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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Opinion
12:14 pm
Fri May 2, 2014

End of a career for Conyers?

If you like irony, think about this. Sixty years ago, the president of General Motors was nominated to be Secretary of Defense.

Today, we remember only one thing about “Engine Charlie” Wilson – his famous quote: “I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”  Today, that would almost certainly have sunk his nomination.

Back then, it caused scarcely a ripple. Wilson died in 1961, and I wonder what he would say if he came back to life and learned that Chrysler was owned by the Italians, Ford was about to have a Jewish CEO and his beloved GM had not only gone bankrupt, it was now a much smaller company run by a woman. Oh yes, and by the way – the president of the United States is black.

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Opinion
10:47 am
Thu May 1, 2014

Even if I leave my waitress a 30% tip, her wages are outrageously low

Last week at noon I snuck over to a little restaurant near Detroit’s Eastern Market that usually isn't very crowded.

The place isn’t fine dining, but it’s quiet, I like their food, and they left me alone for a romantic hour-long interval with coffee and a bunch of term papers on the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

My server is usually a woman I’ll call Stephanie, who is sweet, efficient and a trifle careworn. I think she is in her mid-40s, I know she has kids, and she has worked there for 18 years. 

My bill was about $9, and I left Stephanie$3, which sounds generous – after all, that’s more than the 15 to 20% they say you are supposed to tip. But afterwards I realized what I gave her was outrageously cheap.

I know the restaurant, and Stephanie is almost certainly being paid the minimum wage of $2.65 an hour. She had no more than three tables while I was there. 

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Opinion
11:29 am
Wed April 30, 2014

Effort underway to restore historic Ford Model T plant in Highland Park, Michigan

One of the most significant sites in the history of Detroit – and the modern world – has also been one of the most sadly neglected.

Not only that, it isn’t even in Detroit.

Every day, thousands of commuters drive by an old red-brick building on Woodward Avenue in the little enclave city of Highland Park.

You need to know three things about Highland Park. It is a separate city embedded in northern Detroit. Economically, it is even worse off.

But it was the place where the twentieth century was created – in this old red brick building, and in the remnants of a giant factory behind it. A hundred years ago, this sturdy, Albert Kahn structure was the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company.

Millions and millions of Model Ts, the most important car ever created, rolled off assembly lines here, before Ford moved to the Rouge. It was here where cars were made affordable for everyone, and where the world was put on wheels.

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Politics & Government
10:13 am
Wed April 30, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

Credit NOAA

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 4/30/14

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss how Congressman John Conyers might not be in the August primary because of a problem in nomination petitions, how the state is running out of money to give to struggling schools, and how backyard farming might become more difficult in the months ahead.

Opinion
11:02 am
Tue April 29, 2014

Most voters still have no real idea who Mark Schauer is

Last weekend I crashed the Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, the party’s traditional tribal reunion and fundraising event. Bill Clinton was the main speaker, and as usual, he delivered a riveting, hour-long tour de force. But what surprised me was the speech made by the designated Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer.

Schauer is usually thought of as a good and decent man who nobody would call a spellbinding speaker. But he gave a strong, punchy and energetic speech in Detroit’s Cobo Hall Saturday night. He naturally attacked Snyder’s record. But Schauer mainly focused on his own program, what he would do if elected. And it was clear what the former congressman’s main themes will be.

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Opinion
12:07 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

Michigan's election system needs to be improved

Remember back to the nightmare election of 2000, when for five weeks after the voting, we did not know who our next president would be?

The culprit, of course was Florida.

You’ve probably seen those photos of confused poll workers trying to recount the ballots, holding defective punch cards up to the light and squinting to see if the holes were punched through.

Well, back then I felt sort of smug. Michigan, I believed, had no real problems as far as elections were concerned.  Our state cleaned up a lot of irregularities after a problem with a couple close gubernatorial elections in the 1950s. We avoided punch cards after a disastrous experiment in Detroit in 1970.

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Opinion
11:20 am
Fri April 25, 2014

To really understand Detroit's problems, you should read this book

I flew to Florida early last month, and while in the air re-read from cover to cover the one indispensable book that explains as nothing else what really happened to Detroit.

Eighteen years ago, University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue published a volume mind-blowing in its brilliance of analysis and depth of research.

The title, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” is somewhat misleading.

This really is the book on how Detroit was destroyed - and destroyed itself - over the last 70 years.

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Opinion
11:15 am
Thu April 24, 2014

How today's political campaigns try to keep you from going to the polls

Here’s something that has changed in politics in this country, and I think it is a very disturbing trend. Back in ancient times, like say the 1980s, campaigning was largely about persuading voters.

We took it for granted that modern voters made their minds up, as the saying went, “based on the man, not the party.”

Everybody knew that there were diehard Democrats and rock-ribbed Republicans who would support their party’s candidates, no matter what, but they were seen as old-fashioned dinosaurs.

Well, things have changed. Dinosaurs are back.

The parties are more sharply divided than they’ve been in my lifetime. Swing voters are an endangered species.

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Opinion
10:46 am
Wed April 23, 2014

One way U of M could use racial preferences in admissions

As pretty much everyone knows by now, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of affirmative action in college admissions. This was no real surprise.

Today, lots of people are praising or attacking this decision. But it is clear to me that many of them haven’t read it, or even read much about it. And the high court’s ruling raises two very interesting questions on subjects other than affirmative action.

First of all, it is important to understand that the court did not say affirmative action couldn’t be used in college admissions. Not at all.

In fact, in his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “the consideration of race in admissions is permissible.” But Michigan voters eight years ago chose to ban the use of race in college admissions. Justice Kennedy wrote that the court found they were within their rights to “choose to prohibit the consideration of racial preferences in governmental decisions, in particular with respect to school admissions.”

However, Kennedy also said that voters could decide that “race-based preferences could be adopted.”  

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Politics & Government
9:06 am
Wed April 23, 2014

The week in Michigan politics: Affirmative action and GM

Credit US Supreme Court

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, and the latest reactions by GM after the fallout from recalls for ignition switch problems.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 4/23/14

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Opinion
11:55 am
Tue April 22, 2014

Sound and fury over Detroit teen's U of M rejection misses the real point

Brooke Kimbrough is easy to pick on – and a lot of the establishment, including the media, is happily doing so. Brooke is a frustrated high school senior who didn’t get accepted into the school of her choice – the University of Michigan. She apparently always took it for granted that she would get in.

The fact that she didn’t actually means she is in the majority. Two-thirds of high school seniors applying to U of M are rejected.

Kimbrough, who goes to one of the best charter schools in Detroit, is an impressive student. She’s a member of the debate team, and a youth leadership program.

Her grade point average is a respectable 3.5. But these days the average Michigan freshman’s average is 3.8. Brooke’s ACT scores are even further behind most successful applicants. So she was, sadly, rejected – though the university encouraged her to do well elsewhere and apply for admittance as a sophomore.

But Brooke isn’t willing to take no for an answer – and has decided to make this all about race. Seventeen-year-olds are often all about exaggerated rhetoric, and she is a prize-winning debater.

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Opinion
11:57 am
Mon April 21, 2014

Somebody has to run for Congress; why not you?

How would you like to serve in Congress? Oh, I know it is a lot of pressure. Still, you get paid a decent salary – $174,000 a year. That may be less than it sounds. Usually, you have to live in two places – Washington, D.C., and the district you claim to represent.

However, there are a lot of perks, like free mailing privileges, a staff and usually an entourage. While there is a fair amount of mind-numbingly dull committee work, and addressing Kiwanis Club meetings in Central Downtown Nowheresville, you do get to cast votes on important legislation affecting the nation.

There is a catch, however. You have to reapply for your job every two years, and it can be a nasty process, especially in a competitive district. First, opponents from your own party say nasty things about you, and you have to spend a lot of money saying things about them, or at least telling the voters how great you are.

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Politics & Government
9:07 am
Sat April 19, 2014

The week in review

Credit Jarrad Henderson / Detroit Free Press

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss the latest with the Detroit bankruptcy, road funding and the state's foreclosure rate.

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Opinion
11:28 am
Fri April 18, 2014

The future of Detroit's second bridge now hangs on the Obama administration

So whatever happened to the New International Trade Crossing Bridge?

For years, an epic battle raged between those who knew we needed a new bridge across the Detroit River, and Matty Moroun, the 86-year-old man who owned the 85-year-old Ambassador Bridge, the only game in town.

Moroun held up a new bridge for years, mostly by buying off Michigan legislators with bribes thinly described as campaign contributions, but that ended when Rick Snyder became governor.

Snyder found a way to bypass the lawmakers and conclude an agreement with Canada. That was almost two years ago, however, and ground has yet to be broken.

So what’s happening?

This time the culprit is not Matty Moroun, but, bizarrely, Barack Obama.

President Obama has been supportive of a new bridge. There was no difficulty gaining a presidential permit to build it. Money was not a problem, because our friends the Canadians are paying for almost all of it. They are advancing Michigan’s share of more than half a billion dollars, which we don’t have to pay back until the bridge is up and tolls are being collected.

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Opinion
9:53 am
Thu April 17, 2014

Journalists work hard to tell you everything you don't want to hear

To put it mildly, journalists are not the most beloved group in society. They never have been. We show up to tell you all sorts of unpleasant truths about life, society, your leaders and yourselves.

“Good afternoon. The mayor’s a crook, the governor is owned by special interests, your city is broke and your water polluted.”

“The country is involved in a ridiculous war it isn’t winning, your child is getting a lousy education, your roads will cost billions to fix and your representatives sold out to corporate interests. By the way, your kids are binge drinking and you are too fat. Have a nice day.” 

It’s no wonder people aren’t all that happy when they see us coming. Like any other profession or family, we also have our share of black sheep. Journalists who lie or make things up are very rare, but nobody forgets it when they do.

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Opinion
11:29 am
Wed April 16, 2014

You don’t want to play poker with Kevyn Orr

Here’s the one thing certain about Detroit’s bankruptcy: You don’t want to play poker with Kevyn Orr.

The state-appointed emergency manager had everyone convinced city workers and retirees were facing a steep 26% cut in their pensions – a cut that would jump to 34% if they didn’t quickly approve the smaller amount.

The city was getting ready to mail them all ballots explaining the cuts and asking for their approval.

Then, voilà – yesterday, everything changed. Suddenly, negotiators came up with a deal whereby most pensions would be cut by less than 5%. Police and fire retirees pensions won’t be cut at all.

There seems little doubt that the 32,000 employees and retirees will approve this deal. Yet we need to remember two things. First of all, this is not final yet – not by a long shot.

Something else that’s still very uncertain has to happen first. The Michigan Legislature has to approve contributing $350 million to a fund designed to shore up the pensions and protect any of the work in the city-owned collections in the Detroit Institute of Arts from being possibly sold for the benefit of the creditors.

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Opinion
11:29 am
Tue April 15, 2014

This is doing more damage to Detroit than a hundred drug murders could have

By now, millions know the story.

Thirteen days ago, on the east side of Detroit, a ten-year-old boy darted in front of a truck driven by a middle-aged tree trimmer named Steven Utash. He couldn’t help hitting the child, whose leg was broken.

When Utash got out to check on the boy, a mob beat him so severely he nearly died. He was in a medically-induced coma for days, and may end up with permanent brain damage.

All that is horrifying enough, but there is one additional terrible detail which is the main reason the story has gotten national attention.

The tree trimmer was white. His assailants were all black. And I can tell you that this is doing more damage to Detroit than a hundred drug murders could have. This may be more devastating to the city than Kwame Kilpatrick ever was. People are used to crooked politicians of all colors, shapes and sizes. Detroit had white mayors who wound up in prison long before Kilpatrick was born.

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Opinion
10:10 am
Mon April 14, 2014

We pay for bad roads with more repairs, higher fuel costs

If by any chance you’ve left your house anytime in, oh, say, the last year, you may have noticed that our roads are in terrible shape. Gov. Rick Snyder knows this. Two years ago, he asked the Legislature for $1.2 billion a year for a decade in new money to fix the roads. If you think that’s a lot, you’re right.

But it is less than studies show our horrible roads are costing us every year in the increased cost of fuel and car repairs, as well as  the incalculable cost of businesses that won’t expand in or move to Michigan because our infrastructure is in such lousy shape.

The governor hasn’t always been a statesman, nor above pandering to the far right. But he is a businessman, and devoted to economic expansion. He knows you need decent roads to attract business, especially the kind that produce high-tech, high-paying jobs.

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Politics & Government
8:57 am
Sat April 12, 2014

The week in review

Credit Photo by penywise / morgueFile

This Week in Review, Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss the latest with the Detroit bankruptcy, the continuing controversies over the General Motors recall, and the money problems involving the charter school system running Muskegon Heights schools.

Week in Review interview for 4/11/14

Opinion
11:50 am
Fri April 11, 2014

Tiger Stadium: The place where Detroit dies or is reborn

Well, the news got even worse for General Motors yesterday. Detroit’s future and the outcome of its bankruptcy remain much in doubt. I’ve talked about all these things before, and I am sure I’ll talk about them again. However, today I want to tell you a heartwarming little story of determination and resilience that you can share in.

If you are in the Lansing area tomorrow afternoon and have time, go to the Capital City Film Festival and see Stealing Home. If you are in the Detroit area, they are showing it in Ferndale Sunday afternoon at Renaissance Vineyard Church. More details are on the Stealing Home Facebook page.

My guess is that this film will blow you away. The French historian and philosopher Jacques Barzun famously said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

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