Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack originally intended to become a historian, but recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.  Since then, he has accumulated nearly forty years of journalism experience in every medium from newspapers to the internet. 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 and The Boston Globe.

Currently, in addition to his work at Michigan Radio, he is head of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, Dome Magazine, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade, where he also serves as ombudsman, and hosts the weekly public affairs program "Deadline Now"  on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Among 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 mostly stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled, though he admits to a fondness for the crusty old butler on Downton Abbey.

Tomorrow most of us will get together with family or friends, or both, and celebrate Thanksgiving.

Yes, I know the holiday’s origins are suspect, and there’s lots of cynical stuff out there to the effect that if the Native Americans had known how all this would turn out, they might have buried axes in the colonists’ heads.

Be that as it may, most of us do have a lot to give thanks for. If you’ve ever been to Haiti, or the slums of Peru, as I have, you know what I mean. I spend a fair amount of time criticizing our officials for stupid, selfish, or wrongheaded behavior.

This should be a holiday of thanksgiving indeed for the United Auto Workers union. It successfully negotiated contracts this fall that give its members big raises and bonuses.

The Tier II workers who have been working at a lesser pay schedule now have a clear path to parity with the longtime workers. Workers are also getting large “signing bonuses” that may pump nearly $3 billion into the Michigan economy just in time for Christmas.

Congressman John Conyers is kicking off his reelection campaign today with two major rallies in his district planned in Detroit and the blue-collar suburb of Redford.

The election is almost a year away, and he is unlikely to have any significant primary opposition, but he may be announcing early, in case anyone gets any ideas. He has had challenges in the past, from ambitious younger people who thought he was too old, too erratic, and too out of touch.

But he’s always crushed them like bugs.

Nearly half a century ago, a young lawyer started grabbing headlines in Oakland County, then across the state.

His name was L. Brooks Patterson, and he was the attorney for NAG, an anti-busing group in Pontiac.

They were, essentially, parents who did not want their kids sent to other districts to go to school with black children.

I went to Michigan State University last night to see former President Bill Clinton, who was the keynote speaker at a new annual event, the Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum.

Clinton’s hair is silver these days. He’s thinner than you may remember. He is vibrant, but no longer looks much younger than he is, but he still has it. 

His personality still fills a room, and he has that priceless gift of making whomever he is talking to feel as if, for those few moments, he or she is the only person on the planet.

There was a report on Michigan Radio’s Stateside program two days ago that revealed that while nine out of 10 of us want to have an end-of-life conversation with their doctors, only about one-sixth of us have actually done so.

That didn’t surprise me.

Soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, there was a story in the Boston Globe saying that some of the hijackers had entered this country from Canada.

Instantly, there were calls for a crackdown on security along what we had been proud to say was the world’s longest unguarded border. 

Suddenly, it was no longer practical for people who worked in Detroit to pop over the river for a quick lunch or dinner in one of Windsor’s superb restaurants. Fourteen years later, things still haven’t returned to normal.

Governor Rick Snyder bowed to pressure yesterday and made a decision that was politically easy.

He reversed his earlier courageous stand and announced that Syrian refugees are no longer welcome in Michigan.

Here's what he said:

"Our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents. Given the terrible situation in Paris, I’ve directed that we put on hold our efforts to accept new refugees until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of its security clearances and procedures.”

What the governor did was exactly what ISIS would want.

The last time Michigan voted for a Bush for President, the Berlin Wall was still up, nobody in these parts had ever heard of a twenty-something Barack Obama, few imagined the Soviet Union would ever disappear, and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented.

Since then, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s father and brother have been the Republican nominees for president three times, and Michigan voters each time said no.

Jeb Bush wants to turn that around this year. Yesterday, he arrived in Grand Rapids in an effort to kick-start his sputtering national campaign.

Today, auto workers at Ford will begin voting on a new three-year contract negotiated by the United Auto Workers union, a process that will take almost a week.

The settlement is exceptionally rich by contrast with the last couple of agreements, negotiated when the automakers were on the ropes or just barely recovering from the near-death experience that ended in bankruptcy for Chrysler and General Motors.

Election night last year was not a good one for Michigan Democrats.

They lost ground in both houses of the Legislature, which the Republicans already controlled. They lost the governor’s race, despite a weak re-election campaign on the part of Rick Snyder.

But in races for education boards – the state board and the elected trustees of Michigan’s three major universities, it was a terrible night for Republicans.

Yesterday, the Center for Public Integrity, the highly respected nonpartisan watchdog organization, released a long-awaited report on government integrity in all fifty states.

Not surprisingly, most states stink. In Idaho, a lobbyist who represented a company that makes betting machines tried to get the state legislature to buy them to revive the potato state’s economy.

Nor did he tell lawmakers he represented that company. He was exposed, but no worries; what he did was perfectly legal.

For the last three years, Governor Rick Snyder has been fighting to try to get the legislature to come up with the money to repair Michigan’s disgracefully bad roads and bridges.

The governor, like most of us, thought better roads were essential. The legislature agreed in principle, but for years, has been unwilling to pass the new taxes needed to fix the roads.

I was thinking yesterday that I ought to apply for the job of general manager of the Detroit Lions. Now, it is true that I don’t know anything about football, and have no background whatsoever in the sport. And actually, I don’t like football.

But I’ve had some minor success at other things – I’ve been told I’m a fairly bright guy. I know how to write and teach and run my mouth, and so I was thinking – I could do this.

I heard from several puzzled people yesterday, after Governor Rick Snyder proclaimed he would sign the road fund package the legislature narrowly passed on election night.

“I don’t get it,” one man said. “I thought the governor said that cutting the general fund by $600 million a year was too much.” Well, yes, he did say that.

A similar road funding approach fell apart barely two months ago, because the governor said he couldn’t support cuts that deep. Snyder’s press secretary, Sara Wurfel, said he was worried about “jeopardizing the state’s financial stability and comeback.”

Two things happened yesterday that starkly illustrate what’s right and what’s wrong with politics and government in this state. First, we had an election – or, more accurately, a whole flock of elections. Turnout wasn’t great, despite the beautiful weather.

But the vast majority of the voters behaved reasonably and responsibly.

Today is Election Day, if you hadn’t noticed, and the safest prediction anyone can make is that turnout will be terrible. The vast majority of eligible voters won’t vote at all.

This is what they call an “off-off year election,” meaning that no major statewide or national races are on the ballot; no president, governors or senators.

But if anyone thinks this is not an important election, think again. 

One of the best days in Dana Nessel’s life  was Friday, June 26.

Four years earlier, two nurses came to her in despair. They were a committed, loving same-sex couple, who wanted to jointly adopt the three special needs children they had raised as foster parents.

But though the State of Michigan was happy with them as foster parents, it wouldn’t let them jointly adopt.

Nessel was cautioned by traditional liberal groups not to take this on, warned that a loss would set back same-sex rights for years, but she filed a federal lawsuit anyway.

Peter Lucido, a Republican from Macomb County, and Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, are both members of the Michigan House of Representatives.

But otherwise, they don’t have much in common. Lucido is a conservative Republican. Irwin, a liberal Democrat. Irwin is in his last term; Lucido in his first.

They line up on opposite sides on virtually any divisive issue. Except one. 

The League of Women Voters has been holding a series of forums on redistricting reform. Everyone who has studied the issue and has any sense of fairness knows that our present system of gerrymandering has badly crippled democracy in this state.

Peoples are frustrated, angry, disillusioned, and less and less likely to vote, because they think their votes don’t matter and nothing they can do will have any effect.

Have you ever heard of a “Rube Goldberg machine?” Goldberg was an editorial cartoonist and crazy parody inventor who specialized in ridiculous contraptions.

For example, he had a self-operating napkin with about twenty moving parts that relied on a parrot, a skyrocket and a chain reaction to set off an explosion causing a machine to wipe your chin

The dictionary definition of a Rube Goldberg machine is “an apparatus deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion.”

Over the years I’ve spoken to a lot of Eastern Europeans, who are in love with freedom, capitalism, and the free enterprise system.

They remember what life was like under Soviet-style Communism, and think being able to own one’s own business is the greatest thing there is. However, they do recognize that you do need a thriving, healthy public sector of the economy.

Everybody hates clichés, but they persist for a reason: There’s often a lot of truth in them. Such as this one: When in a hole, the best thing you can do is stop digging.

When something is broken beyond repair, it is a waste of time to try to fix it. The institution that made me think of this is the EAA, Governor Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority, designed to fix the worst Detroit schools.

Well, the weekend is almost here, and here’s a radical idea to consider between football games. I think the time has come to get rid of charter schools.

That’s right – get rid of them, all of them. Many or most of them don’t work, and all of them are draining resources from our conventional public schools and helping further destabilize education.

 The good news is that the Michigan House of Representatives passed a package of road funding bills Wednesday night. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news.

The truth about this plan was best stated by Business Leaders for Michigan, whose members are not exactly left-wing socialists.

Someone once said that Americans, including those who live in Michigan, would do anything for Canada except pay attention to it. That was evident again this week.

This nation’s closest ally had a dramatic national election that most “lower Americans” probably didn’t even know was happening – but which may be highly significant for all of us.

Governor Rick Snyder yesterday unveiled his new plan to fix Detroit Public Schools. Actually, it is a variation on one he put forth in April. Like that plan, it seems heavily based on the model General Motors adopted to emerge from bankruptcy.

The schools would be divided into a “new” district and an “old” one.

The “old district” wouldn’t have anything to do with the kids, but would be saddled with paying down the district’s massive debts, now more than half a billion dollars. The “new” district would be run by a Detroit Education Commission and would be in charge of educating the students.

The Michigan Legislature is currently battling over something called “presumptive parole.”

The state house has passed a bill to make it harder to deny parole to eligible low-risk inmates who have served their minimum sentence.

There’s plenty of data showing this would make a lot of sense and eventually save our cash-strapped state millions of dollars.

The governor is a strong supporter of the bill. But it is in trouble in the state senate. Attorney General Bill Schuette is crusading against it.

Conventional journalism is in trouble these days, for a number of reasons. True, people, especially young people, don’t read newspapers as much as they once did. And that’s a factor.

But the real problem is that the economic base of virtually all newspapers has been severely damaged by the internet. Newspapers always made their money from the revenue they reaped from advertising, particularly local classified advertising.

Most people know there are two ways to cross the Detroit River into or from Canada: The Ambassador Bridge, or for passenger cars only, the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. 

But there's another little-known way only used by vehicles too long or too big to navigate the bridge, or those hauling hazardous materials.

And that's the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, which is at the end of a little-used road two miles south of the current bridge, close to where the new bridge is to be built.