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Commentary: Remember Virg Bernero?

Everyone knows, of course, that Rick Snyder was elected governor three years ago. And by now it is safe to say that everyone has an opinion about him. Some think he is saving the state.

Others are vowing to do everything they can to prevent him from winning a second term. But stop for a minute.

Do you remember who Snyder defeated to be elected governor in the first place? Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the Democratic nominee in what was an impossible year for his party.

Nationally, there was a huge Republican tide sweeping across the nation. In Michigan, the recession coupled with incumbent Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm’s unpopularity made things even worse for a Democrat. The result was a landslide.

But though Virg Bernero was badly defeated, when I went to visit him last week in his mayoral office, I found him anything but devastated. “It just wasn’t to be,” he said.

What was hard, he told me, was campaigning his heart out the last thirty or forty days, knowing it was hopeless. But he shrugged.

“I’m still happy as mayor,” Bernero told me, adding that he is running hard for a third term this fall. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy,” he said. “A mayor has more ability to act and do than a governor.

“Being mayor, I have to say, may suit my temperament more.”

Yet what if things had gone the other way and he were governor? What would Virg Bernero do about Detroit’s crisis?

Well, nothing, he told me, “Because I would already have done it.” Bernero told me that at the first sign of crisis, he would have given the city ninety days to get its act together.

Then he would have appointed an emergency manager. Not, Kevyn Orr, however, or any outsider. Bernero told me he would have served as the emergency manager himself.  I asked, how could a governor possibly do that? Bernero told me, “What could be a more important job than fixing Detroit?  What could any governor do that’s higher priority than that?” Reluctantly, he admitted that perhaps he would have to “appoint some guy,” but insisted he would do the real work himself.

I asked Mayor Bernero what he thinks of the job Snyder is doing. He began by stressing that “I have nothing bad to say about him personally. I work with the governor. We have an excellent working relationship.”

But he said “his biggest problem is that he seems to see everything as an accountant. He’s a good man who just can’t seem to get his green eyeshade off.” He thinks the governor has tunnel vision, and doesn’t really understand the creative side of economic development. A prime example, Bernero said, was Snyder’s early decision to cut off tax credits and essentially kill the growing film industry in this state. Bernero believes that subsidizing films was a worthwhile gamble which was very close to really taking off.

You can see the Capitol dome from the mayor’s entertainingly cluttered office. Today, Virg Bernero knows that is probably as close as he’ll ever get to being governor. But he’s okay with that, and still enthusiastic about being mayor.

Plus, he knows that in politics as in life … you never say never.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.