Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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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.

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Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry discusses gun laws in the wake of the nightclub shootings in Orlando, the latest on a sex cover-up scandal involving two former state representatives, and legislation that would require public schools in Michigan to teach students about genocide.


For many years I’ve predicted, so far incorrectly, that one of these years the Libertarian Party would achieve a breakthrough on the national political scene.

Not that they would elect a president, but that they would become a serious force to be reckoned with. After all, the Libertarians have a message that ought to resonate with both the millennials and many of us aging, self-obsessed baby boomers.

State Senator David Knezek, a 29-year-old Democrat from Dearborn, has the kind of background most young politicians would envy. His dad was a cop; his mother, a school lunch lady. He got out of high school, walked into a U.S. Marine recruiting station, and ended up doing two tours of duty in Iraq, with a sniper platoon.

 He was promoted to sergeant.

When a British Prime Minister sold out Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, Winston Churchill acidly said words to the effect that he had been forced to choose between war and shame.

“He’s chosen shame now; he’ll get war later,” he said.

In Lansing this week, the Michigan Legislature had the choice between a plan that would actually give the Detroit schools a chance to revive, or selling out to the charter school lobby, which wants no restraints on terrible charter schools.

After a day of thinking about it, they unhesitatingly chose shame.

Eight years ago, I was writing an article, and called Senator Bernie Sanders’ office for some information. The senator himself called back a couple hours later, and talked to me for 15 minutes or so.

He wasn’t nationally famous then; he was a political independent from a state with half the population of Michigan’s Oakland County.

You could have made a lot of money in Las Vegas a year ago had you bet on him to win this year’s Democratic primary in Michigan.

But win it he did.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was as angry as I’ve ever seen him late last week.

For months, members of both parties in the state Senate had worked with the governor to forge a rare bipartisan compromise to save Detroit Public Schools.

They came up with a figure needed to wipe out the debt and manage transition costs, and agreed to establish a Detroit Education Commission that would decide where any new schools, conventional or charter, could open.

The idea was to maintain balance and not have destructive competition in some areas while leaving other areas underserved.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry discusses legislation to bail out Detroit Public Schools, a grassroots campaign to legalize marijuana, and takeaways from last week's Mackinac Policy Conference.


Metropolitan Detroit is the nation’s only major urban area with absolutely no mass transit from the airport either to the downtown or to major suburban areas.

What may be even worse is that there is also no reliable and timely way for most people to get from their homes to their jobs in less than an hour, other than a private automobile.

Since more than a quarter of adult Detroiters have no cars, there is no practical way for most of them to get out of poverty.

Forty-eight years ago today, Robert Francis Kennedy died in Los Angeles, shot by a lunatic after Kennedy claimed victory in that year’s California Democratic primary.

Kennedy, in his final campaign in that truly horrible year, often stunned reporters by his willingness to speak truth to power.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who you might call the woman who saved the children of Flint, was only given 15 minutes to talk at the Mackinac Policy Conference, a brief space sandwiched between other events Wednesday, called a “Mackinac Moment.”

But it was by far the most compelling session of the conference. She showed a picture of one of her young patients she recently examined, a child who had been drinking lead-contaminated water until quite recently.

“Her mom asked me, ‘Is she going to be okay?’

I ran into John Rakolta late Tuesday afternoon, as he was arriving on Mackinac Island for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference.


The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference starts later today.

A year ago, I would have assumed the election would be center stage. A few months ago, I thought everyone might be talking about infrastructure and Flint. But instead, it’s education.

Detroit is the big elephant filling the Grand Hotel.

The Speaker of the House indicates he and his minions won’t show up on the island unless and until they finish a deal on saving Detroit Public Schools.

Education has indeed become center stage, and not only in Detroit.

I have voted in virtually every election since I was old enough. In all that time, I have never cast a straight ticket, where you fill in a single oval to choose every candidate of one political party.

However, I think everyone should have the right to do so.

After all, political parties are supposed to stand for something, and if you feel that Democratic or Republican or Green Party principles are more important than individual candidates, you might  vote that way. In every presidential election, hundreds of thousands of people have chosen to do exactly that.

Something happened yesterday that left me flabbergasted.

Federal, local and state officials ganged up on Governor Rick Snyder and told him his efforts to investigate the mess in Flint were hampering their attempts to do so, and told him to knock it off.

For most people, May is one of the best months. The flowers are blooming; it’s pretty clear that it isn’t going to snow any more, and summer is coming. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan Democrats start regarding May with a shudder. For two years in a row, the party has been embarrassed in May by one of their own. Last year it was State Senator Virgil Smith Jr., one of the legislature’s dimmer bulbs.

Richard T. Cole, who most people know as Rick, is a remarkable man who’s had several careers, sometimes simultaneously. I was first aware of him when he was press secretary and chief of staff to Governor Jim Blanchard in the 1980s.

Later, he was a senior executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and worked with Mike Duggan back when the man who became Detroit’s mayor was overhauling the Detroit Medical Center.


The governor and the legislature are currently fighting over how to rescue the Detroit public schools from financial collapse. There’s a general recognition that this has to be done, if only because the consequences of not doing so would cost the state even more.

The state constitution requires Michigan to provide an education for all children.

I didn’t grow up around a racetrack culture, but the ponies did affect my life. I had a rather irresponsible algebra teacher in high school, who was very fond of horse racing.

 A long time ago, when VCRs were state of the art technology, Ronald Reagan became President, and his captains proclaimed a new economic philosophy:

We’ll give massive tax cuts to everyone, but especially corporations, and that will cause them to create millions more jobs. Formerly unemployed people will become productive taxpayers, and even though they pay lower tax rates, the revenue will come flowing in, and governments too will have more money than ever before.

Every so often it comes home to me that we really live in multiple worlds. The “official” one is what we see presented by the media on radio, television, newspapers and online.

Michigan has very minimal requirements for gun sales. But you need to get a permit before buying a pistol, and there are a few people who aren’t allowed a license, mainly those with a possibly dangerous mental illness or a criminal conviction.

State Representative Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, introduced a bill last week that seems pure common sense. He wants to require gun licensing agencies to notify police and prosecutors when someone applies and fails the background check.

If you’ve been around for a while, it isn’t hard to be cynical about Michigan government in general and the legislature in particular. As I’ve said a few million times, a combination of term limits, gerrymandering, and a dogmatic anti-tax ideology has prevented our lawmakers from taking care of our needs or preparing for the future.

When the current presidential campaign began, there were two things on which the expert talking heads agreed. Bernie Sanders was a far-out fringe candidate, and Donald Trump was a carnival sideshow who would be gone long before the snow melted.

Imagine bringing Abraham Lincoln back to life today. What do you suppose he would find most shocking about life in today’s America?

Airplanes? Same-sex marriage? A black president?

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about the end of Flint water hearings in Lansing and whether Detroit's struggling school district will get the cash infusion it needs from the state.


Years ago, soon after term limits first took effect in Michigan, a friend of mine served her three terms, and was forced to retire. To my surprise, her husband ran to succeed her. She came to the Legislature with a background in local government; he had none.

I thought his running was somehow faintly wrong. In any event, he lost in the primary, possibly because he had a different last name than she did.

If anyone had asked me then, I would have said I thought his candidacy was an aberration. In fact, the only aberration was that he happened to lose.

This weekend I had a chance to see President Obama’s speech to the graduating class at Howard, the nation’s best known historic black university. He talked to them about voting and voting rights – but not quite the way you might think.

It was a highly impressive speech.

If you’ve been paying attention to Lansing over the past several years, you know that the Michigan legislature seldom ever misses an opportunity to do the wrong thing.

More than half a century ago, Michigan had a Republican governor who faced a difficult choice. His party was going to nominate a candidate for president whose views on civil rights were totally opposed to his. George Romney was, make no mistake about it, a politician.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about Gov. Rick Snyder's plans to meet with President Obama in Flint today, teacher sickouts in Detroit and the future of the presidential campaign, now that the Indiana primary is over.

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