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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

Fliker User: Fuzzy Gerdes

Several listeners wrote to me after yesterday’s shooting in Texas to ask if I was going to talk about it today. I had no intention of doing so.

Long ago, and certainly after the massacre of the elementary students in Sandy Hook, it became clear to me that our society doesn’t care enough to do anything about this.

True, the money and the power of the National Rifle Association over our elected representatives has been enough to thwart the mildest and most sensible gun safety measures.And we also seem so attached to a distorted and wrong-headed view of the Second Amendment that a mass murder or two a month, and losing thousands of people every year in senseless shootings, seems normal.

Traffic lights
Thomas Hawk / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

District judges want Gov. Snyder to drop his opposition to bills that would get rid of so-called driver responsibility fees. They say the fees are ruining people's lives because they lose their driver's license if they can't afford to pay them. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about why Gov. Snyder is concerned about the bills.


car accident
Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Mike Duggan is the most powerful mayor of Detroit in many years, and probably the most popular one statewide in our lifetimes. Republicans, on the other hand, have overwhelming control of the state Legislature.

You’d think, then, that if the Democratic mayor of Detroit were to team up with the Republican Speaker of the House, you would have an unstoppable coalition of immense power.

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.

After both men worked their respective constituencies for weeks, the State House of Representatives held a vote on an auto insurance reform bill that both Duggan and Speaker Tom Leonard desperately wanted.

The bill was designed to give people options for drastically lowered car insurance rates, especially in Detroit, where rates are the highest in the nation, and many people can’t afford and do not have coverage of any kind.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

State Senator Marty Knollenberg of Troy doesn’t have a reputation as a great humorist in politics. He’s not the Al Franken of the Michigan Senate, shall we say.

But he actually made me laugh out loud this week. The Michigan Department of Education reported that we are now facing a teacher shortage.

There are more than 5,000 fewer certified teachers in Michigan than there were in 2004, and the number of newly certified ones last year was barely a third of what it once was.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette hasn’t hesitated to launch investigations into a number of agencies whose behavior he’s found questionable.

So he might want to seriously consider looking at potential corruption at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, where there are indications some board members may be putting their own private interests ahead of the needs of those they are supposed to help.

arrow sign says voting
Flickr user justgrimes / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Election Day in Michigan is Tuesday, November 7. Michigan Radio's "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry preview some of the issues for voters around the state: 

Logo
flickr user DonkeyHotey / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A year ago, I was talking to Matt Grossman, the pollster and political scientist at Michigan State University. Like most of us, he didn’t expect Donald Trump would win. But he told me that if he did, 2018 would be a horrible year for Michigan Republicans.

Traditionally, the party holding the White House does badly in midterm elections – look at what happened to Democrats in 2010 or Republicans in 2006. On top of that, Michigan Republicans have their own special problems, Flint being only the biggest.

Handguns
user Joshuashearn / wikimedia commons

I’m not big on ideology. I’ve known communists and Ayn Randers, and both live in closed systems that are substitutes for really having to think.

The communists are pretty much limited to a few websites these days, and I don’t get the sense that middle-class teenage boys still read The Fountainhead as often as they did.

"Out of water" sign after Oakland County water main break
Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Thousands of people in Oakland County are still dealing with a mandatory boil water advisory this weekend. It was issued after a broken water transmission main caused system pressure to drop, and then extended after another leak was detected. The CEO of the Great Lakes Water Authority called it an "unprecedented" event in the regional water system's history, but this Week in Review, senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry tells Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth why he wasn't surprised.

The Statue of Liberty
Celso Flores / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Last night, the main ballroom was filled to capacity at the Atheneum Suite Hotel in Detroit’s Greektown, a place designed partly to attract higher-stakes gamblers.

But no one among the hundreds present was there to do anything except gamble that this nation could still live up to its promise.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (left) and State Sen. Coleman Young II (right)
DugganforMayor; Lester Graham

To his credit, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan agreed this summer to a single televised debate with State Senator Coleman Young II, who ran far behind in the August primary.

Duggan, in fact, got more than two-thirds of the vote in a seven-candidate field. Many cities don’t even hold a runoff when one candidate gets a majority in a primary. Other Detroit mayors in similar positions have refused to debate their opponents. But Duggan did.

Workers repair the water main break in Farmington Hills.
Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

More than a quarter of a million people in Michigan’s richest county have to boil their drinking water this week. If you haven’t heard, that’s because a four-foot wide water transmission line apparently broke in Farmington Hills Monday night.

sunrise fishing on Lake Huron
U.S. Department of the Interior

A new study says African-American kids in Michigan fare worse than children of color anywhere else in the country when it comes to education and other benchmarks. Some advocates say that means it’s time to start acknowledging we need policies that give extra help to minority children.

Michigan Radio's "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss what that approach might look like.

UAW sign.
UAW

You don’t need a master’s degree in labor relations to know that America’s labor unions have been declining for years. In the early 1950s, more than a third of all private sector workers were unionized; in Detroit, that number may have been over half.

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that last year, union membership nationally fell to 10.7 percent, the lowest it’s been since before the New Deal and the Wagner Act gave workers the right to organize. In fact, union membership is far less in the private sector.

A table filled with bottles of Flint water (both clear and brown)
Flint Water Study / Facebook

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s troops first overran an extermination camp in Nazi Germany, he directed that every photojournalist within 50 miles be brought to see it. When asked why, he said otherwise, someday, someone would deny that it had ever happened.

Michigan State Police patrol vehicle shield
Michigan State Police

The director of the Michigan State Police will work five days without pay. That's the penalty Gov. Rick Snyder gave Col. Kriste Etue for sharing a Facebook post that called NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem "degenerates." Snyder also ordered all state departments to ensure their policies promote diversity and inclusiveness. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether the punishment will be enough for those who've called for Etue's resignation.

Whatever you think of his policies, Senator Bernie Sanders did something politically smart. Sanders, who had been scheduled to open the first-ever Women’s Convention in Detroit next week, announced that he wouldn’t be able to attend after all.

“I want to apologize to the organizers,” the senator from Vermont said, “but given the emergency situation in Puerto Rico,” he felt his leadership was needed there next weekend instead.

Someone once wrote that if you keep a diary and look back at what you wrote 20 years ago, you often find the stuff you thought was peripheral actually turned out to have been the most important. For example, you may have filled pages mooning over a now-forgotten Ralph or Susie, and just noted in passing a job that began your professional career.

News is like that too.

We don’t always see what’s most important. Most of us, so far as I can tell, are so focused on the daily clown show in Washington, that we are paying little attention to tremors in our nation’s growing relationship with China.

Jocelyn Benson announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state yesterday. She has actually been running for the job for many months, though not as long as Bill Schuette has been running for governor; he is, after all, almost a quarter century older.

Photograph of Downtown Detroit
Ifmuth / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

As you may know, Amazon is looking for another city in which to build a vast new headquarters that could mean billions in investment and up to 50,000 jobs.

Not surprisingly, just about every city wants that. But the place where it might make the most difference for the local economy is, of course, Detroit.

Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans czar who many regard as Detroit’s capitalist savior, is heading a task force that will submit a bid in the next two days to the giant mail order retailer. Mayor Mike Duggan would do just about anything to lure Amazon.

Newspaper
Zoe Clark / Michigan Radio

I think I can say that I have some professional credibility as a journalist. I have a master’s degree from a major university, a national Emmy award, work in all forms of media, and am in charge of journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Yet legally, I have the same standing as a journalist as a high school dropout who writes a blog in his grandmother’s basement, and that is exactly the way it is supposed to be.

Plumbers are licensed by the state. So are doctors, lawyers, and every other profession great and humble. But I am granted the right to do what I do by a greater authority, the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. That’s as sacred a secular document as they come.

State Senator Patrick Colbeck sitting at a table
Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

A Republican candidate for governor was booted off his Senate committees this week. Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R- Canton) says Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-Grand Haven) ousted him because he attended an event in Meekhoff's district without telling him. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether this is a case of a rogue politician or just politics as usual.

Rick Snyder
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Senator Howard Baker uttered his immortal words one summer 44 years ago when Rick Snyder was about to become a high school sophomore.

“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Thirteen months later, we had enough of the answer to force Richard Nixon to resign the presidency, ending a long national nightmare we thought we’d never see repeated.

Peter McPherson, one of the best presidents Michigan State has had in recent years, told me once that when he was a student at MSU, there was a controversy over whether to allow a Communist to speak on campus.

This was back in the early sixties, we were at the height of the Cold War, and the administration didn’t want to allow a perceived enemy of America to speak. Eventually the Communist did get to speak… and the students who went found him mind-numbingly boring.

I took a trip back in time yesterday, sort of, to Plymouth, Michigan – a tidy, mostly gentrified Wayne County town 26 miles and at least that many light years from the city of Detroit.

I turned on Main Street, and stopped in the law office of John Stewart, who has practiced there for more than 30 years. When I looked around, I expected to see Atticus Finch, or Jimmy Stewart, the folksy yet brilliant country lawyer from Anatomy of a Murder.

The offices were in what had been a comfy private home built nearly a century ago. There were bookshelves everywhere, lined not just with law books but biographies of Lincoln, Jefferson, and other books you might actually want to read.

Sam VarnHagen / Ford Motor Co.

My guess is that virtually everyone who even half-heartedly follows the news knows that a Republican senator from Tennessee called the White House an “adult day care center” after the President called him a coward, et cetera, et cetera.

Law enforcement officials and victims of sexual assault in Michigan could soon be able to track the rape kits used to gather evidence. A state budget amendment would set aside money for training and software that keeps track of where a kit is located at each step of an investigation. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about why Michigan isn't already using tracking software.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

We haven’t had a lot of what we used to call “slow news days” lately.

Something that once might have been a story for a week quickly gets overwhelmed by a new torrent of disasters, natural and man-made.

One story that was somewhat overlooked was an interesting Freedom of Information Act case involving the president of the University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a group whose ideology oscillates between libertarianism and thinly veiled support for the Republican Party.

Police
J J / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of legislation proposed that was, well, just plain nutty. Some was wrongheaded, some was outrageous, and generally the system took care of itself. There have also been things that became law that I profoundly disagreed with or which filled me with dismay. But I frankly cannot recall being really scared by any of it, until now.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof is pushing a plan to legalize a whole new class of private police forces, and if that isn’t immensely frightening, I think it should be.

Mark J. Hardy / Flickr, http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Donald Trump doesn’t often make me laugh, but he did a week ago, when he announced his grand plan to change the tax system. We should all support it, he said, because it would finally end “the crushing, the horrible, the unfair estate tax, or, as it is often referred to, the death tax.”

Trump went on to explain how farmers and people with small businesses have to hold a “fire sale” after the owners die to pay “the death tax, a disaster for this country.”

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