n 2009, Virg Bernero earned the nickname “America’s Angriest Mayor” after a series of quarrelsome debates about the auto bailout with free-market absolutists on Fox News.
The mayor of Lansing, Mich., where General Motors opened two new auto plants during the 2000s, Bernero startled Lego-haired Fox anchorman Gregg Jarrett with a rant questioning why the United Auto Workers — including Bernero’s father, an octogenarian GM retiree — were asked to sacrifice wages and benefits while Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers received billions in TARP money.
“I gotta say, in all honesty, I was a little offended by your question, ‘Have the unions given up enough? Has the working man given up enough?’” Bernero shouted, before Jarrett even asked him a question. “My question is, ‘Has Wall Street given up enough, for the billions they have taken?’ I gotta tell ya, I am sick and tired of the double standard: one standard for Washington and Wall Street, another standard for the working people in this country. It always comes down to, in order to be more competitive, we gotta take it out of the hide of the working person.”
Bernero’s tightly wound populism came not so much from anger as from fear — fear that Lansing, which had already lost its signature brand, the Oldsmobile, was about to lose its entire manufacturing base, and the 6,000 union jobs that went with it. Shutting down Lansing’s auto plants might have made Bernero’s city a sister in misery to Flint, 50 miles up Interstate 69, which went from having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the United States to the highest murder rate after GM eliminated 90 percent of its automaking jobs. To prevent that from happening, Bernero founded the Mayors Automotive Coalition, bringing together mayors from the Rust Belt, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas, to lobby Congress for a federal bailout of GM and Chrysler. (One of its members, former Youngstown, Ohio, Mayor Jay Williams, is now deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.)
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