Berman: Genial Bernstein — justice delivered with hugs
Richard Bernstein will likely earn attention as the nation's first blind state Supreme Court justice. But in the raw, gray drizzle of his Election Day campaign, the 40-year-old Bernstein easily distinguished himself as the most huggable.
"You've already got my vote," said Brenda Mitchell, a Southfield voter and retired AT&T employee, flinging her arms around Bernstein and posing for a keepsake photo. It was a scene repeated again and again during his final day tour of polling places.
As dusk fell, and voters gradually recognized the candidate standing in the rain and his white cane, the exchange of warm greetings would become predictable.
"Give me a hug," he would eventually say, with a zest and warmth nobody seemed able to refuse. "You just made my day."
By virtue of his ebullient personality and television commercial-induced familiarity, the disability rights lawyer projects something quite different from the austere, black-robed image that justices — the campaigning or already elected — typically adopt. For Bernstein, the matter of human connection isn't just an idea: It's the essence of a life that might otherwise be led alone and in the dark.
In his campaign commercials, he allied himself with "the people," rather than with corporations, to the ire of political conservatives and legal traditionalists. Yet his message resonated. When voters describe his appeal, they tend to say things like, "He's for the middle-class person." Or, "He's done so much for people," or even, "his whole family cares about people."
Campaigning for a job whose requirements are intellectual and academic, he didn't hesitate to lead by force of personality — and more than $2 million in campaign funds to reinforce himself as a symbol of "blind justice," one of his campaign slogans.
Who dreamed up that bold catch-phrase? "That's all mine," says Bernstein. "Because you have to deal with it and it really expresses what justice is. I am blind, and justice — real justice — is blind. Programs and services are great, but people also have to understand on a personal level ... a blind person can't prejudge others. I want to confront who I am directly, because people want to understand how I do what I do. It's a way to have a discussion."
The slogan, he says, is a pun, meant to be "funny and serious."
He is blind, he is different, and he is irrepressible: A failed bid for a Democratic Party nomination for attorney general didn't slow him down ("That's politics," he shrugs). A shattering accident in New York's Central Park two years ago — he was mowed down by a bicyclist — crushed his hip and pelvis and left him with chronic pain and new physical challenges. But he has always known how to convert pain and hurt into other modes, from lawsuits on behalf of the disabled to marathon-running to inspirational speaking.
Overcoming hardship is a necessity for Bernstein, but it is also his thing, it's what he does. And he has no plans to check his life experience in the Supreme Court lobby once he dons official robes.
The state's highest court isn't typically thought of as a populist platform: High courts cultivate an aura of intellect and impartiality, not impassioned advocacy. But the Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan and Northwestern University Law School has multiple gifts: Most lawyers use written notes. Bernstein memorizes.
Whether or not you buy the argument that a lawyer with no judicial experience should be elevated to the state's highest court (plenty of non-judges have served on the U.S. Supreme Court), Bernstein is insistent that lacking a few resume lines has little bearing on his fitness for the job — an opinion shared by the 1.3 million people who voted for him.
"You can't have all of the same people doing the same thing. You don't need seven people on the court, each amplifying the same message," he insists. "I really, truly believe I can make life better for people."
Late Tuesday night, he stayed calm as the results trickled in. All day, he seemed resigned to potentially fatal "ballot drop-off," as straight party ticket voters failed to darken the ovals for non-partisan races: He'd been warned he could lose 30 percent of his constituency that way.
He hadn't won yet, and as friends and family gathered in a 12th floor suite at the MGM Grand Hotel Tuesday night, he never assumed victory. Anything could happen, he knew. In the corner, Sam Bernstein, patriarch and 1-800-Call SAM founder, awaited results. His mother, Susan Bernstein, said she wouldn't presume victory until every vote was counted.
"It's remarkable," she said, as early results flashed on a TV screen, showing Bernstein among the top two finishers. "When Richard was born, I didn't know if he would ever write his own name. Everything he does is 10 times harder for him than it is for us."
He will tell you that standing in the rain isn't so bad and even helpful because he can hear voters approaching when their feet are wet. He will tell you that being Richard Bernstein — fighting for a place without being able to visually see it, pushing through every day — is quite difficult but absolutely worth the effort.
As he explained outside a Southfield recreation center in the last moments of his last 12-hour day at polling places, shaking hands, "I will stay out here until 8 o'clock, until the polls close. That's what I do. I keep going to the very end."
Michigan Supreme Court results
4,877 of 4,877 precincts reporting - 100%
Zahra, Brian (i) 1,440,407 32%
Bernstein, Richard 1,293,098 29%
Redford, James 927,424 21%
Murphy, Bill 633,702 14%
Dern, Doug 181,872 4%
Partial term (2017)
4870 of 4877 precincts reporting - 99%
Viviano, David (i) 1,509,875 62%
Thomas, Deborah 701,698 29%
Morgan, Kerry 18,433 9%
Source: Associated Press