Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan. (He had previously set out to be a historian.) Now, he boasts thirty years of eclectic journalism experience. Jack has worked as a foreign correspondent and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and he has written for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Oakland Press.

Currently, he is a professor of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade...in addition to his work at Michigan Radio.

Throughout his years of journalism experience, his favorite memories are of interviewing Gerald Ford about Watergate in 1995 and winning a national Emmy for a documentary about Jack Kevorkian in 1994.

On a personal note, Jack stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled.

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Opinion
11:05 am
Thu July 24, 2014

These three female candidates could be some of the most interesting leaders in Michigan

Unless you’ve been trapped in a coal mine, you may have noticed that this is an election year.

We’re less than two weeks from Michigan’s statewide primary. Once we get through that, we may have a few weeks before the airwaves are again dominated by commercials for various candidates for various offices.

I’ve been telling you about some of these, and I expect to be talking more about them before November. But I was thinking that three of the most potentially interesting leaders in the state are not on the ballot this year.

They are all women, all young, charismatic, intelligent, competent and highly educated. They also all happen to be Democrats, but that is almost a coincidence. 

Republicans have some rising women leaders as well, two of whom, Lisa Posthumus Lyons and Tonya Schuitmaker, are running for reelection to the Legislature.

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Politics & Government
11:06 am
Wed July 23, 2014

This U.S. District Judge turns 90 today, and he has no plans to stop hearing cases

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35 years ago this spring, President Jimmy Carter nominated Detroit attorney Avern Cohn to be a federal judge.

High-tech meant IBM selectric typewriters back then.

Detroit had nearly twice its current population. The World Wide Web wouldn’t exist for more than a decade, and President Obama was a teenager still in high school.

Today, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn turns 90. And he’ll spend the day, as usual, in federal court, where he still hears cases, full time.

“I get great satisfaction out of this,” he told me when I talked to him last week. “I’m happy. Every day is different. You are always learning something new. It is a job that keeps you young.”

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Opinion
12:29 pm
Tue July 22, 2014

Our future is tied to our kids' future, and a new report shows that doesn't look good

 

You have to give Detroiters a lot of credit.

They voted, by overwhelming margins, to accept major cuts to their pensions. In what was most surprising, nearly 90% of city retirees also voted to give up 90% of their health care benefits. They voted to make sacrifices in their old age to give their city a chance at a future, something that we should find pretty admirable.

Now, granted, they had a gun to their heads. They were told to take this deal, or something worse would be imposed on them, but they could have raged against the machine, and didn’t.

In fact, they weren’t even obligated to approve the health care cuts, though they probably couldn’t have stopped them.

People love to bash Detroiters, but throughout the years, they have stepped up time and again, voting to tax themselves when told they had to do so to save the city; voting now to accept new painful sacrifices.

Meanwhile, four classes of the city’s hugest creditors voted no on settlement offers made to them, and so further court battles lie ahead.

All of this is bound to overshadow another story today that in the long run may be as meaningful for our future.

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Politics & Government
12:15 pm
Mon July 21, 2014

Forget left and right on water shut-offs. Let's figure out how to fix the non-payment problem

Update: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has announced a 15-day suspension of its controversial shutoff campaign.  

​Unless you’ve been completely out of touch, you know that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been shutting off service to thousands of customers who haven’t paid their bills.

This has sparked huge controversy, protests and even condemnation from the United Nations. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes even got involved.

Last week, he told the deputy director of Detroit’s water department that shutting off water to city residents has, quote "caused not only a lot of anger in the city (but) also a lot of hardship."

And the judge added, "it’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now." That much is not in dispute. But not everyone is in agreement that this is an atrocity.

Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, supports the shutoffs, saying that the rule everywhere is that “if you use water, you have to pay for it.” He notes that there’s an assistance program, and says that if people are in trouble, “all they need to do is call.”

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Opinion
3:50 pm
Fri July 18, 2014

The pros and cons of Bill Wild, one of the candidates for Wayne Co. executive

Westland sometimes is in national trivia contests because it was the first city ever named after a shopping mall.

Bill Wild, Westland’s mayor for the last seven years, has been much less well-known. Perhaps until recently, that is; he is now waging a serious campaign to be elected Wayne County executive. That is, to win the Democratic primary August 5, which essentially guarantees victory in the November election.

Wild may still have more money and less name recognition than his four major rivals. But he is running second in some polls, and has one powerful argument.

“I’m the only candidate who actually has executive experience, who has run both a business and a government,” he told me a couple days ago, when I went to see him at his campaign headquarters on the east side of Detroit. 

That is somewhat true.

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Opinion
11:01 am
Thu July 17, 2014

Michigan Republican Party's tactics remind me of Watergate, because both were unnecessary

Back in the 1960s, there was a hilarious TV sitcom called Get Smart, which portrayed the adventures of the world’s most inept spy.

Maxwell Smart was a bumbler who talked into his not-so-secret shoe telephone, carried around a device called the cone of silence, and never really had a clue as to what was going on.

Well, the Cold War is long over, but if he were around today, Smart would clearly have a future in politics.

This week, we learned that the Snyder re-election campaign has evidently revived some version of the classic department of dirty tricks, tactics made most famous by another Richard, the late President Nixon.

The Michigan Republican Party now admits it sent two staffers into a Mark Schauer fundraising event wearing high-tech hidden camera glasses.

Democrats later got possession of the disc, apparently because the Republicans clumsily lost it. My understanding is that it shows the two paid staffers chowing down on appetizers and worrying that the people at the event were on to them. They apparently made small talk with Lisa Brown, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, but not Schauer.

You might think Republicans would now be embarrassed.

But you’d be wrong.

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Opinion
10:51 am
Wed July 16, 2014

Some think their immigrant ancestors were the last that should be allowed in the U.S.

I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for the sugar beet country of Michigan’s Thumb.

Years ago, I used to take graduate journalism students to Caro for a day where they would put out a special edition of the Tuscola County Advertiser.

The folks there were open, friendly, warm-hearted, and hard-working, but I have to say I’m ashamed of some of them today.

They are disgracing our state and reminding us of some of the ugliest chapters in American history.

Here’s why: Thousands of children and teenagers have been turning up at the United States’ southern border over the last few months. We are, if you’ve forgotten, a nation founded by refugees and which, to this very day, has remained open to those seeking political asylum.

That’s the beautiful part of our legacy.

The ugly part is that far too many of us think our ancestors were the last immigrants who should have been allowed in. That’s been reflected throughout our history in signs that said “No Irish need apply,” communities that refused to allow Jews, and the entire history of black America.

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Opinion
10:10 am
Tue July 15, 2014

This ballot proposal is critical to Michigan's economy, but most people won't bother to vote on it

Michigan’s statewide primary is three weeks from today, and the one thing certain is that most people, even most registered voters, won’t even bother to vote.

They never do in primary elections.

Turnout seems likely to be especially dismal this year. While there are a few hot congressional and legislative races, there are no primary contests for governor or U.S. senator in either party.

That means, based on past practice, that at least 3/4 of the voters won’t show up. That’s not only disgraceful -- it also could be dangerous to our state’s economy.

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Politics & Government
10:52 am
Mon July 14, 2014

You get what you pay when hiring private company for Michigan prisons: embarrassing failures

I’d like to start the week with a thought that some will consider heresy: sometimes, privatization just doesn’t work.

There are some functions and responsibilities that government handles better.

American is gung-ho for privatization these days, both to save money, and because government at all levels has become something we love to hate. Thanks to years of being told that government is bad, corrupt, expensive and inefficient, we are happy to reduce its size.

Well, we may not be quite ready to hand the nuclear arsenal over to an assets management firm, but apart from that, anything goes. And frankly, there are some things that probably should be privatized.

Garbage collection, for example.

But Michigan decided last year to privatize food service in our prisons, and so far, it has been a highly embarrassing failure.

The Detroit Free Press used the state Freedom of Information Act to find out what’s happened since the state contracted with a private food services company, Aramark Correctional Services of Pennsylvania.

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Politics & Government
10:06 am
Sat July 12, 2014

The week in review: Art, oil, schools and money

Credit Julie Falk / Flickr

Week in Review interview for 7/12/14

This Week in Review, while Emily Fox sits in for Rina Miller, she and Jack Lessenberry discuss how selling works from the Detroit Institute of Arts wouldn't make financial sense in helping with the city's bankruptcy, the threat of an oil spill under the Straits of Mackinac, and money problems with Flint Community Schools.

Opinion
10:14 am
Fri July 11, 2014

Randy Richardville will be forced to leave right when he's hitting his stride as a leader

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville will be out of a job in less than six months, thanks to term limits.

This means his career in elected politics may be over.

And I am beginning to be sorry about that. In the last few months, Richardville, a former Monroe businessman, has evolved into a leader capable of looking beyond a narrow partisan agenda.

The roads are one example.

In past years, he virtually sneered at Governor Snyder’s call for the Legislature to appropriate billions to fix our crumbling roads. This spring, Richardville switched, came up with a creative plan to finance long-term road repair, and made a valiant, if failed effort, to get it through the Legislature.

He said this was because all he heard from his constituents was “just fix the damn roads.” That may be true, but he did see the light when other members of his caucus were bizarrely talking about trying to push through another tax cut instead.

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Opinion
12:05 pm
Thu July 10, 2014

Michigan's gerrymandered 11th District is about to have an interesting election

There’s been a lot of attention paid to Michigan’s bizarrely gerrymandered 14th Congressional District, drawn to pack as many Democrats as possible together.

But there has been even more strangeness in its mirror image to the left, the 11th District, similarly designed for Republicans. Shaped something like an irregular claw, the 11th begins with Birmingham and Troy in the east and arcs over to take in Milford and Novi in the west and Livonia and Canton in the South.

This was meant to be GOP territory. But it is not nearly as Republican as the 14th is Democratic. President Obama carried it once, and some think it could send a Democrat to Congress. And it hasn’t been short of controversy.

Two years ago, longtime Congressman Thaddeus McCotter’s career ended after his staff filed fraudulent ballot petition signatures.

That left Republicans with Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Party supporting reindeer farmer. He won and is trying for a second term.

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Politics & Government
12:06 pm
Wed July 9, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

Credit Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 7/9/14

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss Michigan's ruling on how juvenile lifers will not get a chance at parole, pay raises for city leaders in bankrupt Detroit, and what role Michigan could play in housing undocumented minors crossing the Mexico border.

Opinion
10:32 am
Wed July 9, 2014

MI Supreme Court's ruling on juvenile lifers is stupid, expensive and will be overturned

There is a long-established principle that whenever state law conflicts with a federal law, the federal law prevails. That’s been established by a long string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, plus a little event called the Civil War.  

This is why, for example, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes could rule that the pensions of Detroit city workers and retirees could be cut, even though Michigan’s state constitution says they can’t be. Federal bankruptcy law prevails.

If this weren’t the case, it would mean that anything Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court did could be overruled by any state legislature, and our nation would become no more than a collection of 50 countries united in name only.

That’s something we all learned in civics class -- which makes the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision yesterday on life sentences for minors completely baffling.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. However, some politicians who want to be seen as tough on crime, claimed this decision was not retroactive.

And yesterday, in a four to three vote, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with them. The justices ruled that minors who were sentenced in Michigan to life without the possibility of parole still have no chance of a hearing – if they were sentenced before the nation’s highest court’s ruling.

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Opinion
10:54 am
Tue July 8, 2014

Her feisty character and other reasons to remember Michigan's only First Lady

Patricia Hill Burnett, who was famous back in the 1970s as sort of the quintessential Republican feminist, will be 94 in a few months.

She is still defiantly pro-Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice, and on economic issues, Republican to the core.

She was runner-up to Miss America 72 years ago, and went on to become both Michigan’s unofficial state portrait painter and the woman who started the state chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Comfortably wealthy, she always dresses and talks, as Detroit News columnist Laura Berman says today, “like a local, more highly educated version of Zsa Zsa Gabor.”

I went to see her earlier this year when she was recovering from a brief illness, and she told me that she felt sad that many young women did not want to be called feminists any more.

She was also sad that younger women didn’t know anything about Betty Ford.

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Opinion
10:43 am
Mon July 7, 2014

Charter school supporters’ response to investigations is "Soviet" in style

Late last month, the Detroit Free Press published a stunningly comprehensive look at Michigan’s charter schools.

A team of journalists spent more than a year looking at every charter school in the state. They interviewed hundreds of people, examined thousands of documents, and used sophisticated computer techniques to analyze data.

What they discovered was stunning and shocking. While some charters do an excellent job, many don’t. There is essentially no effective oversight, and bad schools stay open year after year.

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Opinion
10:57 am
Wed July 2, 2014

Terri Lynn Land was a good secretary of state, but she isn't up to date on issues

Okay, here’s today’s political trivia test: What do the following people have in common? 

Bob Griffin, Marvin Esch, Jack Lousma, Jim Dunn, Phil Ruppe, Ronna Romney, Bill Schuette, Rocky Raczkowski, Jack Hoogendyk, Spencer Abraham, Mike Bouchard, and Pete Hoekstra. That’s the complete list of Michigan Republicans nominated to run statewide for the U.S. Senate in the last 40 years. 
They have something else in common, too: Every one lost. How many Republicans won election to the Senate over the same period? Only one: Spencer Abraham, who won in 1994. Six years later, he was a loser, too.
That’s an incredible record of frustration. Twelve out of 13 losses. That’s especially strange, given that the GOP has held the governorship for most of that time, and the Legislature.
If you are 31 or younger, you weren’t even born the last time Democrats controlled the state Senate.

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Politics & Government
10:25 am
Wed July 2, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

Credit user aunt owwee / Flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss how Michigan businesses will be affected by the US Supreme Court ruling that corporations don't have to include contraceptive coverage for employees for religious reasons, what the state is doing to prevent more felons from being home health care workers for Medicaid patients, and the new budget bill for the state.

The week in Michigan politics interview for 7/2/14

Opinion
11:56 am
Tue July 1, 2014

The polarizing reactions to the 'Hobby Lobby' case are more frightening than the Cold War

I woke up this morning thinking about the election 38 years ago, when Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Michigan’s only president, Gerald Ford. That may sound a little bizarre, but before you call my psychiatrist, I was at the Ford Library just a few days ago.

And something that happened yesterday made me nostalgic for that long-ago time, for a very modern reason. I have intensely followed politics all my life, and remember that election as though it were yesterday.

The result was very close – the winner wasn’t known 'till almost four the next morning. There was sadness and some bitterness on the part of the losers the next day.

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Opinion
11:07 am
Mon June 30, 2014

Stay safe around fireworks this Independence Day, since the Legislature isn't helping

As I am sure you’ve noticed, Friday is the Fourth of July, which means that for several nights before and afterwards, many of our neighborhoods will sound after dark like a free-fire zone.

In other words, kids, some of them long past voting age, will be setting off fireworks. A few will hurt themselves, mainly burning their hands or losing a finger. Some may lose an eye.

If the grass is dry enough or a bottle rocket goes out of control, we may have some serious fires. Six years ago, a bottle rocket landed on the roof of a rather nice apartment complex in Toledo, starting a blaze that completely destroyed the buildings.

Nobody died, but a hundred people were left homeless. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the staunchest advocates for gun control haven’t been so-called Ann Arbor liberals, but the police.

Cops are not always known to be liberal on social issues, but they see on a firsthand basis what guns in the wrong hands can do. By the same token, firefighters tend to be the most anti-firecracker.

Firemen, and city officials. When I was young, Ohio had far more liberal fireworks policies than Michigan. But that has changed. Ohio has outlawed almost all consumer fireworks.

But three years ago, our Legislature made them far easier to get and blow up for three days around any national holiday. 

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