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.

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Politics & Government
8:15 am
Wed May 28, 2014

This week in Michigan politics: Minimum wage and Mackinac

Credit Flickr user borman818

In this Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the passage of a new minimum-wage bill and the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 5/28/14

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Opinion
10:16 am
Tue May 27, 2014

Plan to clean up Detroit will be released today

When it comes to Detroit, this actually may be one of the most exciting weeks since Henry Ford began paying people $5 a day a century ago.

Detroit is a mess. A blighted, bankrupt troubled mess. Everyone knows and has known that for a long time.

The good news is that there are now plans in motion by people in power to do something about it.  

Today, the result of a massive, detailed survey of the city, something never before attempted, is being released to the public – together with a concrete plan to clean it up.

They are calling it “Every Neighborhood Has a Future, and it Doesn’t Include Blight.”

This isn’t being unveiled by a couple of urban studies professors or second-string bureaucrats.

Mayor Mike Duggan and emergency manager Kevyn Orr are solidly behind this plan – as are three of the most-respected people in the city:

  • Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans czar who has been buying an astonishing amount of land downtown;
  • The dignified and deeply respected Glenda Price, who turned around Marygrove College, heads a foundation for Detroit Public Schools, and serves on a million boards;
  • Plus Linda Smith, who runs the highly-regarded civic group U-Snap-Bac.

Those three headed a blight removal task force who, as part of their work, presided over a project to document, categorize, and map every parcel of land in Detroit – every one.

Then they came up with a concrete and tangible plan to do something about it.

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Politics & Government
9:01 am
Sat May 24, 2014

The week in review: Updates on Detroit bankruptcy, and the roads

Credit Shawn Wilson / Wikimedia Commons

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss the latest with the Detroit bankruptcy including political push back from the Koch brothers and money from JPMorgan Chase, and the ongoing debate about Michigan's crummy and crumbling roads.

Week in Review interview for 5/23/14

Opinion
11:25 am
Fri May 23, 2014

Detroit "bailout" bashers target the DIA's millage

Last week it seemed anything but certain that the package of bills authorizing state money for the Detroit “grand bargain” would pass.

And nobody expected they would pass by margins as high, in one case, as 105 to 5.

Which just shows once again that real life is usually stranger than fiction.

There is lingering bitterness over one bill, however: the one that prevents the Detroit Institute of Arts from asking for a renewal of its millage when it expires.

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Opinion
10:00 am
Thu May 22, 2014

Why MSU is what every university should be like

There was a time when it wasn’t unusual for university presidents to stay in their jobs for twenty years or more. These days, however, that seldom happens. The average college or university president lasts barely seven years.

It actually may be a wonder that any last that long, given the intensity of issues from rising costs to affirmative action to athletics. Not to mention that everything happens these days in the pressure cooker and under the microscope of the 24-hour news cycle.

Two of Michigan’s three major universities have new presidents; Wayne State’s Roy Wilson has been on the job less than a year. The University of Michigan’s Mark Schlissel takes office this summer. But in January, Lou Anna Simon will celebrate ten years as president of Michigan State University.

In fact, to say she’s been on the job for a decade severely understates her involvement with the institution. She’s been there ever since she arrived as a graduate student in 1970.

Since then, she has held a wide variety of academic and administrative jobs, which is not to say she is set in her ways. I had a chance to have a long conversation with her this week.

She told me tradition is important, but added, “If you don’t have leadership committed to change, but only to defending the status quo, you have the wrong leadership.”

Michigan State is often referred to as the nation’s pioneer land grant university, and that is more than a piece of historical trivia. The school was founded with the idea that it would study and seek out knowledge and find a way of making it practical and relevant for the people of Michigan. They still take that mission seriously.

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Opinion
10:20 am
Wed May 21, 2014

Just fix the damn roads

I think the low point in my faith in democracy came late this winter, soon after I had lost one tire to a pothole. I got home after nearly losing another on the lunar surface of a suburban Detroit mile road, just in time to hear a state senator claiming we needed another tax cut.

Well, I thought, I am now living in a Third World country. But guess what? That senator heard from his constituents, big-time. Before long, he was retreating from his tax-cut talk, legislative tail between his legs. Why?

To quote the leader of his caucus, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville R- Monroe, “I’ve heard the message loud and clear that the roads are messed up, and I think the most common phrase I’m hearing from back home is 'just fix the damn roads.'"

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Politics & Government
8:26 am
Wed May 21, 2014

The week in Michigan politics: Detroit bankruptcy and minimum wage

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the latest in the Detroit bankruptcy including:

  • An expected vote today in the state legislature on the $195 million bailout for Detroit
  • New York’s Lieutenant Governor, Richard Ravitch said yesterday in his testimony on Detroit’s bankruptcy that the “whole country is watching.”
  • The Koch brothers are buying attack ads targeting lawmakers who plan to help Detroit through bankruptcy
  • JP Morgan Chase is expected to announce it’s investing $100 million in Detroit.

Lessenberry also gave an update on the minimum wage debate in the state legislature.

Week in Michigan politics interview for 5/21/14

Opinion
11:24 am
Tue May 20, 2014

Minimum-wage war could backfire on Michigan GOP

Here’s a three-part prediction for you:  First, the minimum wage bill passed by the Michigan Senate will never become law – not in anything like the way it looks now.

Second, there will be a minimum wage proposal on the ballot, though no one can say if it will pass and what happens if it does.

And finally, what looked like a triumph for the Republicans a few days ago could well backfire – and end up driving angry Democratic voters to the polls.

Here’s what’s going on. As you probably know, a group called Raise Michigan has been collecting signatures to put a proposal on the ballot that would gradually raise the minimum wage from the current $7.40 an hour to $10.10.

So far as I can tell, it looks like they will have more than enough. Business interests don’t like this, of course; they never like being told they have to pay their workers more money. And what they really don’t like is that this bill would also gradually make the minimum wage for tipped workers, like restaurant servers, equal with everyone else.

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Opinion
10:48 am
Mon May 19, 2014

Detroit’s comeback needs to include those left behind in the city

For the past year, for the first time in decades, people in the suburbs, in Lansing, and across America are thinking about Detroit.

Everybody has had to face that Detroit is broken, hopelessly in debt, largely a shattered ruin, and that city services, the schools and so much else doesn’t work.

For many years, everyone knew things were bad, but nobody did much about it.

The political class running the city denied the extent of the problem and did not welcome outside intervention. The rest of us mostly said, fine.

Now, however, things are very different.

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Opinion
11:06 am
Fri May 16, 2014

Democrats get most of what they wanted on minimum wage; Republicans get the credit

There are several things to note about the astonishing developments yesterday in the battle over the minimum wage. Most importantly, it is important to remember that it ain’t over till it’s over.

The state Senate took everyone by surprise yesterday when Republicans agreed to gradually raise the minimum wage by nearly$2 an hour and partly index it to the inflation rate.

Barely a week ago, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville was adamantly claiming he wanted absolutely no rise in the present state minimum wage of $7.40 an hour.

Then, he introduced a bill that would have increased it to by 75 cents an hour, but one that contained a poison pill. His bill would have not only changed the rate, but would have repealed and replaced the old statute.

There’s a reason for that. There’s petition drive to change the old law and raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour.

Richardville reasoned this would short-circuit the petition drive. You can’t amend a law that doesn’t exist. But there were dangers for Republicans in that approach, too. It is pretty clear there is considerable sentiment for raising the minimum wage.

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Politics & Government
9:54 am
Thu May 15, 2014

Lawmakers like to talk about sex more than they like to talk about potholes

I have a confession to make. I really am not very interested in your sex life, and see no reason you should be interested in mine. However, I am very interested in not being killed by a giant pothole, or concrete falling off an overpass. And somehow, I’d guess you feel the same way. I just wish our lawmakers did.

Today, the University of Michigan is releasing a new study showing that our model of funding road repairs based on how much gas is sold is out of date.

Cars get much better mileage today. Besides, I could drive 10,000 miles in my tiny little Fiat, and do far less damage to the roads than an overloaded, gravel-hauling tractor-trailer would do covering half that distance.

You don’t need to be Isaac Newton to figure that out. The report suggests getting money to fix the roads by setting a mileage fee.

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Opinion
11:40 am
Wed May 14, 2014

Michigan's schools can learn a thing or two from Macomb Community College

When it comes to education, there are two things on which pretty much everyone agrees. We need more of it, and we need to make it more affordable.

But there’s a third thing, too. We need to make it relevant.

Learning for learning’s sake is a good and sacred thing, but today’s generation also needs education that will lead to jobs, in most cases, sooner rather than later.

For years, I’ve been intrigued by a place that seems to have gotten something very right: Macomb Community College.

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Politics & Government
9:11 am
Wed May 14, 2014

Detroit's 'grand bargain', minimum wage, and Conyers make political headlines

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the grand bargain for the Detroit bankruptcy, the debate over the minimum wage and whether Detroit Congressman John Conyers has a chance to continue his nearly 50 years in Congress.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 5/14/14

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Opinion
11:21 am
Tue May 13, 2014

Michigan's minimum-wage bill could render your vote null and void

There’s an old saying that conservative lawmakers are for local control, except when they’re not.

Meaning, whenever local units of government want to do something that they don’t like.

Now, we’ve learned that Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, believes in democracy, except when he doesn’t.

In the past, Richardville has staunchly supported Michigan voters’ decisions to outlaw gay marriage and affirmative action.

But he doesn’t want to allow voters to vote to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

It now seems likely that supporters of the higher minimum will collect enough signatures to put a proposition doing so on the November ballot.

Now, it would be one thing to campaign against this amendment, and encourage people to vote it down.

That would be perfectly legitimate, regardless of whether you agree.

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Politics & Government
12:34 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

EAA should not be expanded statewide until questions are answered

Three years ago, when I first heard about Governor Rick Snyder’s plans to create a special district for Detroit’s failing schools, I was enthusiastic.

I knew Detroit’s schools were a mess. I knew that the bureaucracy, the teacher’s union, and obstinate refusal to change were all part of the problem.

Something different was worth a try.

And so they invented and chartered the Education Achievement Authority, and gave it 15 of Detroit’s worst schools. The experiment began two years ago.

Nobody really expected miracles. At least nobody should have. These were schools with terrible records, and students with terribly disadvantaged backgrounds.

Since then, there have been possibly some small signs of improvement, at least as measured by test scores. Governor Snyder now wants to expand the EAA statewide. The state House of Representatives has passed legislation to do just that. The proposal is before the state Senate.

But it is clear that expanding the EAA now would be a colossal mistake.

The EAA is a total failure in terms of administration, honesty, transparency and staying within a budget.

Its chancellor, John Covington, probably needs to be fired immediately.

An investigation published in today’s Detroit News confirms rumors I’ve been hearing for a year.

Covington, who is driven around by a chauffeur in a special vehicle, charged nearly a quarter of a million dollars on district credit cards, largely so that he and his staff could jet around the country to a series of pricey conferences.

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Politics & Government
8:55 am
Sat May 10, 2014

The week's headlines include Detroit bankruptcy, state budget and saliva tests

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss how the state might kick in about $200 million from its rainy day fund for the Detroit bankruptcy settlement, an update on the state budget, and what might or might not happen with proposed roadside saliva tests for marijuana.

Week in Review interview for 5/9/14

Opinion
11:23 am
Fri May 9, 2014

Voters deserve the best choices possible for Congress

Two years ago, voters in a suburban Detroit congressional district were stunned to learn that their congressman, Thaddeus McCotter, had failed to qualify for the primary election ballot.

Anyone running for Congress needs to submit 1,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot.

It turned out his staff had illegally and clumsily photocopied old petition signatures, instead of collecting new ones. McCotter not only retired, but abruptly quit before his term ended.

That left just one name on the GOP primary ballot: Kerry Bentivolio, known informally as “Krazy Kerry,” a reindeer farmer, Santa Claus impersonator, and failed high school teacher.

Bentivolio is now a congressman, and establishment Republicans are spending millions to try and dislodge him in this August’s primary.

Now it seems something similar has happened to John Conyers, a Democrat who has represented Detroit in Congress for half a century. Most of the signatures he submitted seem to have been collected by circulators who weren’t registered to vote.

One has a criminal record and is a wanted fugitive. It seems very likely that Conyers will not be on the ballot this year.

If so, it's possible that the only name on the Democratic primary ballot will be that of The Rev. Horace Sheffield, a longtime Detroit clergyman with a reputation of his own. Sheffield got his picture in the papers twice in February. Once when he announced for Congress, and once when he was booked on domestic violence charges.

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Opinion
9:27 am
Thu May 8, 2014

For 20 years Michigan has cut taxes with little to show for it

Every society functions at least partly on a set of myths. Sometimes these have been highly destructive. For example, believing you are the master race and everyone else deserves to be slaves has potentially destructive consequences.

America has largely operated on good myths, good because most of them had some grain of truth.

For example, the theories that all men are created equal, or that anyone can become rich or succeed at any occupation they choose. Those ideas have, by and large, encouraged hard work and a belief in the future.

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Opinion
10:55 am
Wed May 7, 2014

We're like that friend who never picks up the dinner tab

Most of us resent freeloaders – people who take and take, but don’t give back. People who never pick up the check at a restaurant. Everyone knows someone like that.

Well, today I want to introduce you to a new one.

This time it is a country, not a person, and she is refusing to pay not just her fair share, but any part of a mutually beneficial business proposition essential for Michigan’s future.

Worse, she is exploiting her closest ally and best friend.

The name of our welfare cheat, who happens to be rather rich herself, is the United States of America. And who she is exploiting is Canada. And on top of all that, we are doing so in a way intensely humiliating to ourselves.

Let me explain.

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Politics & Government
8:28 am
Wed May 7, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss local election results, how a Tea Partier is trying to challenge Michigan's lieutenant  governor, and how the state might give Detroit less money for the bankruptcy and use Michigan's rainy day fund.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 5/7/14

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