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La Liga de Las Americas

Region’s incumbent Democratic minority mayors—including Lansing

Latino—locked in uphill-election battles with Democratic challengers


By Alan Abrams

La Prensa Senior Correspondent


The national political pundits have overlooked what may be a regional phenomenon in the Nov. 8 elections.  Four major cities in Michigan and Ohio, adjacent or quasi-adjacent to Lake Erie, are holding mayoral elections in which the incumbent Democrats—all members of minority groups—are being challenged, not by Republicans, but by other Democrats.  Moreover, polls and primary election results in all four campaigns show the incumbents on the ropes with their challengers leading by often substantial margins. Is this a new trend or an aberration?

Tony Benavides

Two of the cities, Lansing and Detroit, are in Michigan. The other pair, Toledo and Cleveland, is in Ohio. All four are within the La Prensa readership and distribution areas.


The potential for a damaging split in the party, which could be crucial if Democrats seek to rebuild urban coalitions before the 2006 midterm and 2008 presidential elections, has not  been scrutinized  by the national media, preoccupied with reporting on a myriad of Republican scandals, from Coingate to Rove-Scootergate.  But the question lingers, can the internal schisms be healed in time for Midwest urban Democrats to present a unified front against the Republicans in two crucial states, both having significant minorities?


This week, La Prensa looks at the mayoral race in Lansing, Michigan’s capital city. We’ll examine the two Ohio races and the Detroit campaign in next week’s issue and focus upon how the candidates relate to issues of interest to Latino voters.


The Lansing election is of special interest because the incumbent, Tony Benavides, is Latino and has strong roots in the community. His challenger, who Benavides defeated in 2003, is State Senator Virg Bernero (District 23). Benavides is the only Latino among the eight candidates. All of the incumbents are minorities: two are African-American, one is female, and Benavides is Latino.


With an estimated  Latino population of  15,000 to 17, 000 and a total of 119,128 residents according to the 2000 census, Latinos represent at least ten percent of Lansing’s population. That proportion is higher than the Michigan average. The majority of Lansing’s Latinos are of Chicano or Mexican origin, the product of the same migration in the 1920s that brought many familias to Toledo and Detroit.


Several calls and e-mails by La Prensa to the Benavides and Bernero campaigns seeking personal comment from the candidates on Latino interest issues were not returned. However, the record speaks for itself—Benavides has been active in the Latino community his entire life whereas the actions of Bernero belie such affinity.


Benavides, who saw Bernero rack up a 2,500 vote lead in the primary, and who has lagged behind in fundraising and endorsements, received a much-needed boost earlier this month when the 300-member Michigan Democratic Hispanic/Latino Caucus endorsed him. The organization is under the auspices of the Michigan Democratic Party.


In a prepared statement, Caucus Chair Henry Sánchez stated: “Mayor Benavides has a strong record of service that is highlighted by his concern and respect for others. He has been a mayor for all people of Lansing, and we strongly support his re-election.”

According to www.keepmayortonybenavides.org, Benavide’s other endorsements include: Pastors of Greater Lansing and former mayoral candidate Dale Abronowitz.

However, according to Bernero’s Web site [www.votevirg.com], Bernero’s endorsements include: Lansing School Teachers - MEA CAPAC, Fire Fighters - IAFF Local 421, FOP Lodge 141, UAW Region 1-C, Regional Chamber of Commerce, Labor Council - AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union Local 517M, Greater Lansing Home Builders Association and Building Trades Council, Iron Workers Local 25, BWL Workers - IBEW Local 352, Teamsters Local 580, UFCW Local 951, Carpenters Local 1004, Michigan Corrections Organization - SEIU Local 526M, and Tina Weatherwax Grant, Ingham County Commissioner.


There is also a generation gap at play in the election as well. Benavides is 68, Bernero is 41. 

Sen. Virg Bernero

Mayor Benavides came to Lansing from México in 1952 with his parents, ten brothers and sisters and two adopted siblings. Benavides has been quoted as saying that as migrant farmworkers who did not speak English, he and his family worked where they were not required to speak the language. Benavides worked in the fields of Stockbridge, MI until he was 18, and returned there in subsequent years.


According to his official biography posted on his Web site, Benavides’ parents asked him to seek work to help support his large family. He worked as a bag boy in a supermarket while attending Sexton High School, graduating at the age of 20. Realizing the important of education, Benavides attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in public administration and management. He also attended Lansing Community College and Lansing Business University.


Benavides served for 33 years as Executive Director of Cristo Rey Community Center, one of Lansing’s largest human service agencies serving children, youth, and seniors, currently under the direction of attorney John Roy Castillo. Benavides established health and mental health clinics that serve low income and migrant families and oversaw one of the most successful employment and training programs in Lansing.


He became active in community affairs and served on Lansing’s City Council for more than two decades, including five stints as Council president. While serving in that post, Benavides became mayor in Jan. 2003 when then-mayor David Hollister joined the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm to lead the state’s new Department of Labor, Economic Growth and Urban Development.  Benavides was elected to serve as mayor that November.  


Benavides, along with Mexican Consul Antonio Meza, played host to Mexican president Vicente Fox-Quesada and his wife, Marta Sahagún de Fox, during their visit to Lansing in June 2004.  Fox’s visit was made possible via an organizing committee composed of the Michigan Commission on Spanish Speaking Affairs, the City of Lansing, the Lansing Regional Sister Cities Commission, Michigan State University, Lansing Community College, Cooley Law School, and the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.


Married for more than 40 years to his wife Carmen, he has four adult children and five grandchildren.


Bernero, currently a member of the Michigan State Senate, has held elected office for more than a decade. He served eight years on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners before his election to the Michigan House of Representatives in 2000. He and his wife Teri are the parents of two daughters.


Interestingly, the wives of both candidates are educators who have served as school principals in the Lansing School District.


Carmen Benavides is the former principal of Reo Elementary School. She came to Lansing in 1946 in the back of a pick-up truck at the age of nine. She told an interviewer that she was fortunate that throughout the first years of her education she had bilingual teachers and later had the attention of those who spoke Spanish or specialized in English as a Second Language.


She eventually became principal of Reo School where she established a unique relationship with parents of children who could speak to her because she spoke Spanish.

She is concerned with what happens when parents and teachers or school administrators can’t communicate with each other, and the effect it can have on the opportunities children have in school.


Bernero’s wife, Teri, is the principal of Lansing’s Lewton Elementary School.


NEXT WEEK: The mayoral elections of incumbent Democrat versus challenger Democrat in Toledo, Detroit, and Cleveland.





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