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

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.

Last weekend I was invited to a birthday party with a 1980s theme in which guests were supposed to dress accordingly. Well, I don’t have any mustard-colored sports coats of the sort President Reagan sometimes wore.

So, as the guest of honor was a Democrat, I wore political buttons honoring that party’s three great losers of that decade – Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis.

According to the Special Theory of Relativity, time slows down as you approach the speed of light. I think that’s also true for political campaigns, especially this one.

Every day seems longer and more interminable as we get closer to the actual election, and more and more weird and fantastic stuff seems to be happening.

I’ve been fascinated by politics my entire life, and have usually regarded election night the same way football fans regard the Super Bowl.

Whether the candidates I supported won or lost, I felt sort of a letdown after it was over; I’d have to wait another four years before a new presidential contest.

David MacNaughton, Canada’s relatively new ambassador to the United States, came to Detroit yesterday, to speak to an important but too-little known group, CUSBA, or the Canada-United States Business Association. Our relationship with Canada is, by far, the most important one there is for both countries.

Canadians always know that; Americans tend to forget.

Detroit-Windsor is also easily both countries’ most economically important border crossing. The Canadian consulate graciously invited me to lunch with the ambassador, a witty and urbane man who isn’t a typical career diplomat. After serving his nation briefly as a young man, he went on to build his own political PR firm, sold it, and went on to run two more. .

Type some words like “will the Republican Party survive this election” into any search engine, and you’ll find stories predicting its coming collapse.

Without any doubt, the GOP is now being torn by an internal civil war, and most of its key figures privately or publicly have written off Donald Trump’s chances.

When I was eight years old, something historic happened: The first-ever televised presidential debate between major party candidates.

My lower middle-class Detroit-area family watched it together, as did many American families, and I was encouraged to pay attention. The following day, my fourth-grade teacher encouraged discussion about the debate.

I am sure much of it was over my head, but I remember very vividly that everyone thought it an important event.

Here’s what the Michigan Constitution says about state aid to private schools:

No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school. No payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student or the employment of any person at any such nonpublic school or at any location or institution where instruction is offered in whole or in part to such nonpublic school students.

That’s about as clear as could be.

For many years, few people paid any attention to the politics of Michigan Supreme Court justices. Nor were elections for the state’s highest court usually exciting.

That’s because there used to be a presumption that judges were more or less above politics, and that once on the bench, they should remain there as long as they were honest and competent, until the magic age of 70, after which, under the Michigan Constitution, they may finish a current term, but are no longer eligible to run again.

If this election follows the familiar pattern, Donald Trump will lose Oakland County, Michigan’s second-largest and easily most affluent county, and lose it badly.

Oakland was once reliably Republican. But the party’s move to the right on social issues hasn’t played well with largely highly educated Oakland voters, especially professional women.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a President of the United States went stark raving mad? As in, thinking he or she was an eggplant?

Actually, there IS a system to deal with that. As I understand it, all that would have to happen would be for the vice president and a majority of the cabinet to sign a declaration that the president was not competent, and send it to Congress.

There’s general agreement that education in Michigan is an unholy mess that is getting worse. Test scores confirm it is failing hundreds of thousands of students, which has huge implications for our future and that of our state.

We are spending billions on a system that doesn’t work, and narrowly based ideological remedies aren’t helping.

When I look at a system that is failing to teach far too many Tommys and Tamikas to read, and which is making higher education unaffordable for those who can, what oddly comes to mind is what a young John Kerry said about Vietnam: 

The Detroit News caused quite a stir this week when it endorsed Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson for president.

The newspaper, which was founded in 1873, has never endorsed anyone except a Republican for the nation’s highest office, though on three occasions, including the contest between George Bush and John Kerry in 2004, it hasn’t endorsed anyone.

But do such endorsements matter?

Democrats are liberals, and Republicans conservatives, right?

We usually talk and think about the major parties that way, as if they were two different flavors of ice cream.

Republicans are red raspberry; Democrats, blueberry.

Republicans want lower taxes and fewer services; Democrats higher taxes and more services.

Democrats are pro-choice; Republicans anti-abortion, et cetera, et cetera.

If Donald Trump is to be elected President, he almost certainly has to win either Michigan or Pennsylvania.

If Trump carries every state Mitt Romney won and adds Ohio, Florida and Iowa, he still loses – unless he can take Michigan or Pennsylvania away from the Democrats.

So far this year, polls show he may have a better chance here.

Hillary Clinton leads in Michigan, but by less than in Pennsylvania and by far less than President Obama won the state either time. But Republicans in Congress are now doing something that may torpedo any chance Trump has of flipping this state this year.

Macomb County resident Julie Baumer volunteered to care for her sister’s unwanted baby thirteen years ago. She was a 27-year-old mortgage broker who was engaged to be married and had a full life, but she didn’t want the little boy to be put up for adoption.

But a few weeks later, she took the baby to the hospital, where doctors discovered a lot of blood on his brain. She was suspected of violently shaking the baby.

As everyone knows, the first presidential debate since the primaries is tonight, the first head-to-head clash between the two least popular presidential nominees ever.

How’s this idea: In an effort to please an old-fashioned, shrinking industry, we outlaw efforts to sell a new product in an innovative way?

Instead, we’ll make anyone who wants this product drive to Chicago or Cleveland to buy it.

That ought to help Michigan become economically competitive again.

There are bitter disputes over many aspects of education these days, but there is widespread agreement that how well children are reading by the time they finish the third grade is the best way we have of predicting their future success.

We also know this: In Michigan, things are bad and have been getting worse.

Thirteen years ago, this state ranked 28th in fourth grade reading proficiency. Now, we are 41st, and the Education Trust-Midwest estimates that soon we will be 48th.

You might think, some days, that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were actually running for president of Michigan.

Trump has been to the state repeatedly, and will be in nearby Toledo for the second time in the last few weeks today.

Chelsea Clinton, the candidate’s only child, will be campaigning and fundraising in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Flint Thursday and Friday. You might think they are paying a lot of attention to one medium-sized state that has only 16 of the 270 needed electoral votes.

Years ago, I heard a young reporter ask an old editorial writer what the difference was between Republicans and Democrats.

The old guy said, “Democrats love big government, preferably controlled by and run from Washington. Republicans are in favor of smaller, less intrusive government, and local control,” he said, and then paused.

“Except, that is, when they’re not.”

The young reporter asked when that was. “Whenever local government does something they don’t want it to do,” the old cynic said. That was long before the Tea Party or Rick Snyder.

If you’ve been living in Michigan for a while, chances are that you have noticed a drop in the quality of services you are getting from local government. I’m not just talking about distressed cities like Detroit or Pontiac, I’m talking about everywhere.

Well, guess what. You think you are getting less because you are. Some of that has to do with the mentality that all taxes are bad, even when not levying them costs us more than the tax would, as is the case with the roads.

Today, Detroit still has a lot of problems. But the city is out of bankruptcy. It is no longer crippled by huge debts and unfunded pension and benefit mandates.

The population loss has slowed to a trickle, the streetlights are on again, and Midtown is booming. But 11 years ago, Detroit was an entirely different place. White flight had been succeeded by black middle-class flight that was almost a stampede.

Politically, the easy thing for the State Board of Education would have been to postpone a vote on guidelines for protecting transgender students until after November 8th.

State Board President John Austin, who has led the way on this issue, had every reason not to want this vote now.

He is up for reelection this year, he’s had some thoughts about running for higher office, and there’s a real threat that social and religious conservatives will try to put a target on his back because of his courageous stand against bullying.  

When news came yesterday morning that State Representative Peter Pettalia had died in a motorcycle crash, the first question everybody I knew asked was: Was he wearing a helmet?

Pettalia was a key player in the successful drive four years ago to repeal the law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Turns out that he was wearing a helmet at the time of the tragedy, which evidently was not his fault. The brutal fact is that if you are going to collide with a heavy, vast-moving vehicle, a motorcycle, unlike a car, offers almost no protection.

There’s a fascinating intellectual property rights war going on that may have big implications for anyone who has a business and is thinking about using a symbol in the public domain. 

If you drive around much, you’ve likely seen bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing the familiar diamond-shaped M-22 logo that designated a scenic highway in the Leelanau Peninsula.

I was a little surprised when Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appealed the decision striking down the ban on straight-ticket voting to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I knew, of course, that the attorney general wanted straight-ticket voting outlawed.

He is a fiercely partisan Republican, and the GOP thinks with some reason that allowing straight-ticket voting hurts their candidates.

I am a little overweight. Not grossly fat, but I could certainly lose a few pounds. I could say this is because I was bullied as a child, because I heroically work too hard and don’t have time to eat properly, or because of my existential angst.

Actually, existential angst sounds like a good, all-purpose excuse for everything, especially given the current climate, political and otherwise. But the fact is that I am overweight because I eat too much and don’t exercise enough.