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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

Paul Ryan
Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Republican US House leaders on Friday withdrew their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill from the floor after it was clear the measure would not have enough votes to pass. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether Gov.

Rian Saunders / Flickr, http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

As you probably know, the Republican Party is in control of all three branches of Michigan government – executive, legislative and judicial. Republicans also control both houses of Congress and the Presidency.

Democrats are, naturally, not happy about this.

Jocelyn Benson stood in line for two hours waiting to vote last November, holding her five-month-old son Aiden all the while. “I had to put him down and change his diaper twice,” she told me, smiling. Benson lives and votes in Detroit, where there are often too few voting places and machines for large turnout elections.

A cyanobacteria bloom on Lake Erie in 2013.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Last night I drove almost a hundred miles into Ohio to preside over a discussion with huge implications for Michigan. The topic was the future of Lake Erie, the warmest and shallowest of the Great Lakes and a major source of drinking water for 11 million people.

I was ten when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth fifty-five years ago. We were all mad for science then, and if you’d asked any of the kids I grew up with what we thought life would be like in 2017, we would have been sure we’d have colonies on Mars.

When it comes to ethics and integrity in government, Michigan is a disgrace. That’s not just my opinion. A little over a year ago, the Center for Public Integrity ranked our legislature worst among the fifty states in an analysis of state government transparency and accountability. We have few restraints on legislative behavior.

Michigan voted for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election. But you would never know that from the budget he sent to Congress. You might think instead that we were a hostile nation at war with the United States, which therefore deserves to have its economy and its environment destroyed.

This is a more anti-Michigan budget than I could have imagined. It would not cut, but instead completely eliminate, funding to clean up and restore the Great Lakes and their environment. It would also slash funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Barbara McQuade, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School.
Courtesy of the University of Michigan Law School

With considerable fanfare, the Trump administration last week ordered every remaining Obama-appointed federal prosecutor, formally known as U.S. District Attorneys, to resign.

They will now gradually be replaced by new Republican appointees. Michigan has two federal prosecutors. Patrick Miles, who was in charge of the western district, announced his resignation in January and left the same day President Obama did.

But Barbara McQuade, the U.S. District Attorney in Detroit, stayed on the job. And by common consent, she did a superb job during the more than six years she was federal prosecutor.

As you almost certainly know, there’s a Republican-backed bill before Congress that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known to most people as Obamacare.

Republicans control both houses of Congress, and if they stay united on this, the bill should become law, perhaps within weeks.

If that happens, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that within nine years, the number of people without health insurance in this nation would grow by 24 million.

Many years ago, I taught a course in specialty publications at a small university in the Detroit suburbs. One of the students was a woman who was an executive secretary at General Motors.

She was nearing retirement, and she and her husband’s shared passion was a game called tabletop shuffleboard. Their dream was to publish a tabletop shuffleboard magazine.

Many people I know would find it easier to understand someone who is transgender than someone who voted for Donald Trump for president.

That’s just a statement of fact. And emotionally, I have to confess that I feel the same way. I can understand that one might feel trapped in a body and within a gender that feels wrong. I’ve known people in that predicament, and my heart went out to them.

Flickr user 401(K) 2012/Flickr

An additional 650,000 low-income people have been able to get health care through Michigan's Medicaid expansion, with the federal government picking up most of the tab. However, a Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act would change how funding for the program is doled out.

Christoper Sessums / Flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

For the last couple days, I, together with a million or so of my fellow Michiganders, have been living a sort of 19th century life.

By that I mean that we’ve been living without power, electricity or heat, thanks to the freak windstorms that whipped through much of our state.

Now, we’re not quite in the same boat as Abraham Lincoln. He didn’t have Double-A batteries, nor could he go to a motel with internet access, which is how I am broadcasting today.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

In case you needed more proof that politics makes for strange bedfellows, a coalition of religious leaders and casino owners have united to oppose new legislation that would legalize online gambling in Michigan. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss whether the legislation is a good bet for the state.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

I have an idea. This should especially appeal to everyone who either didn’t like President Obama, or thought there were flaws in his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Let’s get even by taking health care away from 650,000 Michiganders with lower incomes.

Now, granted, this will have repercussions.

For years, David Bonior was one of the biggest figures in Congress. A Democrat from Macomb County, he served for more than a quarter century, managing to win reelection time after time, even in years when the so-called “Reagan Democrats” voted Republican.

Bonior saw his mission as fighting for the downtrodden, regardless of what toes he stepped on. He tangled with presidents of both parties, sparring with Bill Clinton over NAFTA and Ronald Reagan over his wars in Central America. He rose to achieve considerable power.

Courtesy Nan Palmero / Creative Commons -- http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Last Friday, a number of university researchers and state and county public health professionals were supposed to have a meeting – actually, a conference call – with state officials.

The group is called the Flint Area Community Health Environment Partnership, and the subject was their preliminary analysis of the reasons behind a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint. More than 70 people got the disease during 2014 and 2015, when the city had been switched to water from the now-infamous Flint River.

Child reads with teacher
US Department of Education / Creative Commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The state's water bill subsidies for Flint residents ended this week, and that means customers will see a price spike when they get their bills next month. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about how that could give way to more problems for Flint water customers already behind on their accounts.

They also talk about a call from Michigan State University faculty members for the college to turn the investigation surrounding Dr. Larry Nassar over to an outside police agency, an uphill battle to add the right to literacy to the state constitution, and a bill that would require employers to let employees earn paid sick time.

History through fashion - at the 2015 conference of the Historical Society of Michigan.
Historical Society of Michigan / Facebook

People sometimes ask me, “How do you find something different to talk about, every day?” Well, if this were North Dakota Public Radio, it might be hard. But I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever run out of topics in Michigan.

We’ve got around 10 million people, more than the entire country had 200 years ago, more geography than some European countries, a diversified economy and a far richer ethnic mix.

Pontiac, Michigan. The Pontiac Commercial Historic District.
Andrew Jameson / wikimedia/GNU Free Documentation License

It’s no secret that many Michigan cities are in trouble, economically and otherwise. The drama of Detroit has played out on a national stage. The entire nation also knows something about Flint, thanks to the horrendous water tragedy.

Other towns, such as Hamtramck, have their own form of gritty cachet.

But then there is Pontiac, a city that seems to be defined by things that are dying or just not there anymore.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

President Donald Trump delivered his first speech to a joint session of Congress last night. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about issues Trump touched on that resonate in Michigan, including a proposed $1 trillion investment in infrastructure nationwide.

Six years ago, Governor Rick Snyder found a way to conclude a deal with Canada to build a new bridge across the Detroit River, something vitally needed if Michigan’s economy is to prosper in the years ahead.

As of now, we are completely dependent on the almost 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge, which shows clear signs of wearing out, and which wasn’t built for today’s massive tractor-trailers. About $2 billion in trade moves across that bridge every week, mainly heavy industrial components that can’t go through the tunnel.

I took my friend Guy to lunch last week, the same day the President of the United States declared that members of my profession were “enemies of the people.”

Guy is one of the most amazing people I know, and I wanted to know what he was thinking. He told me that after the election turned out badly, his father talked to his family at the dinner table.

Some years ago there was an effort to boost enrollment at Wayne State University, where I teach. One administrator told me that they were admitting "anyone with a Pell Grant and a pulse." Unfortunately, the result wasn’t what everyone was hoping for.

Some of these students weren’t intellectually ready or able for college, and soon dropped out or flunked out. Others weren’t emotionally ready, and had no idea what they wanted to do.

chairs stacked on a desk in a classroom
Flickr user janine / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A Republican-backed bill to rollback Michigan's income tax died on the floor of the state House early Thursday morning. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about fallout from the bill's failure, including a leadership change in Lansing.

We're also talking about the Trump administration's withdrawal of Obama-era guidance on transgender students' rights in schools, the state's delay on announcing which low-performing schools will be closed in the fall, and a new "fake news" course at the University of Michigan.

The other night I had dinner with John King, not the one on CNN with the election maps, but Detroit’s own John King, one of the city’s most colorful and eccentric personalities.

John, whose ancestry is mainly Lithuanian, owns the city’s biggest bookstore, John King Used and Rare Books, housed in a huge former glove factory along the Lodge Freeway.

I’m not often astonished by the things legislators do, especially since our politics have been afflicted by the disease of term limits, a condition that means virtually none of those in leadership positions have enough experience to properly do their jobs.

While one Democrat from the Upper Peninsula supported it, a dozen Republicans thumbed their noses at the Speaker and voted "no."

When I learned about this, I had to check to make sure the world was still spinning on its axis and I was actually awake.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

The Department of Homeland Security revealed dramatic changes to its policies on Tuesday. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what those changes could mean in Michigan, where a number of cities have sanctuary measures in place or are considering them.

Well, at first glance it might look like the legislature came to its senses yesterday, at least so far cutting the state income tax is concerned. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

The lawmakers did drop the infantile notion of completely getting rid of the state income tax. They also backed away from cutting it from the current 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent overnight. But they still want to make that cut – just gradually, over the next four years.

Well, it is still deep winter, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The Super Bowl is over, and the baseball exhibition season hasn’t gotten started.

So naturally, the restless minds of those interested in politics are turning to the next election, or make that, elections. State Senator Coleman Young Jr., who is term-limited and will need a new job, has announced he is running for mayor of Detroit.

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