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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Commentary
10:55 am
Wed February 8, 2012

Prison Blues

Michigan is one of only a handful of states that spends more on prisons than it does on higher education. This is a disgrace, and isn’t doing very much for either our budget or our future.

The reasons for this are both complex and simple. The societal reasons are complex, of course, and have been addressed at length by people more knowledgeable than I.

The technical reasons are far simpler.  Thirty years ago, there were only about 13,000 inmates in Michigan prisons. Five years ago, the figure had ballooned to more than 51,000.

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Commentary
10:52 am
Tue February 7, 2012

Moroun & Stamper, Losing Credibility

When I heard the first news flashes about the Michigan Court of appeals ruling yesterday, it appeared briefly that the Ambassador Bridge company had won. Indeed, the court said Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards was wrong to rule that Matty Moroun, the bridge’s owner, and Dan Stamper, his top employee, had to stay in jail until they lived up to an agreement with the state.

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Commentary
10:59 am
Mon February 6, 2012

Pete Hoekstra, Ethnic Slur

Last week I had occasion to mention the famous author Upton Sinclair, and his now-forgotten campaign for governor of California in 1934. Afterwards, a friend told me, “I’ll bet that’s the last time you bring that up for about ten years.“

More likely, 20, I thought. Well, guess what. Here we go again. The reason I mentioned Sinclair was that his campaign was one of the first examples of moneyed interests spending lavishly to destroy a candidacy with outrageously false advertising, something we‘ve seen happen many times since.

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Commentary
11:09 am
Fri February 3, 2012

Saving Michigan's History

I have on my desk a beautiful, red-bound hardcover book published by our state exactly a century ago. It’s the Michigan Manual for nineteen eleven and nineteen twelve, sort of a one-volume encyclopedia of politics, government and life in our state.

This particular one has beautiful, fold-out maps of railroad line and judicial circuits and photos and biographies of all the state officeholders. I can find out exactly how people voted, or how to get  information about vacant swampland from the state land office.

This is a fascinating book, more than nine hundred pages long, and I bought it at a used book store for a dollar. Michigan has been publishing the Manual every two years since statehood, and I own all of them since eighteen sixty nine. Old timers in Lansing just call it “the red book.“ If you want to research our history, they are a  good place to start. Also on my desk is the most recent Michigan Manual,  published two years ago. Frankly, it isn’t nearly as nice as the century-old version, though I had to pay fifty bucks for this one. To save money, they dropped a lot of information.

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Commentary
10:49 am
Thu February 2, 2012

Endorsements: A Political Paradox

Now that the Florida primary is over, we’re bound to see increasing media attention on Michigan. We’re the next big state to hold a primary election, though not till the end of the month.

Native son Mitt Romney is heavily favored, but the fact that Newt Gingrich badly needs a win somewhere means we may see a fair amount of campaigning here.

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Commentary
11:04 am
Wed February 1, 2012

Moroun Buying Lansing

Most people remember Upton Sinclair, the crusading twentieth century writer, as the author of the novel, The Jungle, which exposed conditions in the food packing industry in Chicago. If you haven’t read it, it’s enough to make a butcher become a vegan for a week.

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Commentary
11:11 am
Tue January 31, 2012

How about this license plate: RU Nuts?

We’ve got a few serious problems in this state, from the fact that we lost almost a million jobs in the past decade to the inconvenient truth that higher education has become both essential for all and highly unaffordable for a large percentage of us.

Throw in that our largest city is quivering on the brink of state takeover and the Asian carp threat, and you might conclude that our lawmakers had more than enough to keep them busy without veering off into divisive distractions.

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Commentary
11:12 am
Mon January 30, 2012

Riding the Rails

I have been traveling by air for most of my adult life, and for a few years, flew somewhere at least once a week.

Yet while I took trains in Europe and Japan, it never occurred to me to do so from Detroit. Amtrak, people said, took forever and was a fairly nasty experience; a shabby relic of transportation’s past.

However, air travel has become less and less fun, from the increasingly cramped seats and loss of anything resembling service, and more and more intrusive security procedures.

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Commentary
12:18 pm
Wed January 25, 2012

Class Warfare

I started listening to the state of the union address last night, which I thought was one of President Obama’s better speeches.

But I lost my concentration some distance into the speech, when the president was talking about fairness. He said, “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay as least as much as his secretary in taxes?

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Commentary
11:25 am
Tue January 24, 2012

Taking health care to Nepal

Richard Keidan is one of this state’s most accomplished physicians.  A native Detroiter, he is a highly respected surgical oncologist at William Beaumont Hospital, and directs the hospital’s multidisciplinary melanoma clinic. He lives in Bloomfield Hills with his wife Betsy and his two kids, when they are home from college. He is widely published, is also a professor of surgery at Wayne State, and probably has no money worries of the kind most of us face.

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Commentary
10:53 am
Mon January 23, 2012

Fixing the roads

To say that Governor Rick Snyder isn’t popular these days with Democrats,  liberals and even some independent voters would probably be an understatement. Many were upset by his decisions to cut education spending in order to drastically lower business taxes. Others weren’t happy that the state is now taxing pensions.

And there was widespread unhappiness when Snyder signed a bill that prevents state and local governments from offering domestic partnership benefits to their employees. Polls indicate that some who voted for him fourteen months ago wouldn’t do so today.

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Commentary
11:24 am
Fri January 20, 2012

Losing your horse

Back before warfare became mechanized, one of the worst things that could happen, especially in the cavalry, was to have your horse shot out from under you on a battlefield.

This left you naked, vulnerable, and without any way to get back to your lines if the bugle suddenly sounded retreat. The temptation must have been overwhelming to try to get another horse, fast, by any means necessary. I thought about that yesterday, when what had been obvious for days finally became official:

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Commentary
11:58 am
Thu January 19, 2012

What next for Michigan?

Governor Snyder’s state of the state speech last night didn’t provoke the kind of excitement it did a year ago.

And that’s not necessarily bad. In fact, it demonstrated two things; a grasp of political reality, and responsible common sense. Last year was one of revolutionary change in the way state government does business. The governor proposed a series of breathtaking programs and far-reaching changes.

To the astonishment of the experts, he got pretty much everything he wanted through the legislature, with one exception -- the New International Trade Crossing bridge.

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Commentary
12:04 pm
Wed January 18, 2012

Wrong time for right-to-work?

Governor Rick Snyder has no interest in attempting to make Michigan a "right-to-work" state, which means one where it is illegal for employers to sign labor contracts requiring their workers to pay union dues. But some Republicans in the legislature disagree, and may try to get a right-to-work bill passed this year.

There’s also the possibility of trying to put something on the November ballot, a constitutional amendment, perhaps, that would outlaw the union shop in this state. It’s unclear whether there is really going to be any serious effort to make that happen.

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Commentary
11:35 am
Tue January 17, 2012

Plymouth-Canton school district banning books

There’s an interesting controversy going on in the  Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, a middle-class school district in Western Wayne County. It has to do with banning books.

And while it hasn’t made headlines, the implications are ominous, and scary. This is a sizable district, with three high schools with more than six thousand students.

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Commentary
11:28 am
Mon January 16, 2012

What's next for Moroun?

Gregg Ward took his 16-year-old daughter Emily to a crowded courtroom last Thursday morning, so they could both see what would happen to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

To her father’s astonishment, Moroun became the only billionaire ever to spend a night in the crowded Wayne County jail, after a judge found him in contempt for refusing to follow court orders to demolish some illegal construction and live up to a contract with the state. Emily was fascinated. “I was definitely glad I went!” she said. “It was really interesting to see how justice would prevail.”

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Commentary
12:33 pm
Fri January 13, 2012

Matty Moroun sent to jail, democracy at work

The Nobel-prize-winning writer Anatole France once observed sarcastically that “the law, in its infinite wisdom, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, or steal bread.”

That popped into my mind yesterday, when a billionaire who owns a bridge learned to his shock that laws apply to him too, and that there are some people who cannot be bullied or bought.

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Commentary
11:28 am
Thu January 12, 2012

Physics and Politics

The scientific and political communities in this state and country often live in largely separate worlds. Former Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a physicist from Grand Rapids and a classy gentleman, was one of the few who managed to bridge that gap.

Smart scientists know that they usually don’t want to focus political attention on what they are doing. Smart politicians, a somewhat rarer breed, know enough to mostly leave scientists alone.

But there was a development yesterday that united both Michigan’s scientists and politicians in concern.

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Commentary
11:35 am
Wed January 11, 2012

The Secret Primary

Well, we now know who won the New Hampshire primary. Michigan’s Republican primary is going to be held February 28. Democrats will pick their delegates in caucuses four months from now, on May 5. There isn’t any urgency for them; they have only one candidate: President Barack Obama.

So Republicans are using a primary; Democrats a caucus. But there is another primary election you probably don’t know about—and which Michigan Democrats don’t want you to find out about. It is also being held February 28.

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Commentary
10:40 am
Tue January 10, 2012

Destroying Our Future

All politicians say they’re against oppressive tax burdens. For instance, Governor Rick Snyder. Almost his entire program is focused on making Michigan more competitive economically.

But the tragic irony of this is that one of the unintended consequences of his reforms is having exactly the opposite effect. We are imposing a stiff and burdensome tax on our young people, making it harder for them to compete than most states do.

In some cases, we are making it impossible, and we are going to be paying the price for this for many years to come.

That’s because we are imposing what Phil Power at the Center for Michigan calls a “college user tax,” on the students of this state that saddles many with crushing debt and prices others out of the market entirely. I learned the details this morning from a story in Bridge, the new online newsmagazine published by the Center, a non-partisan, non-profit group aimed at finding common-sense solutions for our state’s problems. Phil Power also wrote his weekly column about the study. It makes for shocking reading.

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