted politics for the first time. Most of the clan voted Democratic (a picture of Soapy Williams hung in Felice Quality Market, his grandfather’s store) and his dad, Giulio, was a proud UAW worker.
“After dinner, when the dessert and coffee and the Italian cookies came out, the day would really pick up,” Bernero recalls. “You’d have uncles, aunts, godfathers, godparents. And the kids would go out to play sometimes, but I would often stay right at the table.
“First I would listen and then I would get in on it. They would debate the issues of the day; they’d debate everything. Most of these were immigrants, people who came to this country for a better life. They were proud Italians, but they were proud Americans, who chose to come here and they loved this country. But they’d have vociferous debates. And I kind of grew up in that.”
Bernero would become a state champion debater at Waterford-Mott High School — something evident as he pounds his fist during exchanges today, eye twitching when he’s challenged. He juggled that with serving three years as student council president and managing his aunt’s campaigns for Oakland County Commission.
Betty Fortino, his aunt, recalls that the studious Virgil tried out for football as a freshman and “gave it his best shot,” but didn’t make the team. (“I was in the clique of nerds — me and [Rick] Snyder,” Bernero laughs, referring to his fellow gubernatorial hopeful. “Not that I was as smart as him.”)
“My oldest son loved football — he loved the practices, rain or shine,” says Fortino. “That’s how Virgil is in the political arena. He just loves all of it…He was pretty much as he is now — always the talker, the passionate kid. He felt strongly about everything.”
Thirty years later, Bernero, 46, has just embarked on his second term as mayor of Lansing. That comes after being elected to the Ingham County Commission, state House and Senate — and he isn’t stopping there. The father of two started publicly toying with a gubernatorial run even before the undisputed Democratic frontrunner, Lt. Gov. John Cherry, had dropped out.
But Bernero wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity. He’s earned the nickname of “America’s Angriest Mayor,” thanks to his hearty defense of the domestic auto industry on cable TV shows, video clips that have become YouTube sensations. The acid-tongued politician says he was surprised that pundits (who he casually refers to as “all those idiots”) would come calling when GM and Chrysler were on the brink of collapse in 2008.
“Sometimes I was tired. I would drive to a studio in Southfield or something like at 6 a.m.,” he recalls. “And I took every one…I was just so adamant about standing up for our workers and our auto industry. And I couldn’t stand the way these pundits would take these cheap shots and talk about how our workers aren’t good and our products were substandard — just all this crap that they would speak.”
And he’s moved on to battling and battering his primary opponent, moderate House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township), whom he disembowels as the “Speaker of the Mess,” a “fat cat” and a “union buster” — all within 30 seconds. (“I’m in the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” declares Bernero. “I’m not sure where the speaker is.”)
Dillon, in turn, has questioned the mayor’s fitness to be governor and his ability to work with the legislature. (“You can’t turn things around with that kind of tone,” Dillon said after their second debate last month.)
Bernero says he’ll be outspent in the primary and he’s only led in one poll for the entire campaign. But his close friend, Ingham County Clerk Mike Bryanton, says that Bernero has defied the odds time and time again.
“People have underestimated Virgil’s political career at their own peril for a long time,” he says. “He’s the little engine that could.”
No one loves being mayor more than Virg Bernero — save for, perhaps, the legendary Daleys in Chicago, whom he counts among his political heroes.
With his slicked-back dark hair and pale blue eyes, the stocky West-sider is a familiar sight around town, down to his typical ensemble of a dark suit, white shirt and red power tie.
“If I see something in my city, I stop,” Bernero says in his quick-fire gravelly tone. “If I drive by and I see a kid in the middle of the road instead of using the sidewalk, I pull over and I talk to that youngster. That’s what a mayor does.”
Carleton “Carty” Finkbeiner, who served three terms as Toledo mayor, says Bernero is a man after his own heart. The pair worked together to lobby for American automakers, forming the Mayors and Municipalities Automotive Coalition (MMAC) that Bernero now chairs.
“I identify with Virg because I’m not dissimilar,” says Finkbeiner, who’s endorsed him for governor. “Mayors across this country, I think, have the passion, energy, zeal and gusto. At times, we irritate, piss off and make enemies because we’re so close to the problems citizens have. We’re so close they can touch us.”
Bernero ran for mayor in 2003, challenging Tony Benavides, who ascended to the post after David Hollister left to head the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth. He came up just 258 votes short. So he gave it another go in 2005, this time winning with a 23-percent margin in what Benavides called a “dirty campaign.”
“The evidence will come out if he makes it through the primary,” the former mayor says. “People will know who he really is. He’s for himself and no one else. He could care less about you or me.”
Finkbeiner defends Bernero as having a heart “as pure as the driven snow.” Bryanton says his friend is only guilty of “talking first and thinking second.”
“He has his critics, but I don’t think anyone can ever question his vision, his enormous work ethic,” he says. “He’s in it not so much for Virgil, but he really thinks he can help the people of Michigan and make a difference.”
The mayor has had a tumultuous time heading up the capital city as Michigan has withered during a decade-long recession. He’s still had successes, like saving Potter Park Zoo by transferring it to the county.
But his adversaries complain he’s broken his promise of government transparency, instead running Lansing like his personal fiefdom. Last year, Bernero faced Lansing City Councilwoman Carol Wood (whom he calls “my nemesis” and “a sourpuss”) and was overwhelmingly re-elected.
“He’s a bull in a China shop,” Wood says. “Bringing everybody to the table and listening to their ideas is not an attribute this mayor has. It’s my way or the highway. If you’re not on his side, you’re cut out.”
Bernero dismisses his critics as having sour grapes (“You know, the voters spoke,” he notes. “They looked at her and what she had to offer and they looked at me”). He says his agenda is all about moving Lansing forward, despite tough economic times.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had, bar none,” he declares. “The buck stops with me. I run the city. In the legislature, it’s hard to run much more than your mouth.”
“It is a damn tough job,” the mayor adds. “It’s certainly the toughest political job. I mean, next to being president, I think it is the toughest job. Even more so than being the governor.”
So why would he give that up to be the state’s next CEO? It’s a question that’s weighed heavily on Bernero’s mind. On a walk with his wife, Teri, one night in his Moore’s River Park neighborhood, they passed by the governor’s mansion.
“And I said, ‘You’re asking me to give up being mayor to live there?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I plow [the governor’s] street. I run the police department.’ I mean, as governor, what do you run? I love the job of mayor because it’s hands-on.”
But just weeks after his re-election on November 3, 2009 — and after making repeated promises that he wouldn’t run for governor — Bernero was doing exactly that. With Cherry languishing in the polls against virtually any GOP opponent, flagged by Granholm fatigue, the mayor saw an opening.
His detractors saw an opportunist.
“How does this work for a quote? Hahahahahahahahaha!” Wood scoffed at the time. “And we expected anything different from him? He sat there and lied to us.”
Both Benavides and Wood have endorsed Dillon. Bernero’s candidacy wasn’t well received by many other Democrats at the time, including some of his closest friends.
“I love Virgil like a little brother. His kids call me ‘Uncle Mike,’” says Bryanton, who served as Cherry’s mid-Michigan coordinator. “But I don’t always like him. Sometimes we have spats.”
Once Cherry pulled out of the gubernatorial sweepstakes in January, however, Bernero emerged as the party’s favorite son, winning endorsements from powerful groups like the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO and Planned Parenthood. He’s counting on his pro-labor and pro-choice record to put him across the finish line on August 3. His old boss and good friend, former Sen. Jim Berryman, says Bernero’s secret weapon is retail politics.
“I’m convinced that if he could talk to every voter and shake hands with every voter, he’d win the campaign hands down,” he says.
Like many little boys, Virgil Bernero had dreamed about becoming a cop. But that all changed when his aunt ran for office for the first time, a “seminal event” when he was 10. Today, he has few known hobbies outside of politics, besides working out religiously at the YMCA.
“He’s solidly politically motivated,” says Berryman, now director of the 3-G Lenawee County Education Association. “He loves public life. He loves a challenge. He thrives on that.”
Fortino was recruited to run for the county commission as a Democrat, having protested student busing as part of the court-ordered desegregation of Pontiac Schools in 1971. (“It messed up the schools. It had nothing to do with race,” she says.)
The St. Benedict’s altar boy found his calling going door-to-door for her (“I told people about my Aunt Betty and I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he grins). Bernero would come home and scribble notes to the folks with whom he’d had particularly good debates. That’s why he asked Fortino to assign him to the most Republican district on Election Day (“I’d go up there and I’d argue with people.”).
“I didn’t care how cold it was; I would be there all day,” he recalls. “I would skip school and I would be out at 7 a.m. And I would be out until 8 p.m. when the poll closed and I would not leave. They would bring food because I wouldn’t leave my post.”
Fortino racked up an impressive winning streak, serving 12 years on the commission before moving on to Waterford Township clerk in 1986 — a post she still holds in the GOP stronghold. It wasn’t long before her nephew got in on the act, winning three straight elections as high school class president.
Bernero graduated in 1982 and headed to Adrian College, majoring in (what else) political science. It was there than Bernero met Berryman, then mayor of Adrian. Bernero decided to protest the city commission’s decision to move from angled to parallel parking on a college street by defiantly leaving his car on an angle. The student body president was promptly ticketed and cried foul to the mayor.
“He went to my office and said, ‘I was just trying to make a point,’” laughs Berryman, who would go on to hire Bernero on his Senate staff. “And I said, ‘The point is, you’re going to have to pay the ticket.’”
Bernero’s political ambitions also led him to his future wife, Teri Johnston. The sophomore was barnstorming through the dorms for his presidential campaign in 1984 when he knocked on her door.
It was not love at first sight.
“She was not looking that great that morning,” recalls Bernero, as Teri rolls her eyes. “She had her hair in a ponytail. She was on her hands and knees scrubbing the dorm floor. So she was not really a great, memorable sight at that time. She remembered me as a nerd with big glasses who came to bother her while she was busy. So that first meeting was not that fortuitous.”
But Bernero would soon recruit the elementary ed major as his commissioner of elections because everything is “organized, catalogued with her.” It was then that Bernero woke up to the fact that Johnson had a “really pretty smile, too.”
“She was the opposite of me in many ways,” Bernero says. “She was quiet and shy. She wasn’t one to look for notoriety or anything. She just wanted to quietly do the job.”
The couple went on their first date on Christmas Eve 1985 and married 18 months later. They have two daughters, Kelly, 22, a senior at the University of Michigan (“a chip off the old block,” says Berryman) and Virginia, 19, a sophomore at Central Michigan University and named after the mayor’s mother.
The Bernero matriarch passed away three years ago, having previously undergone open heart surgery at Sparrow Hospital.
“We had her for eight more years,” the normally high-decibel Bernero says quietly. “I’m just able to talk about it now without getting emotional.”
Family has shaped many of his core political beliefs. His mother’s struggles strengthened his belief in the need for universal health care, making him an outspoken advocate of the new national law. During his time as a lawmaker and legislative staffer, Bernero became a champion for mental health system reform, inspired by his brother Vince’s battle with schizophrenia.
But perhaps nothing left a bigger imprint on Bernero than his other brother, Victor, who had AIDS. That led Bernero to become an early backer of gay and lesbian rights.
“It was very real. It’s one thing to talk about discrimination and bigotry of certain people,” he says. “But I lived it. I was right there with him. I was there when he was called every name in the book — ‘faggot.’ I was called a ‘faggot’ sometimes because he was my brother.”
Victor died at age 29 on November 6, 1990 — the day Bernero achieved his first professional political victory, winning election to the Ingham County Commission.
“It was very hard,” he says.
Bernero isn’t one to sit still — he’s held four different political offices in the past two decades and is going for a fifth. But the feisty pol has suffered his share of defeats along the way.
Before he even had his B.A. in hand, the Adrian College senior tried to capture his aunt’s old Oakland County Commission seat when she ran for Waterford clerk. He suffered his first loss, despite his boundless energy on the campaign trail. (“It was devastating. It was terrible,” he declares. “I learned you can be the better candidate and still lose. It really hurt.”)
“I don’t have the stamina I had then,” Bernero adds ruefully. “Let’s face it, I was 22. I worked night and day without much sleep. I would campaign all day and I would put up yard signs at night with a flashlight.”
He took a second crack at the commission in 1988 while working on the state House Democratic staff. But Bernero again fell short. He moved to Lansing when Teri was offered a job teaching at Lewton Elementary, where she now serves as principal (“I said, ‘I can lose elections anywhere,’” he recalls with a chuckle).
The third time was the charm, however, as Bernero won a seat on the Ingham County Commission two years later (“Which proves: if first you don’t succeed, move and run where they don’t know you,” he jokes). He suffered an unexpected setback in 1996, losing in the primary to a stealth Republican candidate, Mike Johnson. But Bernero reclaimed his seat in 1988.
Two years later, Bernero was back under the Capitol dome, this time serving as a freshman House member. He jumped to the Senate in 2002 and launched his first bid for mayor shortly thereafter.
“He’s always hopping from job to job,” complains Benavides, who defeated him in 2003. “He always wanted to be mayor, but as soon as he won re-election, he announced his bid for governor. He won’t stop there. Watch out, Obama. Here comes Virg.”
Berryman, who texts Bernero every day, says he always knew his friend wouldn’t be content to stay on his staff — and he admires him for it.
“Politics is about timing,” Berryman says. “He really wanted to lead. Any smart person has to look at: is this the right time to do this? People can criticize it, but he got elected. That’s a point often missed.”
Bernero describes his upward political mobility as “natural.”
“It was a promotion,” he says. “And it’s been an education. I just got my bachelor’s degree in political science, but some people go get a master’s or a doctorate. I must say that in a way…it was advancing my education. It just seemed like a natural progression. And now looking back at it, I’m a better leader for those experiences. I carry that with me.”
As governor, Bernero plans to dole out a healthy serving of populism, as he’s running a campaign “of, for and by regular working people.”
Wall Street is the bad guy in all Bernero’s speeches for bringing manufacturing to its knees and fostering a “race to the bottom.” He makes his case personal, pointing to his dad, Giulio, a first-generation immigrant and retired GM oiler. (“My daughters call him grandpa,” he says. “But to the bankers of Wall Street, he has another name: legacy cost.”)
“I think it’s time to fight back,” he frequently shouts on the stump. “Make no mistake, this is the fight of our lives.”
That’s the kind of “piss and vinegar,” as Bryanton calls it, that’s made Bernero an Internet star for his duels with Fox News host Gregg Jarrett and CNN financial anchor Ali Velshi (“I really put him in his place,” Bernero grins).
“He gets very carried away with himself,” Fortino smiles. “He can pass it out, but he can take it, too. It’s never boring when Virg is around.”
Finkbeiner thinks his friend’s quick-wittedness is a virtue in the gubernatorial race.
“Michigan doesn’t need a governor that’s the same old, same old where every studious thought is laid out in committee,” he declares. “It needs the same passion as Henry Ford, putting in 16 to 18 hours a day and not taking crap from anyone. Will [Virg] say some things people don’t like? So damn what. Give me a doer.”
Bernero says we’re in a “post-Sputnik era” when it comes to energy. He wants to spur Michigan to action, just as John F. Kennedy did the nation for the space program in the 1960s. “That’s our going to the moon,” he says. “That’s our moral imperative, to get off of oil. The Gulf [of Mexico] screams that to us.”
He also has vociferously protested state cuts to local governments and schools and argued the budget can’t be balanced on the backs of state employees. But despite his reputation as a progressive, he has not committed to raising any taxes as governor — income, sales, gas or otherwise.
“I can’t say whether I’d do something to raise taxes at this point,” Bernero said. “What I can say is as mayor, I haven’t raised taxes.”
And he has bucked the unions on one key issue, a new public-private bridge from Detroit to Windsor, the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC). Like many legislative Republicans, Bernero favors letting the private Ambassador Bridge Co. owned by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun construct a new span, despite the fact that the Canadian government has repeatedly nixed the plan.
Mike Severino, a nurse at Sparrow Hospital, is a former GOP Ingham County commissioner who’s worked well with Bernero over the years. Although he’s supporting Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard in the August 3 primary, Severino warns his conservative friends not to underestimate the bombastic Lansing mayor.
“He’s not someone who would scare me as governor,” he says. “He would jump in and ruffle the crocodiles. My opinion on our current governor is she’s just fishing from the pier.”
That’s been Virgil Bernero’s modus operandi since he was a squirt at the dinner table, jousting with his aunts and uncles. His path to the governor’s mansion has been a frenetic journey, having lived his life on the campaign trail since fourth grade. And unlike many stuffed-shirt politicians, he’s loved every minute of it.
Few people ever doubted Bernero would run for the state’s top job someday, especially Fortino, who kick-started his political career. But she wonders if her nephew won’t just stop there.
Muses Fortino, “I almost expect him to run for president, to be honest.”
Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and contributor to Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.