Liz Hart studied town planning with the aim of helping her hometown and worked for the former mayor of Lansing, Virg Bernero. But her persistent sexual harassment caused her to give up on this dream.
Virg Bernero is a charismatic leader who built a national brand as “America’s most angry mayor” by fighting for the city of Lansing. He has connections throughout the city, and also throughout the state; he was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010.
He had organized another mayoral race, which he abruptly cut short on Sunday after women, including Hart, told MLive he sexually harassed them.
Hart started working for Bernero as an intern in his mayor’s office in 2013. She agreed to join his campaign leading the fundraising efforts later that year, and it was then – mainly during conversations at the campaign office – that she started to feel uncomfortable with him.
“When you work with people, you get to know them. And that’s kind of what it was at the beginning. And then he slipped like sex comments, like things he liked. Or he would ask me about things I would like. I would never answer, I never felt comfortable with it. But that’s how it started, ”Hart said.
But that’s not how it ended. His conversations with her became more explicit. She began to ignore phone calls from him late at night and to push back on conversations, advances and sexual requests.
One day while having lunch with other campaign agents and the mayor’s staff, Hart was wearing sandals and had a foot crossed on her leg when Bernero chose the spot next to her.
“He sat down, put his things down and somehow decided to just grab his finger and run it down my foot. I just… I moved my legs, I changed them and I didn’t say anything, ”she said.
Later, she said, he told her he had a foot fetish.
Emily Heverly, a friend of Hart, volunteered for the Bernero campaign. She remembers Hart describing uncomfortable incidents with Bernero, including touching his foot and an uncomfortable situation in his mayor’s office.
Hart said that at one point Bernero called her into his mayor’s office but hid her from other staff. He asked her to drink some vodka which he kept in his office.
“He was really, really persistent about it, and finally I just said ‘sure’, so I took a sip and that was it,” Hart said.
He was fuming at the city council and getting physically closer to her, she said. Then, “he asked me to show him one of my boobs and I was just like” absolutely not. “” She texted Heverly to call her and used the call as an excuse to leave.
Hearing about the sexual harassment Hart was going through at the time, “I remember feeling so helpless that I couldn’t help him. Because I can’t tell my friend to love quitting her job. She’s a few months away from undergraduate, ”Heverly said.
And Bernero’s sexual harassment ended up impacting Heverly, too.
Hart and Heverly both remember an incident where, while working at the campaign office and he passed by, he offered them a threesome.
He steered the conversation towards threesomes, and “then he made a roundabout suggestion that Liz and I should have sex in front of him and that he should participate.” It was very weird. It was very uncomfortable, ”Heverly said.
She thinks one of them said no, and Bernero moved on.
But Heverly saw it as a numbers game – Bernero was just constantly throwing innuendos and sexual propositions, to see if anything would stick. And a lot of it was aimed at Hart.
“She was sexually harassed every day, and I was there for that one,” Heverly said.
In an April 16 opening statement to MLive, when asked about the incidents, Bernero said that after leaving the mayor’s office, he worked on himself and his marriage.
“But I realize that my past actions and words have had an impact on people outside my family, and I sincerely apologize to all those I have caused pain to, especially the women who manifested themselves. I never intended to hurt anyone and I apologize to each of them, ”he said.
He was running, he said, not as a perfect man but as a better man.
In a Sunday update, he withdrew from the race, saying in a Facebook post: “My wife and family have forgiven me for the mistakes of the past, but the politics are less lenient.”
Hart and Heverly’s accounts add to allegations of other cases of sexual harassment by Bernero, published in a weekly Lansing newspaper, The City Pulse. Two women spoke to the newspaper anonymously.
One, a former House staff member who confirmed details of the meeting to MLive, described a 2010 incident where Bernero met her on the street and touched her, running his hand along his thigh on his clothes and resting his entire hand flat on her thigh as he moved to grab and examine his housekeeper badge hanging from his belt buckle.
“I just froze. I did not know what to do. What are you doing in this situation? Said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
She was shaken by the incident, and when she returned to the office there was an email from her waiting for her with her phone number. She deleted it.
Her account was corroborated in the City Pulse account by an intern who was with her at the time and witnessed the incident.
Bernero initially issued a generic apology to City Pulse, but then denied that the incident had happened and called it a “character assassination,” he implied he was linked to the campaign. an opponent. In a statement to MLive, he said the incident “did not happen, period, not on a public street or elsewhere.”
The woman found her response insulting and said she had not participated in any mayoral campaign.
“The fact that he killed himself made me sick. He is not the victim. And no, it’s not like a political smear campaign, ”she said, adding“… if he hasn’t apologized, he’s clearly not a changed man.
Another woman, who worked on television, told City Pulse that when Bernero was a lawmaker, he called her from the ground to tell her how beautiful her legs looked in a recent report. She recalled at least three calls from him, all of a sexual nature.
Bernero said he did not recall the reported phone calls, “but I apologize if I offended someone with bad or inappropriate language. It was not a regular practice at the time and it did. is not happening now. ”
Lansing-based political consultant Emily Dievendorf also suffered rude comments from Bernero. When she ran for political office in 2015, he gave her unsolicited advice about her appearance and said that if she wore her hair a certain way, he couldn’t control himself around her. .
She knows she’s not the only woman he made inappropriate comments to and said some couldn’t speak out due to the influence he still had in the city.
“I think especially with Virg, there is a charisma that people will cling to. And they will excuse other behavior, ”said Dievendorf.
Hart said during the time she was working on the Bernero campaign that she was learning, in between all the sexual harassment. Bernero participated in engaged and enthusiastic meetings. He was selling the city to people, which interested him from an economic development and planning standpoint.
“I mean, he was a total pervert, but he was really good at a politician,” Hart said.
After working on the mayor’s campaign, Hart went to work for a political consultancy, then with the Board of Water and Light, Lansing’s municipal utility.
But she still saw Bernero regularly through work and her influence in the city was great. People thought Hart was Bernero’s mistress. A professional contact questioned her directly about this. Bernero’s wife was mean to her, she said. And she felt like he was encouraging these false rumors.
“I know he liked it. And then, you know, for some reason that backfired on me, ”Hart said.
The experience led her to leave the state. Since then, she has found success and used her urban planning expertise to help develop other communities. And she will never come back to Lansing.
For Hart, who started out wanting to help his hometown, having to leave was a big blow.
“It started out as sexual harassment, and it really ruined my life and my hometown for me. And he got away with it, ”Hart said.
Years later, she’s done with Lansing and finished keeping quiet.
“I know women don’t speak out because they think it could ruin their careers. And I didn’t speak and it still ruined mine.