Behind the Scenes Virg Bernero
Former Mayor of the City of Lansing
Looking back on your 12-year tenure as Mayor, what is one accomplishment you are most proud of?
People talk about my legacy; What I’ve done all together as the longest-serving mayor under the modern charter, I think we’ve made a mark on Lansing, and it will be up to history, and to the people to decide what it is. But for me standing up for the auto industry was my finest hour. For me, it was a great privilege to take it to national airwaves. I got involved in the fight, frankly, because I was scared to death. I sat here as the economy was collapsing in 2007 and 2008, and the Great Recession was upon us, and the auto industry was very much threatened and in peril.
I remember calling the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the executive director in Washington D.C., and saying I need your help. As an automotive mayor, I said we’ve got to organize, get the mayors together and I looked to the Conference to do that. After a series of calls and conversations, it was clear they were not going to take up the issue. So, I called my staff in and said we are in it alone. We started calling mayors of automotive cities and put together a coalition, the Mayors Automotive Coalition (now the Manufacturing Alliance of Communities). We had 30-40 mayors made up of Democrats and Republicans from all over the country. Since then, after we had success with the automotive crisis, the Conference agreed to start the Mayors Task Force on Advanced Manufacturing of which I am chair.
The highest honor I received, besides the appreciation of residents, including a lot of former GM workers, was a letter I received from Rick Wagner, the CEO of GM at that time, that said ‘thank you, Mayor Bernero, for advocating on our behalf.’ I was just standing up for my people and, in a way, standing up for the UAW and auto workers all over the country. And its paid off – the investment in the auto industry has paid huge dividends for this country and has kept hundreds of thousands employed.
You credit your team as having been an important part of your success. Can you tell us more?
President John Kennedy coined the term ‘best and brightest,’ referring to the story about the team he assembled. No matter how smart you think you are, you need a team. Many of the people I appointed stayed with me. It was with the team that we got things done. I put a vision out there, and I often had ideas, but it’s the team – we met in the cabinet, we broke down the silos here at City Hall.
One thing you’ll never hear me say is “stay in your lane.” Our motto is “it’s all your lane.” We meet as a cabinet and we have everybody telling everyone else how to do their job. We must be rowing in the same direction. Not only did I stop the infighting and demand that everyone works together, but I also brought in cabinet people that weren’t here before, or that don’t answer to the mayor. We need to be looking for ways to work together to consolidate. I’m always saying read the charter. The charter calls for consolidation, collaboration and even merger. But here we weren’t even talking to each other on a regular basis, even city agencies.
What would you say was a hallmark of your administration?
Regional efforts have been a hallmark of this administration. Regional efforts were a hallmark of Dave Hollister, and we continued that tradition. We built huge additions onto the foundation of Hollister, who had inherited a city that really needed work. He had to bolster the foundation. He helped build modern Lansing and then we took it to the next level.
Twenty years from now, what do you want people to say about your time as mayor?
‘He got shit done.’ ‘He kicked ass.’ ‘He got things done.’ I think my mother would be proud of that. That is how she was. We learn from our parents more than we know. My mother was a stay-at-home mother and raised five kids; she was a big Italian mama, great cook, hard worker, and her values and integrity were incredible. She was a fighter with a big heart. To my mother, strangers were friends and friends were family. I think I’ve led the city that way; I think I’ve made time for everybody. What I’m proud of is that every person feels good talking to me, and I’m happy to talk to every person from every economic stratum. I think I‘ve been a mayor for everybody, every age and every race.
What are your future plans?
I plan to give back. I have the time and energy to give back, but still smell the roses a little bit. My dad is 92 and lives with us, and my wife still works for the Lansing School District. I intend to be more hands-on in that. For years my wife challenged me to be a mentor, but I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule. I hope to launch the City of Kindness initiative, and Andy has said he’ll let me do it, and he’ll support it. I’ve got the United Way working with me on that initiative. A lot of my philanthropic efforts will go through this City of Kindness initiative, which will take all of us as a community. It answers a lot of the needs in our community right now. I’m interested in partners; everyone can be involved in this. For more information, people can contact me at Bernerovirg@gmail.com. I also plan to do some municipal and political consulting with Randy Hannan.