Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

*Subscribe to a podcast of Jack's essays here.

A Detroit native, Jack originally intended to become a historian, but recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.  Since then, he has accumulated nearly forty years of journalism experience in every medium from newspapers to the internet. 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 and The Boston Globe.

Currently, in addition to his work at Michigan Radio, he is head of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, Dome Magazine, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade, where he also serves as ombudsman, and hosts the weekly public affairs program "Deadline Now"  on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Among 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 mostly stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled, though he admits to a fondness for the crusty old butler on Downton Abbey.

Ways to Connect

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.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

The last presidential debate is over, and a light is starting to appear at the end of the election season tunnel. This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and I talk about whether we'll see much more campaign action in Michigan before voters cast their ballots. We also discuss the ousting of the state Republican Party's grassroots chair over her refusal to back Donald Trump, and a big step toward financial health in Wayne County.

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.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

After a long, grueling campaign season, Election Day is only 20 days away. This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Doug Tribou look at ballot battles in southeast Michigan, including an unusual situation in Macomb County, where a Clinton Township Trustee who's running for supervisor is facing bribery charges.

They also discuss L. Brooks Patterson's bid for a seventh term as Oakland County Executive and a mass transit millage proposal in metro Detroit.

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.

Someone asked me, what if Donald Trump loses the presidential election and refuses to concede defeat?

Well, legally, it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever.

From time to time, we’ve had Michigan candidates who didn’t have the grace to face their supporters and congratulate their opponents.

Geoffrey Fieger never formally conceded his race for governor. Neither did Terri Lynn Land when she was defeated by Gary Peters for the U.S. Senate two years ago. But both lost badly, the state certified the results, and that was that.

Flint river
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Lawsuits keep piling up in the wake of the Flint water crisis. This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and I talk about a new complaint that calls for a grand jury criminal investigation into Gov. Rick Snyder's legal fees. We also talk about another challenge to Michigan's 180-day time limit on collecting petition signatures and upcoming visits from vice-presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.

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.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Detroit Monday that we can expect "a positive message" during the last month of her campaign.

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Doug Tribou discuss whether that will resonate with Michigan voters. Lessenberry and Tribou also look at a Detroit Free Press investigation that finds the state may have overpaid for supplies it bought in response to the Flint water crisis, and the teacher shortage that continues to plague Detroit Public Schools.

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: 

Gary Johnson
Gage Skidmore / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Before U.S. lawmakers left town this week, the House approved a funding bill that includes $170 million for Flint. This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rebecca Kruth talk about what needs to happen to get the bill passed once lawmakers return after Election Day. They also talk about Donald Trump's fifth visit to Michigan since he was named the Republican presidential nominee, and The Detroit News' surprising endorsement of Libertarian Gary Johnson for president. 

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.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

The U.S. Senate rejected a spending bill on Tuesday to keep the government running through December 9.

A majority of Democrats voted "no" because the bill didn't contain money to help Flint.

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Doug Tribou talk about the impact that could have on the upcoming election. They also discuss Donald Trump's Michigan references in the first presidential debate and calls to reduce recidivism from Hillary Clinton and Gov. Rick Snyder.

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.

A Tesla electronic car at a charging station
Austin Kirk / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

This Week in Review, Jack and I look at a lawsuit in which Michigan and 20 other states seek to block a new federal rule that expands overtime eligibility for white-collar workers.

We also discuss a bill that would require more transparency from state lawmakers, and electronic car maker Tesla's lawsuit against the state of Michigan.