Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is seen in an Aug. 29, 2007 photo in Lansing, Mich. Bernero said Monday, Dec. 21, 2009 he plans to create an exploratory committee as he considers challenging Lt. Gov. John Cherry and others for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year. The former state lawmaker will file paperwork this week and plans to decide whether to enter the race early next year. (AP Photo/Lansing State Journal, Rod Sanford)
LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Teri Bernero remembers sitting in the car outside her Adrian College dorm with her future husband, talking about their dreams and aspirations.
"We were talking about how we both wanted to change the world. He wanted to do it through public service, and I said, `Well, I'm going to do it through education,"' says Teri Bernero, now the principal of Lansing's Lewton Elementary School in Lansing.
The man she married, Virg Bernero, has spent the past two decades serving as a county commissioner, state lawmaker and Lansing mayor. He now has his eye on Michigan's top job: governor.
"I grew up wanting to make a difference, and believing that I could," Virg Bernero says. "The next governor is going to be tested in tough times. And that's why I feel I'm uniquely qualified."
The 46-year-old Democrat knows he sometimes comes across as too intense. The 1982 state high school debate champion was raised near Pontiac in an Italian-American family who set aside Sundays for church, hearty meals and boisterous discussions.
"You wouldn't sit around and watch TV. Everyone would gather around the kitchen table and the `debating society' would start," Bernero recalls. "If you were going to come, you better be ready to defend yourself."
Jerry Hollister, the son of former Lansing Mayor Dave Hollister, is the chief operating officer of a high-tech startup company, Niowave. He says Bernero played an instrumental role in smoothing the way for the company to buy a former Lansing school and receive the tax breaks it needed to get started making specialty parts for superconducting particle accelerators.
Hollister isn't bothered by the mayor's in-your-face style. If Bernero wins the governorship, "I think he'd ruffle some feathers and I think he'd make things happen. That's what we need," the businessman said.
Bernero has tempered his brashness somewhat during his five years as mayor, although he still occasionally steps on toes. Beset with shrinking budgets that have forced him to slice $42 million, he has reached agreements with police and firefighters that have cut costs while avoiding layoffs.
City workers are taking unpaid furlough days and shutting city offices some Fridays to keep the budget balanced. In a spirit of shared sacrifice, the mayor has cut his pay 10 percent, decreased his office budget every year, cut his health care benefits and given up his city-owned car.
While some city unions are upset with him, the 600,000-member Michigan AFL-CIO and its 59 unions back his bid for governor. Bernero has helped attract or retain 6,000 jobs in the Lansing area and received the endorsements of the Lansing and Michigan chambers of commerce during his run for mayor. The state chamber now is backing his Republican opponent, Rick Snyder.
Bernero's close-knit family has always influenced his political passions. His 29-year-old brother, Victor, died of AIDS on Election Day 1990. The schizophrenia that has afflicted his 49-year-old brother, Vince, made mental health care "one of my passions," he says. When General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC were going through bankruptcy last year, this son of a retired GM worker vehemently defended the autoworkers on national TV.
"Angry? You bet I'm angry, because I've see the pain people are feeling and it's fueling me to do more for Michigan," Bernero says in one of his television ads. "We need a governor who's tough enough to stand up for Michigan and turn things around."
Eaton Rapids resident and University of Michigan student Evan Nichols said he's backing Bernero because of his stance on social issues and record in Lansing.
"He's gotten positive results for his city," said Nichols, 19. "He's strongly pro-choice. ... He's for gay rights."
Bernero wants to do away with the unpopular surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax, a move that would save businesses $500 million a year, and says businesses that don't make a profit shouldn't have to pay taxes.
He says universities should be tightening their belts more, as local governments have, rather than raising tuition. With two daughters in college, Bernero feels the pinch of higher college costs. He'd like to bring back the Michigan Promise college scholarship, and says he'd pay for it by getting Congress to let states go after companies that don't collect state taxes on their online sales.
But the Democrat also has a few ideas that are more far-fetched, such as creating a state-owned bank that could give loans to college students and businesses. He says the bank could ease the foreclosure crisis by buying down mortgage portfolios held by smaller banks in Michigan and join with other private banks on economic development projects. North Dakota set up a state-run bank in 1919, but it's the only one.
Bernero also wants to strike back at Wall Street banks, saying the state should get back the billion dollars sitting in an account at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and put the money into community banks and credit unions more likely to lend to small business owners.
He wants the state to stop doing business with some of the biggest Wall Street banks that have refused to participate in the state's program to help homeowners facing foreclosure restructure their loans and have the state impose a two-year foreclosure moratorium.
He doesn't save his anger at what he sees as major banks' refusal to lend in Michigan for union halls and Democratic rallies. During a recent appearance before the Detroit Economic Club, he told bankers in the audience that, under his governorship, "if you are part of the Wall Street greed that runs over people in the pursuit of ever-greater profits, and ever-bigger bonuses, then you and I are going to have a problem, because I've had it, and so have our state's people."
Bernero insists his anger at Wall Street doesn't carry over into an antibusiness attitude. He says he has a proven record on attracting businesses such as Niowave and will do all he can to attract more middle-class jobs.
"I'm here negotiating with General Motors. I'm negotiating with big business, small business, I'm talking to mom and pop shops," he says. "I'm ready to do that for the state of Michigan. I think we need somebody who can get under the hood and knows the nuts and bolts."