Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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.

Something happened yesterday that left me flabbergasted.

Federal, local and state officials ganged up on Governor Rick Snyder and told him his efforts to investigate the mess in Flint were hampering their attempts to do so, and told him to knock it off.

For most people, May is one of the best months. The flowers are blooming; it’s pretty clear that it isn’t going to snow any more, and summer is coming. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan Democrats start regarding May with a shudder. For two years in a row, the party has been embarrassed in May by one of their own. Last year it was State Senator Virgil Smith Jr., one of the legislature’s dimmer bulbs.

Richard T. Cole, who most people know as Rick, is a remarkable man who’s had several careers, sometimes simultaneously. I was first aware of him when he was press secretary and chief of staff to Governor Jim Blanchard in the 1980s.

Later, he was a senior executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and worked with Mike Duggan back when the man who became Detroit’s mayor was overhauling the Detroit Medical Center.


The governor and the legislature are currently fighting over how to rescue the Detroit public schools from financial collapse. There’s a general recognition that this has to be done, if only because the consequences of not doing so would cost the state even more.

The state constitution requires Michigan to provide an education for all children.

I didn’t grow up around a racetrack culture, but the ponies did affect my life. I had a rather irresponsible algebra teacher in high school, who was very fond of horse racing.

 A long time ago, when VCRs were state of the art technology, Ronald Reagan became President, and his captains proclaimed a new economic philosophy:

We’ll give massive tax cuts to everyone, but especially corporations, and that will cause them to create millions more jobs. Formerly unemployed people will become productive taxpayers, and even though they pay lower tax rates, the revenue will come flowing in, and governments too will have more money than ever before.

Every so often it comes home to me that we really live in multiple worlds. The “official” one is what we see presented by the media on radio, television, newspapers and online.

Michigan has very minimal requirements for gun sales. But you need to get a permit before buying a pistol, and there are a few people who aren’t allowed a license, mainly those with a possibly dangerous mental illness or a criminal conviction.

State Representative Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, introduced a bill last week that seems pure common sense. He wants to require gun licensing agencies to notify police and prosecutors when someone applies and fails the background check.

If you’ve been around for a while, it isn’t hard to be cynical about Michigan government in general and the legislature in particular. As I’ve said a few million times, a combination of term limits, gerrymandering, and a dogmatic anti-tax ideology has prevented our lawmakers from taking care of our needs or preparing for the future.

When the current presidential campaign began, there were two things on which the expert talking heads agreed. Bernie Sanders was a far-out fringe candidate, and Donald Trump was a carnival sideshow who would be gone long before the snow melted.

Imagine bringing Abraham Lincoln back to life today. What do you suppose he would find most shocking about life in today’s America?

Airplanes? Same-sex marriage? A black president?

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about the end of Flint water hearings in Lansing and whether Detroit's struggling school district will get the cash infusion it needs from the state.


Years ago, soon after term limits first took effect in Michigan, a friend of mine served her three terms, and was forced to retire. To my surprise, her husband ran to succeed her. She came to the Legislature with a background in local government; he had none.

I thought his running was somehow faintly wrong. In any event, he lost in the primary, possibly because he had a different last name than she did.

If anyone had asked me then, I would have said I thought his candidacy was an aberration. In fact, the only aberration was that he happened to lose.

This weekend I had a chance to see President Obama’s speech to the graduating class at Howard, the nation’s best known historic black university. He talked to them about voting and voting rights – but not quite the way you might think.

It was a highly impressive speech.

If you’ve been paying attention to Lansing over the past several years, you know that the Michigan legislature seldom ever misses an opportunity to do the wrong thing.

More than half a century ago, Michigan had a Republican governor who faced a difficult choice. His party was going to nominate a candidate for president whose views on civil rights were totally opposed to his. George Romney was, make no mistake about it, a politician.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about Gov. Rick Snyder's plans to meet with President Obama in Flint today, teacher sickouts in Detroit and the future of the presidential campaign, now that the Indiana primary is over.

Six days ago, when it was first announced that President Obama was finally coming to Flint, Governor Snyder sent word from Europe that he was busy and didn’t plan to be in town that day. It was instantly clear that this was a huge political mistake.

I had dinner last night with John Hertel, who runs SMART, the efficient and cost-effective bus system for suburban Detroit. This hasn’t been an easy spring for John; his younger brother Curtis Hertel Sr., a revered former speaker of the Michigan House, died unexpectedly five weeks ago.

The Hertels were members of a species now rare in politics.

Last Thursday, there were huge headlines that Dan Gilbert, the billionaire who has bought much of Detroit, wants to invest a billion dollars to build a major league soccer stadium and complex in the city’s downtown.


I’m well aware that the Flint crisis is still going on, that the roads aren’t fixed and that while things are better in Detroit, the city still has too few jobs and too much blight.

  And I’m sure I will talk about some or all of those problems next week. However, it’s the start of a weekend in Michigan, and it might just be warm enough to sit on the porch and read something that isn’t about failure, incompetence or corruption.

The nation was enchanted by little Amariyanna Copeny, Mari for short, who calls herself “Little Miss Flint.”

Mari, an absolutely adorable eight-year-old, had written President Obama and asked to meet with him when she came to Washington.

That didn’t happen, but clearly some savvy staffer saw her letter and realized this might be a perfect backdrop for a presidential visit to Flint.

A number of people, including me, have been surprised that the President did not visit the afflicted city before.

It now seems nearly certain that one of our major political parties is going to nominate a presidential candidate who has pledged to deport every undocumented person in this nation.

Experts say that’s about 11 million people.

This has struck terror into the heart of one woman I know, who is not from Mexico, but Eastern Europe, who cleans houses and takes care of her husband and little daughter

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about the state health director's statement that Ebola concerns distracted from a Legionnaires' outbreak in Genesee County, two bills on hold in the Legislature that would affect Michigan historic districts, and a report that says one in 10 Michigan kids has a parent who is or was in prison.


There are a couple of stories today you may have missed that I think are profoundly significant, but which won’t get a fraction of the attention they should.

Last month, the State Board of Education did something that was right and courageous -- and which I felt certain at the time was bound to be misconstrued. 

Board President John Austin announced they were considering a new set of voluntary polices to help make gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students feel safe in school.

On Earth Day eight years ago, General Motors and Detroit were in bad shape and getting worse. Detroit was still suffering under Kwame Kilpatrick, the most corrupt mayor in its history, even as events were beginning to unfold that would send him to prison. 

Soon, the city would add a council president who would later vanish into thin air after he was accused of trying to seduce a high school boy.

Yesterday, while we were waiting to see who would face criminal charges in the Flint water crisis, I asked a friend if he thought that would be a real, no-holds-barred investigation.

“That depends on whether the indictments stop at Hunt, Liddy and the Cubans,” he said.


Anyone who knows Ismael Ahmed knows he is one of the most remarkable people in the Detroit area. He co-founded ACCESS, the nation’s largest Arab-American private human services organization, while he was still a student at the University of Michigan Dearborn.

That was 43 years ago. Today, ACCESS, which he ran for many years, offers more than 90 programs and reports nearly a million client visits a year.

I have to confess I rolled my eyes when I heard yesterday that Governor Rick Snyder went to a Flint resident’s home and drank their filtered tap water in front of two reporters.

Publicity pictures were taken, and the governor, who left with several gallons of the stuff, pledged to drink Flint water for the next 30 days.

Several nasty thoughts entered my head. One was to wonder if this was one of the houses that didn’t have lead pipes.

Pages