Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, Democratic candidate for governor, addresses a group of Houghton County Democrats and other community members at a June 5 brunch sponsored by the Houghton County Dems at Houghton's Main Street Inn. Click on photos for larger versions. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)
By Michele Bourdieu
HOUGHTON -- Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing and one of two Democratic gubernatorial candidates running in the Aug. 3, 2010, Primary election, presents himself as a fighter for the working man. His top priorities include returning Michigan to the top manufacturing position it held when he was growing up downstate and his father, an Italian immigrant, worked for General Motors.
"I have straight teeth," Bernero said with a smile, "thanks to the benefits of GM and UAW."
His visit to a group of Houghton County Democrats and other community members at a brunch Saturday, June 5, in Houghton's Main Street Inn was part of a tour of the Upper Peninsula he began last Friday, June 4, after attending one day of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island in order to participate in the debate among gubernatorial candidates.*
During the Bush administration, Bernero said, he organized mayors across the country to go to Washington and fight for the auto industry, especially for two auto manufacturing plants in Lansing.
"As Michiganders we have pride in what we do, in what we make, in our heritage," Bernero said, "and we are hopeful about the future as well."
He noted the manufacturing economy downstate is connected to the economy in the Upper Peninsula, especially the tourist economy he has observed in his UP tour.
"How the middle class is doing (downstate) affects certainly the tourist economy here," Bernero noted.
He observed that a lot of the summer cottages, the fishing trips, the hunting trips are signs of middle class people who enjoy Michigan and who, in the past, were able to spend more of their leisure time, their disposable income, up north.
"And that's being curtailed," he said. "The economy matters, manufacturing matters ... and we are related by more than just the bridge."
Bernero said his arguments for auto manufacturing under the Bush administration met with anti-worker, anti-union criticism in the media.
"Working people were taking it on the chin by outfits like Fox News, talking about how we in Michigan were out of sync and we were paid too much," Bernero explained, after showing a video clip of himself in an interview on Fox.
He noted the anti-union bias in the media at that time also came up during the Mackinac conference debates this week. He and one other candidate, Republican Pete Hoekstra, were the only ones to defend unions in a discussion on lowering salaries of state employees to make Michigan more competitive.
Bernero defends unions, middle class workers
"They like to beat up on the unions and on working people," Bernero said. "And of course the unions upgraded the middle class and helped to raise everybody's standard of living, even if you didn't belong to a union."
Bernero said he realized his father's union benefits were the result of workers fighting for them in the past and he is proud to have the endorsement of several unions in his campaign. What the unions did was to spread the wealth so that not just the people at the top made money, but the people in the middle as well.
"But I'm for all working people," Bernero added. "It's the middle class that makes this country work."
Bernero joked about how Newt Gingrich, the keynote speaker at the Mackinac Conference, "lectured" the audience on what Michigan needs to do.
"Who better to know what Michigan needs to do to become competitive than Newt Gingrich," Bernero said. "He says that there's a problem with Michigan's work ethic -- that we get paid too much and we work too little ... this from a guy that's never held a job -- a real honest job -- in his life."
Bernero said he observed at the conference the Republican vision for Michigan's future, which is one of "less" for workers while big bankers are rewarded with bailouts.
"It's a minimalist view -- that we must accept less and we must expect less for our children and grandchildren and for our future. I don't accept that and that's why I'm running," Bernero said. "I'm tired of the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street. I've seen Wall Street take care of themselves, and Main Street is suffering.... It's Robin Hood in reverse."
Noting how his 85-year-old father now lives in Pontiac, Mich., where he worked, and spends his modest pension there, Bernero said Wall Street resents that pension. However, it's that American dream that he's fighting for.
"I think the American dream is under siege in Michigan," Bernero added. "I think Wall Street has outsourced our standard of living."
Bernero noted how Wall Street has moved the jobs to places, such as China and Mexico, "where they can exploit the land and exploit the labor" (by taking advantage of lower environmental and labor standards).
Bernero noted he's been called "the angry mayor" because of his stand on this. Admitting that, yes, he is angry, Bernero explained he's not only pounded his chest but he's pounded the pavement in Washington. His coalition of mayors (now a national organization, Mayors and Municipalities Automotive Coalition, or MMAC) has had results since President Obama took office.
"We asked for a billion dollars to clean up abandoned automotive sites. We got about 850 million dollars -- 160 million of which will be coming to Michigan," Bernero said.
Bernero pointed out that his opponents -- the five Republican candidates and his Democratic opponent -- talk about what they will do if elected governor.
"The difference is I've done it," he said.
Prior to being elected mayor in 2005, Bernero represented Lansing in the Michigan State Senate and State House from 2001 – 2006. In addition, Mayor Bernero represented Lansing on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners for eight years, having been elected four times. He also served as a legislative aide in both the State Senate and House.
Bernero said in the five years he has been Mayor of Lansing he has cut $42 million in deficit from the budget without losing a single police officer or firefighter, added $500 million in new investment and cooperated with Michigan State University in bringing businesses to Lansing.
Rep. Mike Lahti: Bernero "definitely a hard worker"
State Rep. Mike Lahti (now a candidate for state senator) arrived from the same Mackinac conference in time to hear some of Bernero's presentation. Lahti said he spends a good deal of his time in Lansing now and he has observed how it works.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, gubernatorial candidate, jokes with Rep. Mike Lahti, second from right at middle table, during Bernero's presentation on June 5 in Houghton.
"I just want to say he (Bernero) does a tremendous job saying what he believes and fighting for the working man in Michigan," Lahti said. "He's definitely a hard worker. He's got that reputation."
Lahti thanked Bernero for coming up here and jokingly added a thank you for a $3 city income tax refund he received in Lansing.
One project Bernero is particularly excited about is the $182 million resurrection of Lansing’s Ottawa Street Power Station, described on his Web site as "a massive brick monolith that stood empty on the downtown riverfront for nearly a decade." A large historic preservation project will allow the long-defunct, coal-powered electric generating plant to become the new national headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Company of America.
"And we haven't given up on manufacturing," he added. "There is not a first-rate economy in the world without manufacturing....There is no substitute for making things."
Bernero said money that goes to Wall Street banks is re-distributed and ends up in other states rather than being invested in Michigan. He said we need to invest more in our cities.
"Too many of our cities are the hole of the doughnut instead of the hub of the wheel," he said. "We need to start learning more about cities and less about CitiBank if we want Michigan, if we want our country to succeed."
Bernero: Three programs to boost Michigan's economy
Bernero mentioned three programs that he believes can help Michigan's economy.
First, he favors a State Bank proposal that would pool state resources in order to lend money to businesses based in the State of Michigan.
Second, Bernero praised the EB-5 Program (set up by the Department of Commerce and the Department of Homeland Security) which creates a foreign investment zone that allows foreign nationals to invest in business here. If a foreign national -- a wealthy entrepreneur from China or India, for example -- invests $1 million and employs at least 10 U.S. workers, he or she can receive a green card and live anywhere in the U.S. Bernero said Lansing is one of only three cities in Michigan that have taken advantage of this program. He would like to see these foreign investment zones in most Michigan cities, including Houghton.
"It's an incredible opportunity for us to bring foreign dollars -- overseas dollars -- back to this country," Bernero said. "It's a very intriguing thing. We just don't know what it might become. But one thing we know is it's bringing the investment (and jobs) here instead of taking the jobs overseas."**
The third program is a Michigan manufacturing zone which would offer tax incentives to a business, foreign or domestic, for re-using a brownfield -- an obsolete manufacturing site -- to manufacture something.
Bernero also said he would have an economic development plan for every county in Michigan.
"I believe that economic development begins with what you have," Bernero said.
Community members ask questions
Bernero welcomed questions and comments from the audience and stayed to answer individual questions after the presentation.
Janet Gregorich, former Houghton County official, asked a question on whether inmates in Michigan prisons could be given more vocational training so they would have a trade to make them employable when they are released.
Janet Gregorich, former Houghton County official, chats with Virg Bernero, Democratic candidate for governor, after Bernero's presentation in Houghton June 5. Gregorich asked a question on vocational education for prisoners, which led to the candidate's comments on education. Bernero's wife, Teri, is an elementary school principal.
Bernero replied that what prisoners need is hope. He said he believes the "Corrections" system is a sign of the system's failure to encourage and support prisoners who want to change, want to be rehabilitated, even to work on college degrees in prison.
"And, of course, we have to do a better job with education, because we know that the common denominator of prisoners is that they're high school drop outs," Bernero said. "The high school dropout rate of 30-50 percent in our urban areas is unacceptable, totally unacceptable, unsustainable. We have the highest incarceration rate in the country in Michigan ... and it's because we have this huge dropout rate."
Bernero, whose wife, Teri, is an elementary school principal, said he learned -- from a study done when he was an Ingham County commissioner -- that absenteeism in school begins in elementary school and continues through middle school and high school. He said if he becomes governor he will make sure parents become aware that school attendance is their responsibility.
"We will make it very clear to the parents that 'You will go to jail if your kid is not in school,'" Bernero said. "And those kids need to have a safe haven where they can learn, where they are valued."
Bernero said every child should be recognized as valuable.
"You make an investment on Wall Street -- you don't know where that money's going to end up," Bernero said. "You invest in children -- you will always get a return on your investment."
Ann Pace of Hancock noted there is a move nationally and worldwide to increase local production of food and asked Bernero what he thought of state support of agricultural development.
Hancock resident Ann Pace, right, in green jacket, asks Virg Bernero about government support of agriculture.
"You're right on," Bernero said. "While manufacturing has been waning ... agriculture has really been taking off....This is one thing we've done a nice job on...we're opening more markets to Michigan's (agricultural) products."
Bernero said agriculture is not his area of expertise but, if elected governor, he would be in favor of keeping it as a separate department and would work with experts running it and with marketing experts in order to promote Michigan products.
"Ag is growth area. It's a stand-alone area," he said.
Bernero also expressed an interest in urban gardens. He noted they are being established in both Lansing and Detroit, solving space issues and providing activity for the unemployed. He said he has noticed children show an interest in gardening and learning where food comes from. Gardens can also help improve nutrition in schools.
Bernero said he started an anti-pop movement in schools and hopes to continue to work toward better nutrition for children.
Virg Bernero, Democratic candidate for governor, speaks with Barb Turuc-Mills, Houghton County Democratic Party secretary, after his presentation on June 5 at a brunch sponsored by the Houghton County Dems.
Nanno Rose of Portage Township asked whether income taxes and taxes on alcohol and gasoline should be raised to help solve Michigan's deficit problem.
Bernero said he has so far avoided raising taxes as Mayor of Lansing, but he believed people are more willing to pay tax increases if they know where the money is going and why it's needed. An example is a gas tax to help repair roads. He answered a question on townships by noting he was not anti-township, just in favor of efficiency and consolidation in government, school administration, etc. His own way of saving money has to do with cutting unnecessary expenses -- even "comfort" levels of budgets rather than raising taxes, he explained.
"Especially in urban areas, regional government makes sense," Bernero said. "We built the government not that we needed, but we built the government that we could afford -- and deconstructing that is going to be tough."
Bernero said he believed in asking state employees as well as community members for ideas on how things can be done differently to save money.
"I intend to make Michigan the number-one place in the country to do business -- and that means jobs," Bernero said.
I just don't assume that we have to keep doing things the same way."
Candidate "digging into" sulfide mining issue
Bernero spoke in Marquette on Friday, just before coming to Houghton, and told Keweenaw Now he heard from people in Marquette who were on both sides of the sulfide mining issue.
"I've just begun to look at the issue," he said. "I will be digging into it and I will be seeking expert advice, too, about it. We're not going to compromise the environmental quality of the watershed, the rivers or the lake."
He agreed that tourism could be harmed by pollution from mining.
"If we're going to market 'Pure Michigan,' we have to be true to Pure Michigan," Bernero said. "Now that doesn't, to me, mean 'no mining,' but it means it has to be done the right way. They have to prove that it can be done safely. We have to set a high bar, not cut corners."
Bernero's Web site says as Mayor of Lansing he "was the first to develop an office dedicated exclusively to green development and environmental sustainability, uniting businesses, organizations and citizens alike in pledging to reduce their carbon footprint, ensuring cleaner land, water and air for future generations."***
Jackie Anderson, 22, of Hancock, had a positive reaction to Bernero's presentation.
"I think that Mayor Bernero has some interesting ideas that could help Michigan and more rural areas like the Upper Peninsula," she said. "I think he has more diverse economic development ideas."
John Laitinen, a Franklin Township trustee and a disabled former union iron worker, said Bernero struck him as both knowledgeable and down-to-earth.
"He seems like he's knowledgeable and seems he wants to do something for the state. I like his idea about having a plan for each county in the state," Laitinen said. "He knows about people who work with their hands. We need business in Michigan. They can't be all computer jobs."
Joanne Kyle Gregorich, seasonal resident, was very impressed with Bernero, although her primary residence is in Colorado.
"This guy blows me away," she said. "On every issue he's right on. He blows me away with his ingenuity and his passion for Michigan."
Hancock City Manager Glenn Anderson said this was the first time he had heard Bernero.
"He's attuned to the issues of the state, certainly has a vision and certainly understands local and state government operation -- which is critical for being a governor," Anderson said.
During his tour of the Upper Peninsula from June 3 - June 5, Bernero also visited groups in Sault Ste. Marie, Newberry, Munising, Marquette, Menominee and Escanaba.
* See these articles on the gubernatorial debate at the Mackinac conference June 3:
"Charges fly as Mich. gubernatorial hopefuls debate," by Kathy Barks Hoffman, AP writer.
"Gubernatorial candidates debate on Mackinac Island," by Rick Pluta of National Public Radio (NPR).
** To learn more about the EB-5 Program click here.
*** To learn more about Virg Bernero, Democratic candidate for governor, visit his Web site.