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.

There is such a thing as public service journalism. They award a Pulitzer Prize for it every year. And so, in the interest of public service, and without the usual niceties, I would like you to permit me to draw your attention to a problem Michigan faces today.

Namely our legislative leaders seem to have lost their minds, any sense of the public good, and it is time to stop treating their raving lunacy as if it deserved respect. 

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In this Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss proposed bills to eliminate gun free zones, how road funding talks have stalled again, and an update on the Flint water crisis. 

You can listen below:

Earlier this month, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill designed to save the state money and allow some people to salvage their lives by making it easier for prisoners who are no longer a threat to society to get out of prison on parole.

This bill makes a vast amount of sense, and is being supported by responsible and intelligent conservatives like State Representative Kurt Heise of Plymouth Township, its Republican sponsor, and Governor Snyder. 

Michigan is drowning financially in our huge and bloated corrections system.

The other night I was part of an informal dinner group that included a number of Republicans, some of whom have served in elected or appointed positions in Lansing.

I asked them if Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette would be their next candidate for governor. To my surprise, almost none thought so. Their choice was Candice Miller. They saw her as a practical, down-to-earth, no-nonsense conservative who could get the job done.

When I learned the governor had reversed himself and was willing to help reconnect Flint to Detroit water, what first popped into my head was what Gerald Ford said the day Richard Nixon resigned and he became President.

He told us the system worked, and we were “a government of laws, not men.”

I’m not in the least surprised that the United Autoworkers Union reached a new agreement with Fiat Chrysler late last night. Nobody, but nobody wanted a strike.

I did think it possible that the union might have workers put down tools and walk off the job for a few hours in an effort to remind the rank-and-file of their heritage.

But if there had been a serious strike, the only winner would have been Toyota.

Just think about this: What if some emergency forced the state to temporarily appoint an emergency manager in a more affluent, mostly white area?

Pretend this happens to Birmingham in Oakland County, say, or Holland.

To save money, the emergency manager stops using the longtime clean water source and switches to a local river. When residents complain that the water smells and is discolored, the emergency manager tells them it is just as good as they were getting before.

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This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the latest on the Flint water problem, how Michigan State University doesn't want to release  the names of student-athletes who were suspects in criminal cases to ESPN, and Lessenberry reflects on the life of Grace Lee Boggs.

Back in the early 1950’s, a Chinese-American woman named Grace Lee came to Detroit to publish an obscure newsletter for an even more obscure Marxist group led by a revolutionary from Trinidad. She met a black auto worker named James Boggs.

She had a PhD in philosophy; he had barely a high school education. She invited him to dinner. He showed up an hour late. She made lamb chops; he said he hated them. She put on a Louie Armstrong record, and he told her Satchmo was an Uncle Tom.

But later that evening, he asked her to marry him.

If you happened to be listening to Stateside last week, you may have heard me talking about a new biography, The People’s Lawyer, which I co-wrote with former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.

While the words are mine, the story is his.

I wanted to talk about it today, not to plug the book, but for a couple reasons.

One of the things I most dislike about most politicians is their unwillingness to admit when they’ve screwed up.

Take Dennis Williams, the leader of the United Auto Workers union. He and his lieutenants were so out of touch with the membership that they negotiated a contract that the angry workers rejected by almost two to one.

Yesterday, when the results were in, Williams said. “We don’t consider this a setback,” we consider this “part of the process.”

Well, as you may know by now, the United Auto Workers union did an absolutely superb job negotiating a new contact with FCA, Fiat Chrysler.

Everybody in the industry was impressed by the result, with one exception, the workers themselves, who voted the contract down by more than a two to one margin.

When I was young I was proud that I didn’t live in Dearborn, whose mayor-for-life, Orville Hubbard, was a bizarre brawling clown who wore outlandish bow ties.

Hugely fat, he would do anything for publicity. Pose with a boa constrictor, wear a giant paper bag, or straddle Michigan Avenue looking like a bargain-basement Mussolini, you name it.

When the Michigan House of Representatives finally got rid of its two disgraced members earlier this month, we thought that was that.

Nobody imagined there was much of a chance of them reclaiming their jobs.

Well, think again. 

Most people in Michigan know Matty Moroun as the famous and highly controversial owner of the Ambassador Bridge.

For years, the media has covered his ongoing efforts to stop a second, independently owned bridge, a battle he’s apparently lost. 

Yesterday I was thinking that, in a sense, Flint has become Detroit’s Detroit.

In other words, for years, the urban crisis in Detroit was seen as the worst in the state, if not the entire nation.

Last year, a woman studying psychology in Marquette told me, “I feel so sorry for people who live in places like Detroit and Syria.”

Yesterday, a circuit judge in Washtenaw County struck a blow for common sense and sanity by ruling that Ann Arbor public schools could ban guns in their buildings.

That immediately provoked a furious reaction from those who think guns more important than anything else, including the lives and well-being of children.

The attorney for a group called Michigan Gun Owners fairly sneered, “I think the judge decided to ignore state law.”

He added that they would appeal.

Marijuana plant.

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss proposed bills relating to abortion and medical marijuana, what’s behind the $21 million lobbyists spent at the state capital this year, and the impact of a possible influx of Syrian refugees to Metro Detroit.

Over the weekend I got a number of emails, all of which went more or less like this:

“Did you know, or is it true, that there is a bill in the Michigan Legislature to make it illegal to practice using a condom on a banana?”

Well, if you’ve been following the news from Lansing, it seems likely that the Legislature will soon vote to eliminate what’s known as "prevailing wage," which is the requirement that the state pay union-scale wages to workers on state construction projects.

Richard Nixon is remembered today largely for all the bad things he did while President. He lied, engaged in a massive cover-up of criminal activities, obstructed justice, bugged even himself – you name it. 

In the end he resigned.

Todd Courser did the same 10 days ago, so that he wouldn’t be thrown out of the Michigan Legislature, as Cindy Gamrat in fact was.

I know a couple who bought two brand-new General Motors cars in the mid-1980s. She bought an Oldsmobile station wagon, and he bought a beautiful sleek Buick.

They carefully maintained them, didn’t abuse them, and the cars fell apart. The Oldsmobile finally died after barely seventy thousand miles. The Buick had massive electrical problems for which the company refused to take any responsibility.

I didn’t watch much of the Republican Presidential debate last night, but listened to some of it while driving.

What struck me was that all the candidates talked as if President Obama was the worst thing in our nation’s history. 

Worse than the Civil War, the Great Depression, you name it. 

Here’s one safe political prediction: the race in Michigan’s First Congressional district is going to be a lot more expensive than anyone thought two days ago.

  Republican Congressman Dan Benishek abruptly announced yesterday that he had decided to keep his three-term pledge after all, and retire after this term. A few months ago he had changed his mind, but is now changing it back.

Well, if you woke up in Detroit early this morning you might have thought you were in one of those old Back to the Future movies. The lead story was the auto talks; negotiators for the company and the union had been up all night, and workers on the line were waiting to see if they would get a deal, keep talking, or send everyone out on strike.

We haven’t seen anything like an authentic, old-fashioned, drawn-out labor stoppage in the industry since about the time giant tail fins were popular. Nobody really wanted a strike, but the fact one was even being contemplated was in a way, heartening.

Imagine going back half a century, and asking people which of these two things would be more likely fifty years in the future: A) The United States would have established a permanent colony on the moon; or, B) The United Auto Workers union would have chosen a foreign-owned automaker as its target company in contract negotiations.

The state House of Representatives remained in session into the wee hours today, with Democrats defiantly refusing for a long time to provide the votes to expel Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, because they thought Republicans cut off the investigation into their activities too soon.

Finally, when it was clear that some kind of deal had been cut, Courser suddenly resigned, after vowing he never would. But Gamrat, who had repeatedly said she might resign, refused in the end. 

The battles over the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare, if you are a Republican – have been bitterly fought, and at least for the time being, won. The President’s main goal was to make health insurance and health care available to more people, and he’s done that.

There’s still a problem, however. Even if you have coverage, it’s hard to get health care without a doctor – especially what’s known as a primary care physician. Specialists are thick on the ground, especially in affluent areas, like Birmingham or Ann Arbor.

But you are going to need a lot of luck if you have to try finding a general practitioner, pediatrician or psychiatrist in rural northern Michigan, or the city of Detroit itself. If you have small children, you’re probably better off medically if you live in Oakland or Washtenaw counties.

They have ten times as many pediatricians as the medical profession considers ideal for the size of the population. But if you have kids and are thinking about taking a job in the far-off Keweenaw Peninsula … good luck.

I had hoped I was done talking about Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, the two state legislators whose bizarre and outrageous behavior has consumed their house of the Legislature for the past month. 

I thought, at first, both would resign once their hypocrisy, bad behavior, misuse of state resources, and clumsy attempt at a cover-up was exposed.

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This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss how student growth will be a big part of teacher evaluations this year, why redistricting won't happen, and what will happen to the political careers of Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat after the sex scandal