Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
LANSING – The tenacious, aggressive mayor of Lansing freely admits he is a politician to his core.
“I’m a politician,” the fast-talking Virg Bernero said in a sit-down interview this week. “I naturally assess the political temperature.” And that commitment to measuring the political winds has served him well, sending him to the Ingham County Commission for eight years, the State House for two and the State Senate for four. It’s landed him the mayor’s office of Lansing, and there are whispers on the wind that he is considering a run for governor of Michigan.
But sometimes, he overcomes the political winds and stands up for what he knows to be right. He calls this “The Victor Override Button.”
Participants of the Pride rally in Lansing on June 30 got to see the override in action when Bernero chastised an anti-gay group collected on the street, protesting the LGBT community. He told the protestors their hate was not welcome, and then told the LGBT community that not only were they welcome – but encouraged to live in – Lansing.
To understand how Bernero has hardwired an override into his political sensibilities, one must journey back in time to his childhood.
In the mid-’70s, Bernero was a middle school student attending a Catholic school in Waterford. “I was chubby. I had a weight problem,” he said. The other kids, Bernero said, were merciless in harassing him about it.
Bernero answered their verbal taunts with his fists.
“I was more violent then,” he said. “I was known for punching people.”
He sighed acknowledging this reality, as if disappointed in his middle-school self. But his defensiveness was not only for himself – but also for his big brother Victor.
Victor, three years older, was “never in the closet,” Bernero explained. “He exuded gayness. He was flamboyant by nature. He didn’t hold back. He didn’t hide.”
Bernero’s voice became distant here, quiet: “He took a lot of abuse because of it.
“They called him ‘faggot,’ ‘homo,'” he said. In the quiet of his office, the words are delivered with bitterness, as if he is mimicking the tone of children 25 years ago. As if he is listening to ghosts. “I found myself defending him. He was friendly, gregarious, very loving. In return, he got ridicule at school.”
At that moment, Bernero took a call on his Trio cell phone – a popular item staff has been taking from him and returning throughout the meeting. His wife, Terry, wanted to talk about their dog’s continued ear infections and the fact the two had decided not to allow their eldest daughter, Kelly, to go on a journey to Africa.
Back to his memories – Bernero didn’t recall his brother ever actually saying “I am gay;” nor did he recall the gnashing of teeth and denial so often associated with coming out in the mid-’70s. It was just accepted. He said a lot of that has to do with his parents, Julio and Virginia. Julio was an Italian immigrant; Virginia a first-generation Italian. They provided, Bernero recounts, a loving and caring home. A respite from a cruel world.
That respite, Bernero said, was the reason both he and his brother came out of their school experiences relatively unscarred. They had loving parents to talk with; a caring place in which to live.
HIV looms large
Bernero graduated from Adrian College in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. While a student at Adrian College, he met and befriended future U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Brighton).
The two served on the student government of Adrian together and, while from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they communicated well and honed a friendship. Rogers even surprised media and Bernero alike in 2006 when he arrived unannounced at Bernero’s mayoral victory party.
As most college graduates do, Bernero set off to begin a career in politics. He ran unsuccessfully for the Oakland County Board of Commissioners in 1986 and, shortly after that, defeat went to work for Democrat Speakers of the House Gary Owen and Lewis Dodak.
It was around this time, in 1988, that his mother informed him Victor was infected with HIV – the virus that causes AIDS. Bernero continued working for the State House, and made frequent trips back to Waterford to visit his brother. He said Victor had “bad times;” then would bounce back. But the last year, 1990, was the worst.
“I was running for County Commissioner in Lansing,” Bernero said. “My mother took care of him those last months. We watched him deteriorate.”
Bernero said many in his extended family refused to enter the house again once they found out Victor was ailing from AIDS. “AIDS was a death sentence at that time, and there was such fear. It was devastating to the family.
“Members of my own family wouldn’t have their kids near him. People just disappeared,” Bernero said, a note of buried regret underneath his words.
But Bernero and his wife Terry, a principal at a Lansing school, were committed to supporting Victor. This included making sure their daughter Kelly knew him. They brought her down to visit.
“He worshipped Kelly,” said Bernero, a smile beaming across his face. “She still talks about her Uncle Victor. He would shower her with gifts and kisses.”
He quietly basks in his remembrance of his child enveloped in the arms of his brother; then suddenly, quietly, remembers the darker side. “I was advised by family members, ‘Don’t do this! You’re putting her in harm’s way!'”
He reminds that in the late ’80s, many still believed HIV could be passed casually from person to person.
Bernero pauses again. “You can decide to print this or not, but it’s common knowledge. If you Google my name it will come up,” he takes a deep breath. Then he drops a bombshell.
“We approached Jack Kervorkian. My brother asked us to call.”
He lets the name of the infamous pathologist hang in the air.
“Victor begged me. He said, ‘I don’t want to linger,'” Bernero said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He said ‘I don’t want to linger and be a vegetable and in pain.”
Bernero is silent for a moment. Reflective.
“It’s so easy to talk and go about piously telling people that assisted suicide is wrong,” he said. “But until you are there, with someone you love, staring up at you and begging you to help them stop the misery … ” He trails off. “The emotions that run through you … you just don’t know.”
Bernero said Victor saw the assistance of Kervorkian as a lifeline.
As it turned out, Kervorkian was arrested shortly thereafter on murder charges, his machine held by the courts, and he was ordered not to assist with any more suicides. Bernero and his mother were unable to get the doctor’s assistance, but ended up testifying on his behalf in his first murder trial.
In November of 1990, Bernero was on track to be elected to the Ingham County Commission. And the weekend before the election, Victor, it was clear, was dying. Bernero told his brother he was staying. He would forget about the last 48 hours of the election.
Victor would have none of that. “He said, ‘Go and win.’ He insisted. I said ‘I love you,’ and he said he would see me at the victory party,” Bernero said.
The afternoon of the election, he got the call from his mother, Victor was gone.
“It was a bittersweet victory party,” said Bernero. “I did feel he was with me.”
From this part of his life, Bernero said he has learned some major lessons.
First, he learned that kids are ruthless, and schools must do more to stop the bullying both he and Victor suffered through. “School is where that meanness is ingrained,” he said. “If we had intervention, we could change that. I had never really thought about it, but that is why I support the anti-bullying legislation.”
Second, that life is your making, including when you die. “Who are we to say you have to endure the pain? You will stay. It’s (suicide is) an act of self determination.”
And, of course, he learned the all important Victor Override Button: “Treat people decently. All people.”