Next Monday will be Virg Bernero’s last day as Mayor of Lansing. Today and tomorrow, WKAR will consider his legacy as he moves into private life. We begin today with a look at the way many will remember Virg Bernero: as America’s Angriest Mayor.
In 2007, the world’s financial system was in turmoil. Fueled by a crisis in the subprime mortgage market, the dominos were starting to fall, and the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed the next year. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act rescued the American financial system with a $700-billion dollar infusion of cash.
Many thought of it as a bailout of Wall Street, and Virg Bernero was among them.
It was in that atmosphere that General Motors and Chrysler faced the very real possibility of their own collapses. With the country still reeling from the debate over the Wall Street bailout, the notion of bailing out the auto companies faced stiff opposition.
As that debate unfolded on television, the Mayor of Lansing became the go-to guest for the “pro” side of supporting the automakers. His performances, like this one on Fox News, earned Virg Bernero the moniker of America’s Angriest Mayor.
"Well, first of all, I've got to say in all honesty, I was a little offended by your question," Bernero said. "Have the unions given up enough? Has the working man given up enough? My question is, has Wall Street given up enough for the billions that they have taken? I am so sick and tired of the double standard, one standard for Washington and Wall Street and another standard for working people in this country. It always comes down to, in order to be more competitive, we've got to take it out of the hide of the working person, cut their pay, cut their benefits! How much is enough? Let me ask you, have the bonuses been cut on Wall Street? What has Wall Street given up? The auto industry will step up and we'll take our lumps, but by gosh, let's have some reciprocity in this country!"
Here’s one more sample of Virg Bernero ratcheting up the debate, this time on CBS.
"I find it highly ironic to have Congresspeople lecturing the UAW about cutting their wages. Why don't we put Congresspeople and Senators on merit pay and see what they would be making?", he questioned. "What has their productivity been? Give me a break! They're flowing red ink out of Washington. They print money! What the UAW and the Big Three are guilty of is raising the standard of living in this country, not just for union workers but for all workers. The reason that the workers at the non-union plants get paid what they do is thanks to the UAW, but now we have Republican Senators beating up on the UAW and demanding that they take concessions. Why don't we start the concessions in the U.S. Senate?"
Ultimately, congress did work out a loan package for the automakers, but Chrysler still was forced to declare bankruptcy on May 1st 2009, and GM did the same a month later. Chrysler has emerged as Fiat-Chrysler; and today, the post-bankruptcy General Motors remains one of Lansing’s biggest employers, with two of the company’s newest factories, both built after the city’s 1996 “Keep GM” campaign convinced the company not to leave the area.
Was America’s Angriest Mayor one of the reasons there still is a General Motors? That question is probably worthy of its own debate.