Displaying the dazzling rhetorical shrills that earned him less than 40% of the vote for governor in a state that had been run by Democrats for 2 terms, Michigan Democrat Virg Bernero appeared on the Rachel Maddow show to scream at the nation that his state was turning into “Soviet Russia.”
VIRG BERNERO, MAYOR OF LANSING, MICHIGAN, RECENTLY SLAUGHTERED GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: You know, this is the kind of thing in Russia, in Soviet Russia, what is becoming increasingly Soviet Russia again!
Then in the next breath…
BERNERO: And not only that, Rachel, but they‘ve cut revenue sharing for cities. So they‘re really cutting support for cities.
So, Michigan is turning into Soviet Russia because it is curtailing a tax policy toward cities that is no longer “From each according to its ability, to each according to its need?”
Do you people listen to yourselves? Luckily, not many are listening to you…
I decided to drop in as an uninvited guest to this paranoia-fest (commentary in bold):
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: We begin tonight with a story that is not happening in Washington, D.C., so most of the beltway press will not tell you that it‘s happening at all. (Yeah, they so neglected Arizona… ) But it is the story that I think is the single-most telling thing in American politics right now (Because you are clueless) about the difference between the two parties, about the choice in basic philosophy that we‘ve got to make about how we shall be governed as Americans. (Actually, it may BE telling that Democrats are frantic about the idea that local public employee unions will no longer be able to extort money from poor taxpayers and cities that have met the definition of bankruptcy for years.)
Despite what you will hear day in, day out from Washington, the difference between the two parties right now is not about President Obama versus House Speaker John Boehner, or even if you want to get really geeky between Senator Harry Reid and Congressman Paul Ryan. (Sure, a trillion here, a trillion there, who cares?) We tend to talk about politics in those terms, in terms of personalities, obviously, or the radical budget proposal of the week that‘s never going anywhere, but will drag the whole country to the right in policy terms anyway while it‘s trying. We tend to talk act politics in America like that.
But, frankly, those are stand-ins for the real debate between the two parties‘ visions of what government ought to do, of what politics are for, not about what people say they‘re for, but how they will act if they are in office.
And if you want to know about that, you have to go here, to Michigan‘s great southwest, to the little twin cities on the shore of Lake Michigan. (Which you have read about online.)
Last night, we talked about how one of these twin cities, St. Joseph, population: 8,500, is nearly 90 percent white, has a per capita income of about $33,000.
The other twin city, right across there, is Benton Harbor. Benton Harbor, population: 10,000 plus. It is nearly 90 percent black. Benton Harbor has a per-capita income of about $10,000 — a third of what its twin city enjoys. (Say what? They “enjoy” it? It was what, just given to them for being white? What is your point here, Rache? It’s possible, just possible that they WORK for it.)
Michigan‘s new Republican governor is a man named Rick Snyder. Governor Snyder has spent his first few months in office engaged in an aggressive campaign to strip Michiganders’ union rights and pass big new taxes on the poor and the elderly, (Cutting back the so-called Earning Income Tax credit, a backdoor welfare payment that results in people getting back 3 times what they PAID in taxes, is not a tax increase!) using the revenue not to plug the state‘s budget deficit but rather to give it away to corporations (Cutting the nation’s highest business tax in a state with an effective 20% unemployment tax—and once again, taking less is not “giving!”) and to the already well-off. (Not true, there are no tax cuts in the Snyder budget outside of the business tax, the income and sales taxes will not change.) That platform has not been kind to Governor Snyder‘s popularity. (MSNBC has been pushing this “buyers’ remorse” line on all its shows with micropolling on Republican governors… Hmmmm, checked Obama’s poll numbers lately? How did Obamacare effect those numbers? How about the 10% drop in Obama’s numbers after his response to Paul Ryan’s budget—you know, the one you wanted replayed in every “stadium” in America?)
But the one thing in Mr. Snyder‘s approach to governing that brought out the biggest protests in the capital, reportedly the biggest protest that Lansing, Michigan, had ever seen, the catalyst for those huge crowds, those thousands of people was in part a Rick Snyder law that take ace way–people‘s right to choose their local elected officials, a law that allows the state to declare your town a failure and to appoint an emergency financial person to be the new boss over the elected officials in your town someone who can order them to do things, who can undo what they have done as elected officials, who can fire them if she or he so decides. (First, Rachel, take a breath! My English teacher mother couldn’t diagram THAT sentence… Second, what brought out the protests was the fact that the Detroit public schools and Detroit employee unions have about twice as many people as they need and their pay and benefits are crippling a city that has lost 25% of its population in the last 10 years. The other unions brought out the Astroturf to support their most craven and corrupt “brothers and sisters” in no small part because they know as long as Detroit exists in its current form, then no one is going to bother them. Most of them only really cared about the fact that they pay an average of about 5% of their benefit costs and don’t want to pay more like 20%, which is still less than most of the people who pay their salary.)
The state is not only coming in and saying we don‘t care who we elected to represent you, we‘re firing them and taking over ourselves, and state is also claiming the power to just abolish your town.
When was your town founded? Who are your town founding fathers or founding mothers?
The state says we can dissolve your town now. We can wipe you off the map, give your land and assets to the next town over if we want to, just roll up the whole deal and deed it over. Your town doesn‘t get a say in the matter. (Only if your town is spending a lot more than it takes in in taxes, and has outstanding pension debts roughly equivalent to the value of the town, itself.)
The first town to feel the tender ministrations of Governor Snyder‘s new law is little Benton Harbor, one of the poorest towns in the state. And yes, despite the Rust Belt decline that has defined life in Benton Harbor for decades, Benton Harbor is also home to the global headquarters for Whirlpool appliances. (Conspiracy theory alert)
Among the heirs to the Whirlpool appliances fortune is Benton Harbor‘s Republican congressman, Fred Upton. A former Fred Upton staffer, Republican state rep Al Pscholka, he represents Benton Harbor in the statehouse. He‘s the person who introduced emergency state takeover bill that Governor Rick Snyder signed. This is their ceremonial re-enacting of the signing there.
Until last year, Mr. Pscholka served on the board of directors for a nonprofit that wants to build a half billion-dollar, 530-acre lake-front Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and luxury real estate development that would span both relatively wealthy St. Joseph and poor little Benton Harbor. A development that eats the one collective asset that Benton Harbor had, Benton Harbor‘s beautiful beach-front park. It would turn it into a place where caddies carry bags for Whirlpool executives and for rich folk who is drive in from Chicago for a weekend at their new luxury signature home. (You mean something that might generate revenue and provide jobs? Horrors! It would be the “small government” thing to do to just tax those rich folks instead.)
I don‘t know what a signature home is, but they‘re very expensive and they‘re part of the whole golf course deal. (It probably costs less than yours, Rachel.)
Benton Harbor‘s park, Jean Klock Park, was deed as a gift to the town, one of the poorest towns in Michigan. It was deeded to the town in perpetuity in 1917. Perpetuity I guess is not as long as it used to be, because now, Benton Harbor residents are looking at a golf course where the cost of an annual pass for a family to play there is $5,000 — $5,000 is half the average annual income of actual families living in Benton Harbor. This golf course development thing is not for them.
And neither, apparently, is Democratic local government. On Friday, Benton Harbor‘s new state-appointed energy overseer Joe Harris, issued an executive order that restricted the mayor and the city commissioners to three duties: they can call a meeting, they can approve meeting minute, and they can adjourn the meeting. Three things that elected officials of Benton Harbor are now allowed to do. That‘s it. (This is also exactly what the Flint City Council could do when Democrat governor Jennifer Granholm appointed an EFM about 8 YEARS AGO… That’s what happened with all the financial managers Granholm appointed, without cries of fascism from the Left.)
That story broke in the “Michigan Messenger,” which is one of the few media outlets that has been covering this story with diligence. Last night, as we were covering the story of Benton Harbor, the Benton Harbor City Commission met for the first time since the emergency manager guy there told them that they, you know, had been turned into pillars of salt, more or less.
The manager knew this meeting apparently might get a little hot. He set up a two-minute timer for anyone who wanted to speak up at this meeting. And this is what he got from local residents.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Somebody about to go, and I think it‘s going to have to be Joe. (Gee, I think THIS genius should be in charge…)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He‘s not even an elected official! He‘s going to fire me? Why you going to fire me?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Adolf Hitler was a dictator. Now we have a dictator in Joseph Harris. We have allowed this man to be too comfortable in our homes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We‘re not going to let it start at the foot of a so-called giant who‘s really a grasshopper.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nobody going to take this from me or my voice because (INAUDIBLE) and I have a voice. And ain‘t no piece of paper going to take that from me.
(END VIDEO CLIP) (Are you trying to prove that democracy might be over rated, Rache?)
MADDOW: Goodwin‘s law notwithstanding, that‘s how it went last night in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
…This is really, really, really big intrusive government. This is “sit down, shut up, your elections don‘t matter, we‘re in charge now” authoritarian giant government. (No, this is the “State of Michigan is not going to bail out your bankrupt town and its pension funds anymore as long as you refuse to correct the problem. These people—and Rachel’s next guest — cry big tears about cuts in state funding to cities, and cry that it’s fascism for them not to be able to take the aid and flush it down the nearest toilet.) And this ought to be the debate about what‘s on offer right now from American politics. This ought to be the debate about the two major parties right now, about whether we are OK as Americans with really big “takeover your town,” intrusive government, because that is what is on offer.
I realize that the debate in D.C. is going to be about the “gang of six,” whether the Democrats are really going to let them change the Social Security retirement age. And that is fine. That is a real debate. It is important.
But on real policy, real implications, real governing, not what people are saying they‘re going to do but what they‘re actually doing, there is a stark choice to notice and debate out in the states. Florida, Texas, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, now moving to require you to take a drug test, forced drug testing as part of getting the unemployment benefits that you paid for when you were working. Arizona and Georgia passing laws that force anyone to prove they‘re in the country legally whenever a police officer wants to know—papers, please. (Heavens to Betsy!) States across the country saying they will decide whether or not you can get an abortion and what your doctor is allowed to say to you about abortions in your doctor‘s appointment. The government will give you a script. The government will decide what your doctor says and what you are allowed to do. The government decides now, not you.
State governments in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, are acting people to strip people of their union rights. You might have heard something about that. (You also may have heard that taxpayers voted in governors to try to fix the private economy, after Obama’s bailout of states and localities that overspent somehow failed to “stimulate” anything…)
This is big, intrusive activist government put into motion and law at statehouses around the country. Republican-controlled legislatures right now are filled with politicians who campaigned on small government and respecting the will of the voter trademark. And then they got into office and they really started doing quite radically the opposite. (Yes, it would be small government to just keep extracting money from taxpayers in one of the nation’s 5 worst economies and transferring that wealth to the public sector…)
In Montana this month, Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer, remember he heated up his veto brand far long string of bills that had been passed by the new legislature in Montana? One of those bills, a bill to recriminalize medical marijuana. The Republicans‘ bill would overturn a law passed by the people of Montana in a referendum in 2004. Another one of those Republican passed laws would have allowed the return of cyanide leaching in mines. Voters had outlawed that through a referendum not once but twice in Montana. But the Republican bill would have overturned what the voters said they wanted.
In Wisconsin, the Republican legislature overturned a Milwaukee referendum that mandated that companies give their workers sick leave. When that got up for the vote in Milwaukee, it got 69 percent of the vote.
The people in Milwaukee want that. (… and screw the Constitution… wait, did somebody mention Soviet Russia? Who yells “communism!” then argues for the next 20 minutes for socialism? The True Twit, that’s who. Then she calls it “small government.” Letting local officials do whatever they want with state money. That is “small government.”)
…This is the vision of governance in America we ought to be debating, because regardless of what people say they‘re going do when they get in office, this is what‘s on offer now that they‘ve got there.
Joining us now is the Democratic mayor of Lansing, Michigan, Virg Bernero. Mayor Bernero ran in the 2010 gubernatorial race against the current governor of Michigan, Republican Rick Snyder. (and played the union card harder than any candidate in my memory… and got royally waxed in November.)
Mr. Mayor, thank you very much for being with us tonight.
MAYOR VIRG BERNERO (D), LANSING, MICHIGAN: Rachel, thank you for being such a patriot and a believer in democracy for bringing this to the fore.
Our Founding Fathers are rolling over in their graves at what‘s happening in Michigan. It is dire, and it is sad—a sad day for democracy. It‘s really everything you said. It is taxation without representation. (Only if Benton Harbor wants to forgo all state funds, you constitutional scholar and historian, you…) You know, it is the corporatization. We‘re seeing the corporatization of our Democratic process.
Today, in Michigan, they trained something—the government is training 200 EFMs, emergency financial managers. This is an industry now that the administration is going to be in. They have lowered the bar for taking over cities.
It used to be—EFMs were very rarely used. (Uh, Virg, this guy was APPOINTED BY GRANHOLM A YEAR AGO. Snyder has yet to appoint one in his supposed Operation Barbarossa to invade Michigan…) Their powers were circumscribed. (Read the law, it’s all circumscribed, by definition.) They were to go in and deal with the finances and work with the powers that be. (Only if the powers that be worked with them, ask the Flint City Council)
Now, they are in charge. Now they can fire elected officials. (No, they can just take away their power to do anything that costs the city money.) It is unprecedented in Michigan and I think in America and it‘s dangerous.
MADDOW: I saw a Bloomberg News report about those trainings for the emergency financial managers, and one of the things that lucked out for me was—as you were saying, this is something that used to exist in a very small scale, reserved for real emergencies. (And it still is. But all the communities that had one, are back where they started, so it has been given more teeth. If the past method worked so well, why aren’t those cities back on track, Virg?) They‘re talking about broadly expanding this and using this with something—more than a dozen different triggers that can start a process like this where a town just gets taken over.
And what Bloomberg pointed out was that it is investment banks and law firms and other people who have been involved in sort of corporate takeovers, doing this stuff in the private sector, who are now hoping to get in on this as a hot industry in the public sector.
Do you see this as a privatization of democracy, of public processes? (He just said that, Rache.)
BERNERO: Exactly, and this is why I say corporatization—profitization of local government. It is unprecedented! It‘s dangerous! It‘s incredible that it‘s come to this.
You know, I‘m a believer in democracy. This is autocracy. I think the governor must have asked himself WWPD, what would Putin do?
You know, this is the kind of thing in Russia, in Soviet Russia, what is becoming increasingly Soviet Russia again. They appoint the governors and the mayors. And that‘s basically what we‘re headed for. And they‘ve lowered the bar. So, it‘s very easily to fall into this.
And not only that, Rachel, but they‘ve cut revenue sharing for cities. So they‘re really cutting support for cities. In essence, shoot you in the foot and blaming you for limping.
We‘re struggling to survive in this economy, and the state is doing nothing to help us. In fact, they‘re hindering us. And the only thing they‘re doing then is threatening us with this privatization, this corporatization with a czar who‘s going to be appointed who is not going to work with the local authorities.
You know, never mind—what happened to local control? I thought the Republican Party was the party of less control, less government, and local control.
They have thrown local control out the window. This is a return to King George. You know, this is what the American Revolution was about. (The American Revolution was about having city governments get bullied into union contracts that cost more than they can possibly generate in tax revenue? The American Revolution was about having city workers make 4-6 times what the average city resident WHO PAYS THEIR SALARY makes? Is that what George Washington froze his… toes off at Valley Forge for? Thanks for clarifying, Virg!)
MADDOW: Is this what the 2010 campaign was for there? When you were running against Rick Snyder and Michigan voters were give an choice about who they want for governor, is this what the campaign was about? Is this what Republicans, including Rick Snyder, said they were going to do to Michigan if they got into power?
BERNERO: Well, absolutely not. And, I mean, we tried to get out of him what he would do. There wasn‘t a lot—there was one debate, exactly one. He said very little.
I think a lot of the Republican candidates for governor said very little. They had a script. They stuck to it.
And certainly, there was nothing like this talked about. In fact, there was talk about helping cities. You know, I‘m a mayor, I was running for governor. I know our cities need to be the hub of the wheel instead of the hole in the donut. (Right now, they are a black hole that sucks in resources from every community around them.)
There was a lot of talk about how to help cities. And I haven‘t seen any of it. We‘re not getting any help. (Yeah, how is making the state attractive to employers again going to help cities? What’s that got to do with anything? What employers are looking for are cities run by public employee unions with big fat pension liabilities and high property taxes to pay for them, right? Right?) What we‘re doing is getting the rug pulled out from underneath us and then these incredible, unprecedented powers, this power grab coming from the executive office is unprecedented and they‘ve lowered the bar so much.
You know, the governor‘s office is right across the street from me. I‘m afraid if I sneeze loud enough that could be grounds for an EFM. (How would they know you weren’t just making a speech, Virg?) They have really made it easy to take over a city, and you‘d think that normally, the state government wouldn‘t want to do that. (The last thing the state “wants” to be in control of is a complete loser of a proposition like Benton Harbor. It’s a great job, because people LOVE to be forced to face reality after years of the gravy train, and you get to be pilloried nationwide by populist morons.) Normally, the state government would be assisting and trying to help you on your own, maybe move you back. (So you would go bankrupt more slowly.)
Like I say, if there was an EFM, he would be in and out quickly. He would make adjustments. He would work with the locals, try to build an empowered local control. (…and as soon as they were gone the public employee unions who funded Virg Bernero were back in charge and every city is back in the same shape they were in before they got there. What’s the problem?)
They‘re doing just the opposite. (Hopefully!) They‘re coming in and wiping out the local boards and the local institutions. It‘s incredible. (They who, paleface? The only new EFM under Snyder is in Benton Harbor—ALL THE REST WERE APPOINTED BY GRANHOLM.)
And so, what are you going to be left with? At the end of the day, what are these EFMs going to have accomplished? They‘re going to wipe out a lot of city services. (…That the city can’t afford. Oh, right they are going to balance the budget…)
Where is the economy going to be of the region? How are we going to grow as a state if we‘re not enabling local control, if we‘re not building up our cities and helping our cities to become strong? (For the last 8 years, the only thing that has grown in Michigan is PUBLIC EMPLOYEMENT. In the home of Henry Ford, there are more government jobs than manufacturing jobs, approximately 500,o0o compared to 600,000. How’s that been working out, Virg? Seen lots of economic growth?)
MADDOW: Well, in Benton Harbor there will be three holes of that golf course, I‘m told, which will have a beautiful view of Lake Michigan. That‘s apparently what they will be presiding over there. (And what do they have now?)
BERNERO: That belongs to the people. (Gee, that doesn’t sound like something they would EVER say in “Soviet Russia…”)
MADDOW: That‘s exactly right.
What’s exactly right, is that Rachel Maddow has taken a city whose government makes Detroit look functonal and made it the poster child for “local control,” a phrase that has never crossed her central planning loving lips before a Republican governor had to limit it in order to protect the taxpayers.
In fact, we interrupt this fact-free zone for some actually on-the-ground reporting from Julie Mack of the Kalamazoo Gazzette, a dependably liberal newspaper in West Michigan:
There’s much that Maddow didn’t mention, beginning with the fact that Harris was appointed not by Pscholka or Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, but by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.
That occurred, incidentally, after a state review found the city’s pension system was underfunded by $4 million, its cash reserves dwindled from $1.7 million to $300,000 in three years and the city was spending between $80,000 to $100,000 annually in overdraft fees. The same week that Benton Harbor officials forcefully told state officials at a hearing that they didn’t need an emergency financial manager, they had to ask the state treasury for an advance on funds to make their payroll.
What happened last week: Harris notified the Benton Harbor City Commission and other city boards that he’s using the revamped law to assume dictatorial powers over city operations.
That certainly is causing a stir. But it’s a separate issue from the controversy involving Jean Klock Park.
And here’s where Maddow’s narrative really falls apart. Despite her implication that Benton Harbor city officials have been holding the fort against the park’s potential development, the exact opposite is true.
In fact, the development already has happened — thanks to the Benton Harbor City Commission, which is leasing 22 acres of the 90-acre park for three holes of the 18-hole Golf Club at Harbor Shores, most of which is on an adjacent site. In fact, the city is a co-defendant in lawsuits filed by park advocates.
There’s also a counter-narrative on Whirlpool’s role. Here’s the other perspective: After the 2003 riot in Benton Harbor, Whirlpool tried to be a good corporate citizen by donating land and lending money for a $500 million upscale housing and golf course development that many said would create jobs, raise real estate values and generate some economic activity in a stricken community.
In fact, the PGA Senior Championship is coming to the Golf Club at Harbor Shores in 2012 and 2014, a nice boost for Benton Harbor.
Moreover, even if one buys the idea that Pscholka, Upton, Snyder and Whirlpool are plotting a takeover of Jean Klock Park, it’s unclear how Harris, a former chief financial officer for the city of Detroit, fits into that picture — and it’s Harris who is calling the shots in Benton Harbor right now.
Of course, the difference is that Julie Mack can find Benton Harbor without a map, and didn’t first learn of the situation from an AFSME talking points memo.