Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan. (He had previously set out to be a historian.) Now, he boasts thirty years of eclectic journalism experience. 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, The Boston Globe, and The Oakland Press.

Currently, he is a professor of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade...in addition to his work at Michigan Radio.

Throughout his years of journalism experience, 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 stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled.

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Opinion
10:25 am
Mon March 24, 2014

The partisan divide over same-sex marriage

Unless you were trapped underground last weekend, you probably have been following Michigan’s same-sex marriage drama.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman issued an opinion striking down Michigan’s state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages.

Less than 24 hours later, a federal appeals court put his ruling on hold.

In the meantime, several hundred couples rushed to get licenses and marry. Every legal scholar I know believes the legality of same-sex unions will eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Politics & Government
11:02 am
Fri March 21, 2014

The future of the EAA

There aren’t many who are neutral about the EAA, or Education Achievement Authority. That’s the entity formed to improve Detroit’s worst public schools.

For some, this experiment is an abject failure. Last year, through dogged persistence, State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, turned up lots of disturbing information about the EAA.

That includes news that the authority borrowed millions of dollars from the cash-strapped Detroit school district, loans the authority then seemed determined to hide. Today, Lipton, a former teacher, calls the EAA “education deform.”

There have been revelations that at least one-quarter of the kids in EAA schools have left. There have been wildly conflicting reports as to the learning atmosphere in the 15 EAA schools, as well as whether kids in them are making better progress.

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Opinion
9:36 am
Thu March 20, 2014

Bill Schuette enforcing popular regulations in an election year

There’s an old joke that says Republicans are the party in favor of local control, except when they aren’t, which is to say when local governments do something Republicans in the Legislature don’t like – for example, providing what they see as excessive health benefits to their employees.

Now it seems that the GOP is also the party which is aggressively in favor of the free market – except when it isn’t. And it is often convenient to be in favor of regulation in favor of the public interest in an election year.

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Politics & Government
8:08 am
Thu March 20, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

NOAA

In This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the financial emergency in Royal Oak Township, the approval of PTSD for medical marijuana use, and how Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is going after energy companies accused of drastically bringing down the prices of oil and gas land leases, and why some people paid as much as $8 a gallon for propane this year.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 3/20/14

Opinion
11:09 am
Wed March 19, 2014

Who is Mark Totten and why is he hoping to unseat Bill Schuette?

Few remember this today, but 24 years ago, Bill Schuette, now Michigan’s Attorney General, gave up a safe seat in Congress in an attempt to defeat U.S. Senator Carl Levin.

Mark Totten was a 16-year-old kid growing up in Kalamazoo back then. Had he been able to, he would have voted for Schuette. His family was solidly Republican.

However, politics weren’t on Totten’s agenda then. As a teenager, his plan was to go to the seminary and become a Baptist minister. Totten went to a small Christian college in Ohio, but his views gradually started to change.

Making the world a better place continued to be important to him, but he realized the Republican Party didn’t represent his values. Totten became a Democrat, and then did something astonishing.

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Opinion
10:46 am
Tue March 18, 2014

In praise of Michiganders

You may have wondered, especially if you didn’t grow up in this state, why some of us call ourselves Michiganians and some  Michiganders. Yesterday I heard from one gentleman who has strong feelings on the topic. He hates the term Michigander.

He wrote to me, “Michigan Radio disserves the listeners every single time it utilizes the term Michigander. Regardless of the result of a recent popular opinion poll, the usage is just plain wrong.”

He added that “Michigander is a derogatory term imposed on us,” by a freshman congressman from Illinois way-back-when.

Well, it is always good to think about words and what they mean. But in this case, I have to profoundly disagree.

I am a Michigander, I have always been a Michigander, and intend to always be one. And that’s because this is a word that is not only unique, but which has a rich history.

Yes, it was indeed coined by a new congressman – but one named Abraham Lincoln. Nor was he disrespecting us as a state. He was poking gentle fun back in 1848 at a political opponent, Lewis Cass, who was pretty much the political godfather of Michigan.

Cass was the Democratic nominee for president that year; Lincoln was a Whig. They disagreed on the Mexican War; Cass supported it, Lincoln did not. Though we today think of Lincoln as a marble statue, in his own time, he was famous for a sharp and sometimes biting sense of humor, and in a debate over the war, Lincoln said of Cass, “and there he sits, the great Michigander.”

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Opinion
12:10 pm
Mon March 17, 2014

Mary Barra finds herself navigating a crisis at General Motors

During the long and agonizing Watergate scandal, the endless question was: What did he know, and when did he know it? That referred to President Richard Nixon, and the break-in and cover-up at the Democratic National Headquarters.

In the end, it turned out Nixon had known a lot, right from the start, which is how he became our only President ever forced from office.

Well, now people are beginning to ask: What did she know and when did she know it? Except the arena is not politics, but the auto industry, specifically, the reborn General Motors.

This time, the chief executive is a woman, Mary Barra, the first woman ever to lead a major car company.

Three months ago, many of us were stunned and delighted when she was appointed.

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Politics & Government
10:26 am
Fri March 14, 2014

Searching for the right solution to fix Michigan's roads

Jack Lessenberry's essay for March 14, 2014.

Recently I criticized the Legislature and State Senator Jack Brandenberg for wanting to roll back state income taxes. He has a bill to cut the rate from 4.25% to 3.9% over three years.

For an average taxpayer, that would mean a tax cut of less than a hundred bucks a year. But it would leave the state with nearly a billion dollars a year less, when it already doesn’t have enough money to maintain the roads or provide other services.

After this bill sailed through the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month, I said I thought it was irresponsible election year pandering.

Later, Sen. Brandenberg called me.

He was warm, earnest, had a sense of humor, and said I had gotten it wrong. He wasn’t pandering in the least, he told me; this is what he genuinely believed. He said this stemmed from an agreement to roll back taxes going back to when Jennifer Granholm was governor.

I thought his calling me took class, and it was clear he really does believe in this. Brandenberg has no need to pander; he is certain to be reelected this fall to a safe Republican seat.

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Opinion
10:21 am
Thu March 13, 2014

This supplemental bill gravely endangers infant health and Michigan's future

Well, yesterday the legislature approved a budget supplemental bill that includes more than two hundred million dollars in new money to fix the roads, and the politicians are congratulating themselves.

Governor Snyder issued a press release praising this, and congratulating the legislature on “working together” and creating the “positive relationship” needed to pass this bill.

Now if you think about it, what he said sounds pretty bizarre. Working together? Positive relationship? That’s the kind of language you use when two nations sign a trade agreement.

These are the two houses in our state’s legislature. Their job is to work together for our good. And you’d think a “positive relationship” should be a piece of cake, since they are both controlled by Republicans. But in fact, there isn’t all that much positive in this bill. The road funding, while necessary, doesn’t address the major problem, and it isn’t clear whether this money will be allocated fairly.

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Opinion
11:44 am
Wed March 12, 2014

Michigan lawmakers preparing a small patch for our roads

Despite appearances, those who make our laws sometimes do listen to those who elect them. Here’s one example happening right now. Anyone who drives knows that our roads are in terrible shape.

Nobody remembers them ever being this bad, especially in major urban areas. But the Legislature has stubbornly ignored appeals from Gov. Rick Snyder to fix them.

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Opinion
12:31 pm
Thu March 6, 2014

Shrinking Detroit might be a solution to the city's intractable problems

Detroit’s bankruptcy process, like this long and dreadful winter, is unlikely to end anytime soon. While it is still officially a “fast-track” bankruptcy, it is definitely a muddy track.

As of now, federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has a hearing June 16 to consider the city’s “plan of adjustment” bankruptcy proposal, but that now seems certain to be pushed back.

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Opinion
11:05 am
Wed March 5, 2014

Michigan's Attorney General is risking his political future over the gay marriage case

Twenty years ago, Jack Kevorkian went on trial for the first time for assisted suicide charges in Wayne County Circuit Court. In one sense, it was the best of all the Kevorkian trials.

The prosecutor, Tim Kenny, who now is a judge himself, fought hard but clean. The case was heard by a no-nonsense judge, Thomas Jackson, who was respected by both sides.

Kevorkian and his attorney, the flamboyant Geoffrey Fieger, pushed the envelope a bit, but not enough to turn the trial into a circus. Kevorkian was clearly guilty – he admitted to breaking the law.

But the jury refused to convict him. Why? Some of them later told me the dead man was suffering hopelessly, wanted to die, and they thought his fate should be his choice.

Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair realized that further Kevorkian prosecutions would be a waste of time. But his counterpart in Oakland County, Prosecutor Richard Thompson, wouldn’t admit it. So he charged Jack Kevorkian again. Four times.

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Politics & Government
8:34 am
Wed March 5, 2014

Same-sex marriage, war against blight in Flint and Obama's budget proposal make political headlines

NOAA

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockely discuss the trial challenging Michigan's same-sex marriage ban, the mayor of Flint's proposal to fight blight in the city, and what President Obama's budget proposal could mean for Michigan.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 3/5/14

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Opinion
10:03 am
Tue March 4, 2014

Is it the end of the road for newspaper cartoons and comic strips?

There are many reasons to lament the slow disappearance of newspapers. But here’s one you may not have considered: the loss of cartoons and comic strips.

You might be startled that an old political and news analyst would say that. But in fact, comics, both overtly political and not so, have always been great political and social barometers. Back in the late 19th century, Boss Tweed, the corrupt New York City political boss, was largely done in by Thomas Nast’s cartoons.

Before he was carted off to jail, Tweed complained bitterly. He didn’t care what the reporters wrote. After all, many of his supporters didn’t read. But Tweed said “them damned pictures are killing me!”  Thanks to Nast, he died in jail.

Nationally syndicated political cartoons aren’t as big as they were when Feiffer and Herblock reigned supreme. In modern times, the national mood seems to be captured more often in comic strips. Doonesbury was the must-read of the 1970s; Bloom County captured the 1980s.

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Opinion
11:27 am
Mon March 3, 2014

How much will Detroit get from new Detroit Red Wings arena? Nothing.

We still don’t know how Detroit’s bankruptcy is going to play out. We don’t know how much pensions will finally be cut. We don’t know whether the state will kick in the funds needed to save the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But we do know two things.

In the end, a lot of people – pensioners – who don’t have much money now will have even less.

And we also know this: Bankrupt, poor Detroit and the state are going to spend more than $250 million to build a new hockey and entertainment arena for Mike Ilitch, who owns the Detroit Red Wings.

That’s more than half the entire cost of the project.

This is the second arena the city has helped build for the Red Wings. The team now plays in Joe Louis Arena, which was built 35 years ago.

They give a small cut of their proceeds to the city – about $7 million a year for Detroit, but once the new arena is finished, know how much the taxpayers will get? Nothing.

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Politics & Government
9:13 am
Sat March 1, 2014

The week in review

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

This Week in Review Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss John Dingell leaving congress and his wife being a front runner for the seat, the debate over same-sex marriage in Michigan, and a proposal to make sure Michiganders are taxes for internet sales.

Week in Review interview for 3/1/14

Opinion
10:33 am
Fri February 28, 2014

If Michigan legislators cared, they would end their tax hike on the poor

In an apparent attempt to pander to voters, the Michigan Legislature is rushing to pass an election year income tax cut. This is a little baffling, because the voters don’t want one.

The state has a budget surplus – on paper, anyway – of a little less than a billion dollars. Two weeks ago, an EPIC-MRA poll found only 11% of the voters thought a tax cut was a good idea. The rest were divided about evenly between those who wanted it to go to schools and those who want it to go to our roads.

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Opinion
10:34 am
Thu February 27, 2014

We need to learn how to talk about the mental health of our aging representatives

Earlier this week, the newspapers and airwaves were full of tributes to John Dingell, who announced this term would be his last.

Dingell, who turns 88 this summer, is the longest-serving Congressmen in history, and when I first met him, was one of the physically most powerful men in Congress.

Today, he is hard of hearing and frail, but nobody has ever said he wasn’t mentally able to do the job.

This hasn’t always been the case with long-serving congressmen. During his last campaign for the U.S. Senate at age 94, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond spoke of the brave defenders of the Alamo, and added that they had held off “three thousand Russians.”

Thurmond’s handlers didn’t let him speak much in public after that. He won reelection, but spent most of his final term in Walter Reed Hospital, except when they brought him to the Senate to vote.

Nobody likes to talk about this, but there seems to have been a universal consensus that Dale Kildee, who decided not to run for reelection two years ago, needed to leave.

There’s a reason you haven’t seen him interviewed or commenting on issues since he left. He is, in fact, younger that John Dingell, but not all of us age at the same rate.

I know a woman in her 60s who no longer knows who her husband is.

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Opinion
9:31 am
Wed February 26, 2014

Extending school days is a terrible solution for Michigan schools

I have very few inflexible notions, but one of them is this: It is better to learn than be ignorant. Unlike many dogmas, this one passes the practical test. Those who are better educated generally make more money and have happier and more fulfilled lives.

There’ve been a lot of crises in education in recent years. Most have been about money. But this year, it’s weather. This brutal winter has meant many schools have been closed for more “snow days” than usual. Legally, schools are allowed to miss up to six days. After that, they have to make up the time, or lose some of their school aid money. None of them want that, of course.

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Politics & Government
8:41 am
Wed February 26, 2014

Same-sex marriage, the Dingells, and manufacturing hub make political headlines

Michigan Capitol Building, Lansing, Michigan
Thetoad Flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley talk about the same-sex marriage trial in Michigan, the new Dingell race for Congress and President Obama’s announcement of a new manufacturing hub in metro Detroit.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 2/26/14

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