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.

Four years ago, Marian McClellan was a retired teacher who’d lived for the past quarter century in the small Detroit suburb of Oak Park, just north of the city.

Oak Park’s story was similar to that of many older, so-called inner ring suburbs. It was largely pastures and swamps before World War II. Then, as the freeways came, it exploded. Barely a thousand people lived there in 1945.


Norris Wong / Flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Christina Shockley discuss a land swap deal between Detroit and the owners of the Ambassador Bridge; the beginnings of a lawsuit over an Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac; and how some residents in Hamtramck are getting so fed up with bad roads, they are filling in potholes on their streets themselves. 


For the past week or so, I’ve gotten emails and calls from people who want to know why I won’t help “expose” the evil being done by Planned Parenthood. They say that it has now been definitely proven that the non-profit family planning organization profits off the sale of fetal body parts, which they say Planned Parenthood deliberately harvests in brutal ways.

This has caused sort of a national “primal howl” by conservative and anti-abortion activists, who are demanding Planned Parenthood be defunded or even prosecuted.


Two weeks ago, I reported on a little-known trade conflict between the United States and Canada that could cost Michigan farmers nearly $700 million in retaliatory trade sanctions.

This involves a U.S. law known as COOL, for Country-of-Origin-Labeling. It took effect in 2008, and requires all meat to be labeled with its country of origin.

If you want a practical illustration of why term limits are a bad idea, here’s a good one. Yesterday, Senator Debbie Stabenow managed to engineer a deal to save perhaps $100 million in federal blight funds set aside to help Michigan cities tear down ruined buildings.

Here’s something that we seldom realize, but which incessantly fascinates me. You know that for some time, microbreweries have been all the rage. But in fact, we live in a world full of microcultures, which we like to think are more or less interwoven into whatever passes for mainstream culture.

Wayne County woes

Jul 22, 2015

If you’ve studied biology, you may know about a phenomenon called protective coloration. Snowshoe hares, for example, are brown in the fall and white in the winter, so they can blend into their surroundings and not be easily seen by predators.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about Wayne County’s financial crisis and the plans to fix it, children in poverty, the roads stalemate, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s trip to Japan. 

Money troubles for Wayne County

Wayne County, Michigan’s most populous county, is facing a financial crisis.

Sixty-one years ago, during the height of the Cold War, Americans were terrorized by a burly demagogue named Joe McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin.

McCarthy specialized, as you probably remember, in recklessly labeling people Communists, and hauling suspects up before his infamous subcommittee. To be accused of being a Communist in 1954 was roughly equivalent to being identified as a member of ISIS today.

Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers union’s greatest leader, has been dead for forty-five years now, killed in a plane crash outside Pellston, a few years before oil shocks and a flood of foreign imports began to drastically change the industry.

Several years ago, soon after the union agreed to accept a two-tier wage system in which new hires would be paid less, I asked Doug Fraser, perhaps the last of his successors to know Reuther well, what Walter would have thought about that? I expected he’d say Reuther would be rolling in his grave.

But instead, Fraser said it was impossible to know. We are living in a different world from the one Reuther helped build. And Walter Reuther was adept at adjusting to new realities. When the union agreed to accept a two-tier system eight years ago, they hoped it would create more jobs.

I am, perhaps unfortunately, old enough to remember life in Michigan half a century ago. The Detroit Tigers were a much more exciting team than the current lot, on their way up instead of down, a team whose members actually functioned and played as a team.

Their entire payroll, I believe, was about two percent of what it is today. There was also a statewide spirit of optimism and belief in a better future that is lacking today. Oh, in many ways life was worse then. Twice as many people smoked, and poisonous clouds of tobacco smoke were everywhere, from restaurants to airliners.

There’s now no real doubt that the new Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River will become reality. There are still a few parcels of land to be assembled on the Detroit side, and site preparation work needs to be done.

The Canadians tell me they still think the bridge will be open to the public five years from now. However, this has not stopped Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun from trying to twin or eventually replace his own bridge.

UPDATED AT 1:41 pm ON 7/15/15 

Here’s something President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Snyder have in common: Both were born years after a pipeline to deliver oil was installed under the Straits of Mackinac.

That pipeline, more than four miles of which is actually at the bottom of the lakes, is now 61 years old. Enbridge, the Canadian firm that owns it, pumps as much as 540,000 gallons of oil and liquid natural gas through it every day.

Ricardo Giaviti / Flickr

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about the auto industry, a major land deal for Detroit, prison food service contracts, and the latest in roads.

Here’s something I’d like to hear a politician in office say, just once. “My fellow citizens, I screwed up. I made the wrong choice, partly because I was too stubborn to listen to advice.”

“This resulted in bad policy and cost taxpayers money. The fault is mine alone, and I am going to try hard to fix it, and hope I can regain your confidence and your trust.”

Here’s a story you probably haven’t heard about – but which could end up costing Michigan thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in lost trade with Canada.

That certainly wouldn’t be cool – but ironically, what I’m talking about is all about COOL – an acronym standing for County Of Origin Labeling.

Earlier this week, Governor Rick Snyder signed a package of so-called early warning bills he said will help both school districts and the state, in his words,

“to resolve potential financial issues before they become unmanageable.”

Among other things, they require districts which are getting close to the edge financially to begin reporting to the state what their economic situations and budget assumptions are.

I like to kick back and get wild and crazy late at night. For example, one thing I usually do is drink some strong coffee and read a detailed summary of what the legislature did that day. Reading the news from Lansing doesn’t usually make me laugh out loud.

There’s an old saying that we ought to take care of the environment we have, since we can’t get another. This is perhaps especially true of our water.

We’re all lucky enough to live on the Great Lakes, which hold most of the fresh water in the world. You’d think taking care of them would be a top priority, but too often it’s not.

 We’ve had various kinds of pollution scares in the past, and the lakes are now over run with invasive species that clog pipes and frustrate fishermen. We’re still awaiting, and not doing enough to prevent, a dreaded invasion by Asian carp.

401(k) 2013 / Flickr

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about a new law affecting school districts in trouble, college tuition hikes, a former inmate healthcare snafu, and Michigan veterans.  

Well, as you probably know, the legislature has still done virtually nothing to fix the roads. Once again, the State Senate and House have passed wildly different plans.

The Senate bill is honest enough to include some new revenue, which it would get largely by raising the tax on fuel. But it also calls for cutting Michigan’s already bare-bones general fund by $700 million a year, without saying where the cuts would come from.

It’s clear that our grossly gerrymandered legislature is painfully out of touch with the needs and desires of Michigan citizens.


A few days ago, I went to see Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in his downtown office. I’ve visited a lot of mayors in that office, and generally they have a large picture of their families in the space behind their desk.  Duggan doesn’t.

Instead, he has a picture of the famous civil rights march down Woodward Avenue in 1963, the place where Martin Luther King first gave a version of the “I have a dream,” speech.         

 

Well, with great difficulty, the state senate passed a package of roads bills yesterday. They would raise some new revenue, shift billions over time from other priorities to the roads, and include a complex formula for a possible income tax cut.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and I have something unusual in common.  My brother is one of the state’s leading dog behavior experts; both the mayor’s dog and mine have had an issue or two, and so this week, he is giving both our dogs a tune-up.

By the way, my brother didn’t tell me that; client confidentiality is important to him. Mayor Duggan first told me his Leo was a patient of his at the Mackinac Conference last year. “Well, at best you must be only the second smartest Lessenberry,” he told me on the ferry.


user Tyrone Warner / Flickr

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about a new law affecting Michigan workers, a plan to fix the roads that increases the gas tax, the high cost of information, and government officials looking at the effects of the same sex marriage ruling.

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the U.S. Supreme Court has released a flurry of momentous decisions in the last few days covering everything from lethal injection methods to the environment.

The two which drew the most attention were, of course, the rulings which saved the Affordable Care Act, and found that same sex couples have the right to marry everywhere in America.

But the court made another tremendous ruling yesterday that, in effect, said we can take back representative democracy in this state if we want to.

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the nation, I was in the town of Ironwood, which is both in Michigan and in another world.

Ironwood is more than six hundred miles from Detroit. It is so far west that it is one of a handful of Michigan communities on Central, not Eastern Time.

There must be Republican strategists who are secretly relieved and happy that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the subsidies that help millions buy health insurance.

Had they ruled the other way, not only would millions of people have lost coverage, but it would have caused immense problems for a private health insurance market that has changed the way it does business to comply with the Affordable Care Act, usually known as Obamacare. Opponents were hoping the high court would invalidate the subsidies based largely on semantics.

Many years ago, a wicked old police reporter told me that he thought common street prostitutes were morally superior to politicians.

That was because “they admit that those who give them money expect something for it.”

Well, he had a point.

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