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Banking for the People: An Angry Democrat's Challenge to Wall Street | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Banking for the People: An Angry Democrat's Challenge to Wall Street

Michigan Democrat Virg Bernero is a progressive populist who earned national attention when he blew the minds of Fox News hosts with an unapologetic defense of American auto workers and their unions.

"Wouldn't you agree that UAW workers need to swallow some pay cuts, substantial ones?" the "fair and balanced" Fox talking head during a 2009 interview that was supposed to deal with the auto-industry bailout but turned into one of the rare televised debates between advocates for workers and advocates for Wall Street..

"Give me a break!" Bernero responded. "Wall Street got billions of dollars, no strings attached. They haven't suffered one iota. And all we can talk about is how much more blood can we squeeze out of the turnip? How much more we can get out of the working person? I'm telling you, Americans are sick and tired of it across this country— the double standard..."

Bernero, the mayor of the economically hard pressed auto town of Lansing, shifted the discussion to trade policy and suggested that Fox's cheerleaders for free trade had done far more damage to the economy than hard-working union members.

"What you're setting up and what you're contributing to is a race to the bottom," declared Bernero, the son of a UAW member, who was not invited to join the  Fox's stable of Wall Street apologists, er, guests.

But Bernero was invited by enthusiastic auto workers, and members of other unions, to seek the Democratic nomination for governor of Michigan. And he has mounted a determined progressive populist campaign going into Tuesday's primary contest with a Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillion, a more cautious and centrist Democrat.

Needless to say, the money interests are with Dillon, who started the race with a significant lead. But Bernero's come on strong, gathering endorsements from the UAW, the AFL-CIO, the Michigan chapter of the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club and LGBT groups.

UAW President Bob King predicts a Bernero win, arguing that the mayor is speaking for Michiganders who are "angry" about the loss of basic industries, jobs and the state's economic stability. "People want somebody who’s going to fight for the middle class, somebody’s who’s going to fight to keep jobs in America," says King. “I think sometimes people misunderstand what frustration and anger is out there. It’s about jobs, it’s about manufacturing, it’s about a decent standard of living. And he’s somebody who will make jobs and manufacturing a huge priority. And the way to do that, I think is, to bring more manufacturing back in this country.”

Bernero isn't denying that he is touch with Michigan's anger.

"People are hurting and it's been business as usual, politics as usual and that's unacceptable," the candidate says. "Am I mad? Yes. But I'm going to do more than just beat my chest."

For instance, Bernero argues that Michigan can create real alternatives to Wall Street and the big banks.

To do that, Bernero's proposing to establish an independent, socially-conscious state-operated bank that would operate along the lines of the highly-successful State Bank of North Dakota.

"As Governor," the mayor's campaign says, "Bernero will lay out the red carpet for business, not the red tape. That means facilitating the start-up of new businesses, making credit available, and easing the burden on startups. Bernero’s proposal to establish a state-operated bank that can make direct loans to businesses in emerging, job-creating industries will do just that. It has worked in North Dakota, and we can make it work here."

Criticizing Wall Street and the big banks is the right thing to do.

But coming up with alternatives to Wall Street and the big banks is the smart thing to do—for Michigan, and as a model for progressives nationwide.

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