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Jack Lessenberry

Daily essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry. Subscribe to a podcast of his essays here. Learn more about Jack here.

Ways to Connect

Tim Greimel, the outgoing leader of the Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives, put it this way:

“I’ve talked to thousands of voters, and never had a single one say we’ve needed more money and less accountability and less transparency in politics.” 

I have no doubt that’s true.

The state officially certified Michigan’s election returns two days ago, and though the focus was on the extremely close presidential race, there was something I found even more troubling in another result, one that’s drawn very little notice.

That would be the vote for the state board of education. John Austin, who is now the board’s president, courageously rallied his colleagues to support the rights of transgender students. 


As you may have heard, Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, is asking for a recount of the vote in the three key states that decided the election – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and our own state of Michigan, which was the closest of all.

The Clinton campaign, or whatever remains of it, doesn’t hold out any real hope that the outcome will change, but supports the recounts, on the ground the public ought to be assured of the integrity of the process. 


There was a lot of horrified reaction from those who support public schools at the announcement that Michigan’s own Betsy DeVos was Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of education.

John Austin, the president of the Michigan Board of Education, said “it’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse and feeding it school children.” Austin, however, was narrowly defeated this year, and won’t be around to try and resist.


Wayne State University is, I often tell the parents of prospective students, quite possibly the safest large campus in the state. I’ve taught there for nearly a quarter-century, and I get crime reports from Wayne’s superb police chief, Anthony Holt.

They usually have entries like this:

“Student was wandering around Cass Avenue at 2 a.m. and a man grabbed her cell phone and ran away.”

Yes, if you put your i-Pad down and turn your back, it is quite likely to disappear.

Fifteen years ago, a group called Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation sued Nestle Waters North America, a division of the huge international conglomerate, over its plans to withdraw vast amounts of groundwater in Osceola County in Northwest Michigan.

Nestle wanted to siphon 400 gallons a minute from the aquifer, to bottle and sell at a profit. The environmentalists were concerned about what this would do to nearby rivers, streams, and ultimately, Lake Michigan. After years of legal wrangling, they came to a compromise in 2009.

Here’s the story I’m worried about hearing this weekend: An angry Clinton supporter carving a turkey plunges the knife not into the white meat, but his Trump-supporting uncle.

That’s not as far- fetched as it sounds. Inability to cope with what happened November 8th has meant lots of extra work for grief counselors, therapists, and the like.


A forgotten hero

Nov 18, 2016

There were just a few lines on the obituary page of yesterday, with a tiny picture. Margaret Fishman, beloved wife of Alvin, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt. Graveside services this morning in Detroit. Nothing exceptional, except for one line: “Margaret was a lifetime fighter for world peace, civil rights, workers’ rights, and justice for all.”

That she was. And for a moment sixty-three years ago, she was at the center of the world’s attention, at the dawn of the age of television journalism. Her younger brother, Milo Radulovich, was caught in the maw of Cold War hysteria.


Yesterday we learned that the Detroit News is inviting every editorial employee, from the most junior reporter to the executive editor, to quit their jobs. If you work there and you decide to voluntarily walk the plank, they’ll give you one week’s pay for every year you were there, up to half a year’s pay.

That’s not a very good offer as buyouts go; a year ago, a friend of mine who had been a News columnist for many years was offered a year’s pay to quit.


Sixteen years ago, during the campaign that led to the famous Bush-Gore disputed presidential election, I did a joint appearance with pollster Steve Mitchell, who predicted victory for George W. Bush and then-Senator Spencer Abraham in Michigan.

I said that I thought the pollster’s Republican bias was showing. He said that wasn’t true, and to prove it he regretfully predicted that Mike Rogers, a state senator then trying to be elected to Congress, was going to lose.


You may not have noticed, but Gov. Rick Snyder is in China this week, on what his administration is calling his sixth “investment” mission to the world’s newest economic superpower.

This particular trip is designed, the governor’s office says, to help establish Michigan’s global leadership in “autonomous vehicle technology,” which is industry-speak for cars that will drive themselves, at least to some extent.


I have been a staunch defender of the Electoral College, that quaint mechanism left over from the early days of the republic. You may well know how it works, though many people don’t.

When you voted for president last week, you in fact voted not for a candidate, but for a slate of sixteen people who pledge to vote for that candidate. The winning electors will drive to Lansing on December 19 and cast their votes in longhand as they would have done in 1792.


When I woke up the morning after the election, what popped into my head were some lyrics from the Democracy, written by that greatest of all poets of song, Leonard Cohen

“I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean/I love the country, but I just can’t stand the scene. And I’m neither left nor right/I’m just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” I suspected Wednesday morning that many people felt the same way.


I spent yesterday working in my office and hearing from people whose emotional state could be compared to that of survivors from a destroyed village. They were in utter despair and wanted hope. Donald Trump, a man whose campaign had been defined by attacks on women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, and general boorish behavior, was President-elect of the United States.

Angela Russo, a former student of mine, an occupational therapist in her early 30s and a former television reporter, was mostly stunned.


When I finally went to bed, what popped into my head was something the great cynical journalist H.L. Mencken used to say. “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want – and deserve to get it, good and hard.”

They will now get change, though what form that will take, nobody can say. What’s clear is that they wanted something different, and that the scope and the depths of their discontent was something that none of the experts grasped.


The late Theodore H. White, the prose poet of our national elections, wrote what remains the most lyrical and magical evocation of the meaning of this day.

“It was invisible, as always. They had begun to vote in the villages of New Hampshire at midnight, as they always do … all of this is invisible, for it is the essence of the act that as it happens, it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, without knowing the shape of the whole.

Suddenly, something nobody expected has happened.

Michigan seems to have become the key state in tomorrow’s presidential election.

Hillary Clinton is coming here today. So is Donald Trump. So is President Obama. Bill Clinton was here yesterday -- two of the last three presidents of the United States, plus the next one, regardless of who wins.

The reason is simple.

Trump has surged nationally, but he has to win either Michigan or Pennsylvania to have any chance of winning the election – and Pennsylvania isn’t looking so good for him, so that leaves Michigan.

It’s third down and six or seven yards.


In the past three days, I have talked about the campaign with people in all walks of life, from a state Supreme Court justice to a functionally illiterate janitor.

Their first words were all virtually the same. They can’t wait for it to be over. Unexpectedly, in the final weeks Michigan has become a key state for the first time in years.


To say that many voters are disenchanted with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be an understatement. For a while, I thought this might be a big breakthrough year for the Libertarian or the Green Parties.

However, that doesn’t seem likely.

Support for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson dwindled after he seemed utterly ignorant of foreign affairs. Too many liberals are still too traumatized by memories of Ralph Nader costing Al Gore the presidency to consider Stein.

So what about writing in somebody?

Moments after the news came last Friday that the FBI had apparently discovered new Hillary Clinton e-mails, my phone rang.

A reporter for the Benzinga news service wanted to know if there was any precedent for a last-minute October surprise affecting the outcome of a presidential election.


A few hours before Donald Trump spoke in Warren yesterday, I spoke with a handful of people who he probably knows nothing about, but who may be the most truly American of all.

They were all residents of something called Freedom House, in a century-old, red brick former convent, just a stone’s throw from the Ambassador Bridge.


Last week we saw two contradictory federal court rulings on Michigan’s law outlawing taking selfies of your ballot in the voting booth. For now, it is still illegal. 

Michigan Radio Senior News Analyst Jack Lessenberry is trying to sort this out.

Here's what he said:

Yes, this indeed has been the weirdest presidential election of our lives, even counting the year Ross Perot charged that President George Bush the first’s reelection campaign was scheming to destroy his daughter’s wedding by spreading the rumor that she was a lesbian.

Last Sunday, a warm and witty elderly gentleman I knew named Lloyd Strausz was in the process of planning his 99th birthday party, and decided to take a nap.

Unfortunately, he never woke up. Later, at the Shiva celebration of his life in his daughter’s home, I said I thought it was too bad that Lloyd, who had cast his first presidential vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, had missed one final election.

But he did vote, I was told. He had sent in his absentee ballot days before. He is now that stuff of legends – an actual dead voter, though in this case, a legitimate one.

Let’s say you were a candidate for the Michigan Legislature, and you got to run against a guy who has been convicted of eight felonies and is now being charged with three more.

Your opponent, the incumbent, has also been evicted from his home in the past for non-payment of rent.

Additionally, the state has had to pay more than $85,000 in legal fees to attempt to defend your opponent from a sexual harassment charge from a man who worked for him.

You might think the challenger would win by a landslide.

But in fact, William Broman is a huge underdog.

Frank Szymanski likes to startle audiences by asking, “Have you ever seen a naked trial judge?” after which he takes off his suit coat and flings it on a chair.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to stop there,” he tells them.

“But if you don’t educate yourselves before you go into that voting booth, if you don’t know who I and Judge Deborah Thomas are, we might as well be naked. You need to know that we are both circuit court judges, we care about kids, that we care about justice for everyone, and that we were nominated by the Democratic Party for the Michigan Supreme Court.”


Gretchen Driskell got into politics by accident twenty-some years ago, when she was home with a toddler and a neighbor knocked on her door.

He was running for city council and wanted her support; she was an accountant and an MBA who had taken a few years off to raise her three kids, and was happy to talk to another adult.

There was a great fascination with Tom Hayden when I was in high school in the Detroit suburbs in the mid-1960s. Mostly on the part of the teachers, that is.

They regarded him as a boy gone wrong who had grown up in what was then sleepy, suburban Royal Oak and then become a radical enemy of America. Some of them knew his mother, who was a film librarian for the public schools.


For almost eight months, the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Crisis has been meeting, taking testimony, and struggling to find solutions.

Two days ago, they released a major report aimed at preventing further disasters. Unfortunately, they did this the day of the final presidential debate, which meant it got less than full attention. 


Forty years ago, Gerald Ford, the only man from Michigan ever to reach the White House, went to bed in the wee hours of Election Night not knowing whether he had won or lost.

For Ford, the very closeness of the election was a sort of vindication. He started the campaign terribly unpopular. Inflation was high, and he was the man who pardoned our one clearly criminal president, Richard Nixon.


For the last several weeks or months I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about politicians, usually people who want you to think they have accomplished more than they have, and are now promising to do more than they can possibly do.

As long as you vote for them, that is. Well, two people died in the last few days who spent their lives doing more than most people realized, and who weren’t very well known.


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