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.

user Tqycolumbia / Wikimedia Commons

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss a long-awaited plan to fix Michigan’s roads, job cuts to one of the state’s largest agencies, and some holiday cheer from Rep. John Dingell.

Roads deal

After weeks of hemming and hawing over how to fix the state’s roads, Michigan lawmakers have OK'd plans for a sales tax hike.

There’s just one catch.

The state Legislature decided to give Michigan voters the final call on the 1% increase in a special election this May.

Lessenberry said he can see why the state’s politicians like the plan, but he’s got one question.

There’s a great deal of celebrating over the fact that the Legislature reached a last-minute deal to fix the roads. Gov. Rick Snyder and the establishment Republicans are happy.

There’s a reason college professors historically were given tenure. It was so they couldn’t be fired for politically unpopular views.

Ron Kagan has been head of the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 tumultuous years. During that time, he fought off an effort by Detroit City Council to close the zoo and helped win its independence years before the city’s bankruptcy gave the art institute its own near-death experience.

He’s also led a transformation of the zoo from a somewhat tired park to a leader in worldwide conservation efforts and a much more exciting place.

The zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life is the nation’s largest polar bear exhibit; next year, a new penguin conservation center and wolf habitat will open. Attendance has swollen so much that Kagan is now facing the unwelcome chore of planning a new parking structure.

user Kcdtsg / wikimedia commons

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss the final days of lame duck, including the hold up on a plan to fix the roads, a pair of Senate-approved abortion coercion bills, and a bill that would impact online purchases made in Michigan.


Four years ago, Michigan voters were asked if they wanted to summon a convention to write a new state constitution.

We said no, by a two-to-one margin. Nobody collected signatures to put that on the ballot, by the way. Under the current constitution, we’re automatically asked every 16 years if we want a convention to write a new one.

We’ll be asked again in 12 years.

But I now think the voters made a mistake in 2010. We may well need a new constitution, because there’s increasing evidence the old one, written in the early 1960s, no longer works.

Nearly a year ago, as car after car was damaged or destroyed by potholes, State Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville went to see his constituents in Monroe, a town between Detroit and Toledo.

Unions don’t represent as many workers as they used to, and we are increasingly ignorant of labor history, though it includes some of the most fascinating episodes in Michigan’s glorious past.

Detroiters woke up this morning in a city run by an exuberant, can-do mayor, in a city finally out of bankruptcy and with a spirit of optimism that hasn’t been seen for at least half a century.

It should already be perfectly clear why they call what the Legislature is doing now the “lame-duck session.” Much of what they are doing has been pretty lame.

Courtesy photo / Holland BPW

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss Detroit’s pending bankruptcy exit, confusion over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and a Senate bill that would count the burning of tires, used oil and other waste products as renewable energy.


Last night I talked to a woman in her 40s who grew up in a rural town in the northern Lower Peninsula and then lived for a couple decades in Boston and New York, before coming to Detroit for a job.

I had lunch the other day with Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, who in a few weeks will be out of office for the first time in fourteen years. The last four years have had to be frustrating for her.

user futureatlas.com / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss a bill aimed at protecting religious freedom, another that would cut off welfare payments to recipients who fail drug tests, and whether Michigan’s low gas prices will stick around.


Last night I spoke to about a hundred thoughtful citizens, mostly of retirement age, at a forum sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women. They were mostly great fans of Michigan Radio.

Several asked why I hadn’t said anything about the deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, or Eric Garner,

There’s a time-honored political technique you might call the “big lie” theory. Basically, it works this way: If you tell the same outrageous lie over and over, no matter how big it is, eventually people will believe that at least some part of it is true.

More than 30 years ago, I had just become national politics writer for a Midwestern newspaper, and was sent off to cover a national Roman Catholic Bishops’ conference in Chicago.

I was somewhat indignant about that.

Pothole in a road.
Wikimedia Commons

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss a plan to help Michigan roads by cutting truck weight limits, whether any road fix plans will survive the lame duck session, and a possible end to federal oversight of the state’s foster care system.


For years now, we’ve heard it said that Rick Snyder isn’t really a politician. Well, that’s nonsense. He’s been a supremely skilled one, especially in selling the people on voting for him. Four years ago, he came out of nowhere to easily win the Republican nomination for governor, then won election in a landslide. This year, despite some very unpopular decisions, he won again.

He’s never lost an election. But the jury is still out on whether he’s an effective leader when it comes to governing.

Well, we are about to find out. The key issue is, as it has been, the roads. We spend less per capita on roads than any state in the union, and as a result, we have almost the worst roads in the nation. Given that we are the automobile state, and that we depend on transportation for our jobs and future, this is nuts.

My parents have been dead for a long time, but I feel I owe them a long-overdue thank you for saying no half a century ago, when I wanted an air rifle, otherwise known as a BB gun.

I had read about them in Boys’ Life, and believe I had ambitions of shooting birds in the backyard.

Today, I would be horrified at that, but young people can be insensitive. My mother’s refusal to let me have a gun probably had, however, little to do with birds, and more to do with Larry, an older kid in the neighborhood. Larry once had a friend with a BB gun, and as a result, Larry had a glass eye.

Well, our representatives in the Legislature, or at least those who give them campaign money, apparently would have thought my momma a spineless wimp. They are seriously considering an eight-bill package that would dramatically loosen restrictions on pellet guns, or other weapons that power a bullet by gas, spring or air.

Currently, it is illegal for anyone under eighteen to have a BB gun unless they’re with an adult. That’s something that seems common sense. But that’s not how the National Rifle Association sees it. They want that law repealed – and the Michigan House has already done so. Now, it’s up to the Senate.

What I can’t understand is why anyone thinks this is a good idea. I know all the arguments for rifles and handguns. Those who support what they call gun rights say we may need them to defend ourselves, against criminals or an evil government.

There are those with some understandable skepticism about political junkets to other countries in search of jobs. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm was forever jetting off on trade missions to Sweden or Germany, say, and then announcing with great fanfare that some company had agreed to create maybe a dozen new jobs in Michigan.

This raised a number of questions, such as, would those jobs have come here anyway? Incidentally, I’m not sure anyone ever followed up to see if the promised jobs actually happened.

On top of that, you had to wonder if the governor’s time and energy might better have been spent elsewhere.

Especially when you saw stories about a handful of new junket-generated jobs next to other stories about hundreds of domestic jobs being eliminated through plant closings or downsizings.

Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss what to expect from the Legislature’s lame duck session, repercussions from Ferguson, and a fund to help Detroit pensioners.


Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Members of the LBGT community – lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered – have wanted the Legislature to take up expanding the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

They persuaded themselves that the Republicans who have majorities in the state Legislature would, in the lame-duck session next month, expand its protections to include them. Some took this as a given, although they were worried that the bill might include sexual orientation and not gender identity.

Yesterday, one Michelle Fox-Phillips wrote and asked me to tell people that excluding transsexuals from any expansion of the civil rights act would be wrong.

Well, it became clear yesterday that she has been living in a dream world. Most Republicans have absolutely no interest in expanding civil rights protections to the non-heterosexual. They are either part of the religious right, or depend on it for money and votes.

Thanksgiving always has reminded me of the famous Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Some of this goes back to my childhood, when President Kennedy was assassinated just days before Thanksgiving, and a gloom hung over the nation in a way now hard to imagine.

Add to that the fact that I seem to be deeply un-American in that I would rather do almost anything other than spend hours trapped in front of a TV watching football.

Unless, that is, it involves that form of mass hysteria known as holiday shopping. Last week I overheard two excited women sharing the news that they weren’t going to have to wait till Black Friday. This year, the shopping malls will open on Turkey Day itself.

Vacant lot in Detroit.
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss Gov. Rick Snyder’s Asia trip, the financial status of Michigan’s schools, and a new plan to sell Detroit land.


There’s a century-old red brick building that used to be a convent in Detroit, in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge.

It’s next to the city’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s. Inside that church is a rough-hewn box holding the bones of an immigrant who arrived without papers, a priest by the name of Gabriel Richard, one of the founders of the University of Michigan.

Inside the old convent are 40 living undocumented immigrants from 18 different countries, people who fled torture and murder, fled for their lives, and are here seeking asylum.

They are in less fear of deportation than most of our nation’s eleven million “illegal” immigrants. This is a place called Freedom House Detroit, and for more than 30 years, it has helped such folks win asylum in the United States and Canada.

That has become harder in recent years, and the refugees, who are usually destitute, are not allowed to work while they await a decision on their fate. But the ones in Freedom House nearly always win asylum in the end.

Our Constitution firmly establishes the right of victims of persecution to asylum.

I saw a poster the other day on the Internet that I really wish I could have framed and put on the wall. It said something like “Illegal immigrants refuse to learn our language, yet still get food assistance.”

What it showed was the first Thanksgiving.

What it could have added was that those same undocumented aliens were often guilty of tremendous violence against the native population.

Today, the descendants of those illegal immigrants have been wrestling with what do to about those who followed in their footsteps, centuries later.

The fact is that there are millions of so-called undocumented aliens in this country, maybe 100,000 in Michigan, and that our economy depends on them.

These immigrants, by and large, do the jobs nobody else wants, working hard for little money. When they do become legal, they tend to be tremendous job creators. Gov. Rick Snyder knows this; that’s why he has asked Washington to make more visas available for immigrants with special skills to come to Detroit.

There are legal immigration routes, complex and bureaucratic. But there are also millions who came without papers, or were brought here as children.

When it comes to maintaining trust in government, possibly the most important thing is the integrity of the courts. As a journalist, I spend a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with government, but today I want to talk about something that seems to work pretty well, which is the relationship between the press and the people in charge of our justice system.

Surveys show that people don’t hold journalists or lawyers in very high esteem, to put it mildly. Judges do better, but in recent years the bench has also been touched by controversy and scandal, from the Michigan Supreme Court justice who went to federal prison to the Wayne County judge who had sex in his chambers.

Recently I presided over two panels, completely open to the public, that were designed to explore how the press covers the courts. The sessions were mostly on the record, no holds barred, and were jointly sponsored by the State Bar of Michigan and the Society or Professional Journalists.

Last week’s panel featured two of Michigan’s top prosecutors, Barbara McQuade, the federal attorney for the eastern half of Michigan, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

Last night, it was U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, who presided over the long and media-intense Kwame Kilpatrick trial. Topic A was what they thought of the press and how they felt the press covered the legal process and the courts.

US Supreme Court

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss a Michigan couple whose case could determine constitutional same-sex marriage rights, a challenge to Michigan’s right-to-work law, and a Republican-proposed plan for changes to the Electoral College.

The elections were two weeks ago today, although it somehow seems longer. Yesterday, I spent a little time with Lon Johnson, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. He’s been getting a lot of criticism about what happened.

Johnson is a statistics-crunching data freak, a man who plays politics largely by the numbers. He pinned the party’s hopes this year on turnout, on getting Democrats to the polls.

His operation identified nearly a million Democratic-leaning voters who sat out the election four years ago. They were targeted by his team, urged to vote, and sent absentee ballot applications.

The weekend before the vote, he was convinced that Mark Schauer was going to win the governor’s race. But in the end, his candidate fell short by a little more than four points. Democrats lost ground in the Legislature, which few thought they would do.

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