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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Politics & Government
8:46 am
Sat June 7, 2014

The week in review: GM, a grand bargain, and pothole limbo

Credit user paul (dex) / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss General Motor's CEO Mary Barra's response to the investigation of the faulty ignition switch recalls, what happens now for Detroit after the state agreed to give the city $195 million, and an update on road funding.

Week in Review interview for 6/6/14

Opinion
11:13 am
Fri June 6, 2014

Veterans of recent wars aren't honored in the same way as WWII vets

Seventy years ago today, using equipment largely made in Detroit, the greatest invasion force in history crossed the English Channel and landed in France – an event called D-Day.

More than 2,000 American, English, and Canadian soldiers died that day, a number far smaller than expected.

But a 100,000 more began the process of liberating Europe. Eleven months later, after another 100,000 Americans had died, Nazi Germany surrendered.

They don’t make as much of this anniversary as they used to, because few of the heroes are left.

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Opinion
11:07 am
Thu June 5, 2014

What about fixing Michigan roads?

OK, let’s say I asked you two months ago which of these things our conservative Republican lawmakers would be most likely to do:

1.  Approve using state money to help beef up Detroit’s pension finds and vote to raise the minimum wage by almost $2 an hour over the next few years.

2. Or, agree to fix our totally awful roads.

My guess is you would have thought fixing the roads most likely, and boosting the minimum wage an impossible pipe dream. Well, guess what, raising the minimum wage was the first thing they did, followed by helping Detroit.

But they still won’t fix our horrible roads, even though that’s what voters want. What’s worse is that our bizarre Legislature seems to be drifting further away from dealing with the problem.

Democrats, by the way, control nothing. Their main role is to break ties between the different factions of Republicans.

Here’s what’s happening: Two Republicans are showing principled leadership.

First of all, Gov. Rick Snyder, who for years has called on lawmakers to do the right thing and come up with the money needed to fix our roads. Two years ago, he said that would cost at least $1.2 billion a year in new revenue for the next 10 years. Lawmakers did nothing. But after last winter, voters are up in arms. They want the roads, fixed, period, and they have a new champion: Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville of Monroe. He hasn’t always been a leader here.

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Opinion
10:38 am
Wed June 4, 2014

Good things happened in Michigan yesterday, because lawmakers acted like adults

Yesterday was largely a good news day for our state, and how often can you say that?

The really big news, of course, was the state Senate’s remarkably fast passage of the so-called "grand bargain," the deal that gives Detroit a chance to emerge from bankruptcy without threatening the city’s art museum or utterly destroying the lives of the retirees.

And, in a development understandably overshadowed, the U.S. Coast Guard finally issued a permit for the building of the New International Trade Crossing bridge, meaning all that’s left now is for Washington to come up with money for the customs plaza.

That will be essential for Michigan’s economy in the future.

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Politics & Government
8:50 am
Wed June 4, 2014

Week in Michigan politics: Detroit's grand bargain, UAW dues, and roads

Credit JSFauxtaugraphy/Flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss how lawmakers approved giving $195 million to Detroit, the state of the United Auto Workers after members agreed to raise fees for the first time in nearly 50 years, and why lawmakers can't agree on road funding. 

Week in Michigan politics interview for 6/4/14

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Opinion
10:59 am
Tue June 3, 2014

Auto industry union's future remains to be seen

The United Auto Workers union is holding its big convention in Detroit this week. Like America’s two major political parties, the UAW has a convention once every four years.

The union’s convention resembles national political conventions in another way, too. Everything is mostly decided ahead of time.

Once, conventions were the place where party and union members waged titanic battles to determine their next leaders.

Now, presidential nominees are determined long before the first and only ballot, and the same is true in the UAW. Dennis Williams, the union’s current secretary-treasurer, will be overwhelmingly elected to a four-year term as union president tomorrow.

That will follow what seems certain to be their first dues increase in many years, though it isn’t clear whether rank and file members would agree if they had a vote.

Union “democracy” tries to avoid dissension, on the theory that the workers are best served by solidarity at all levels.

Yet there is a major difference between the UAW and the political parties.  What isn’t clear is whether the union can survive, or more to the point, remain relevant.

The UAW is now far less important than it once was. They are trying to put a good face on it, but outgoing union president Bob King’s four years in office were pretty much a failure.

King wanted to be the next Walter Reuther, and lead the union to a new era of greatness. The key to that was going to be organizing “transplants,” foreign automakers manufacturing cars in America, mostly in the south.

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Opinion
11:38 am
Mon June 2, 2014

Carl Levin not coasting through his last few months in office

I didn’t stay on Mackinac Island during the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s conference last week.

For a number of reasons, I’m glad about that. One of which is that I took the ferry over one morning with Sen. Carl Levin and his wife, Barbara. There was a reason he didn’t stay on Mackinac, and it had nothing to do with not finding a room.

There was another conference about the Mackinac Conference 55 miles away in Charlevoix.

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Opinion
10:11 am
Fri May 30, 2014

Lessenberry: Detroit Mayor Duggan impressive at Mackinac conference

There’s a famous story about Benjamin Franklin that popped into my head this morning. When Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention back in 1787, a woman asked him, “What kind of government have you given us?”

He said, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” He meant, keep it from reverting back to a tyrannical monarchy.

Every year, the state’s business leaders and politicians flock to Mackinac Island. The media happily go too, because there are hundreds of targets of opportunity under the same roof.

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Opinion
11:21 am
Thu May 29, 2014

Terri Lynn Land shows she's not ready for prime time at Mackinac

The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce may not like to admit this, but their Mackinac Policy Conference’s official agenda is not the reason the vast majority of those who attend go to the island. Many who pay the steep registration fees of between $2,000 and $3,000 come for the incredible networking opportunities.

Mackinac in May is unique because for three days, you have virtually all the state’s top business and civic leaders and politicians in one building on an island without cars. They can’t easily run away; they have to talk to each other, and those beguiling possibilities attract hordes of media, too.

Yes, the conference spent a lot of money this year to bring in education and business experts like Jim Clifton and Joel Klein. But during their sessions, most of the businessmen seemed to be huddling with each other. And the media tend to focus its attention on politics, especially in an election year, and on the One Big Story of the day, in this case, Detroit.

This year’s conference was no exception. This has been something of a love fest for Gov. Rick Snyder, who is frankly adored by the vast majority of those here.

Though there is one protestor wearing a giant paper-mache Snyder head outside the hotel, inside, Snyder is viewed as a cross between a rock star and a conquering hero. His only competition in the charisma department came, perhaps surprisingly, from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

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Opinion
10:16 am
Wed May 28, 2014

Republicans seized the political winds and raised the minimum wage

My guess is that Dave Woodward and his fellow Democrats are a mix of frustrated, defiant, and happy today, in about that order.

Here’s why.

We’re talking about the minimum-wage deal, in which both houses of the Legislature and the governor yesterday enacted and signed a minimum-wage bill with what, in political terms, was the speed of light.

Yes, the same gang that hasn’t been able to get any new road funding in three years passed a minimum-wage bill in less than a day.

Woodward, a former chair of the Oakland County Democrats, has spent the last few months knocking himself out as head of Raise Michigan, the group collecting signatures to get a minimum-wage hike on the ballot.

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Politics & Government
8:15 am
Wed May 28, 2014

This week in Michigan politics: Minimum wage and Mackinac

Credit Flickr user borman818

In this Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the passage of a new minimum-wage bill and the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 5/28/14

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Opinion
10:16 am
Tue May 27, 2014

Plan to clean up Detroit will be released today

When it comes to Detroit, this actually may be one of the most exciting weeks since Henry Ford began paying people $5 a day a century ago.

Detroit is a mess. A blighted, bankrupt troubled mess. Everyone knows and has known that for a long time.

The good news is that there are now plans in motion by people in power to do something about it.  

Today, the result of a massive, detailed survey of the city, something never before attempted, is being released to the public – together with a concrete plan to clean it up.

They are calling it “Every Neighborhood Has a Future, and it Doesn’t Include Blight.”

This isn’t being unveiled by a couple of urban studies professors or second-string bureaucrats.

Mayor Mike Duggan and emergency manager Kevyn Orr are solidly behind this plan – as are three of the most-respected people in the city:

  • Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans czar who has been buying an astonishing amount of land downtown;
  • The dignified and deeply respected Glenda Price, who turned around Marygrove College, heads a foundation for Detroit Public Schools, and serves on a million boards;
  • Plus Linda Smith, who runs the highly-regarded civic group U-Snap-Bac.

Those three headed a blight removal task force who, as part of their work, presided over a project to document, categorize, and map every parcel of land in Detroit – every one.

Then they came up with a concrete and tangible plan to do something about it.

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Politics & Government
9:01 am
Sat May 24, 2014

The week in review: Updates on Detroit bankruptcy, and the roads

Credit Shawn Wilson / Wikimedia Commons

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss the latest with the Detroit bankruptcy including political push back from the Koch brothers and money from JPMorgan Chase, and the ongoing debate about Michigan's crummy and crumbling roads.

Week in Review interview for 5/23/14

Opinion
11:25 am
Fri May 23, 2014

Detroit "bailout" bashers target the DIA's millage

Last week it seemed anything but certain that the package of bills authorizing state money for the Detroit “grand bargain” would pass.

And nobody expected they would pass by margins as high, in one case, as 105 to 5.

Which just shows once again that real life is usually stranger than fiction.

There is lingering bitterness over one bill, however: the one that prevents the Detroit Institute of Arts from asking for a renewal of its millage when it expires.

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Opinion
10:00 am
Thu May 22, 2014

Why MSU is what every university should be like

There was a time when it wasn’t unusual for university presidents to stay in their jobs for twenty years or more. These days, however, that seldom happens. The average college or university president lasts barely seven years.

It actually may be a wonder that any last that long, given the intensity of issues from rising costs to affirmative action to athletics. Not to mention that everything happens these days in the pressure cooker and under the microscope of the 24-hour news cycle.

Two of Michigan’s three major universities have new presidents; Wayne State’s Roy Wilson has been on the job less than a year. The University of Michigan’s Mark Schlissel takes office this summer. But in January, Lou Anna Simon will celebrate ten years as president of Michigan State University.

In fact, to say she’s been on the job for a decade severely understates her involvement with the institution. She’s been there ever since she arrived as a graduate student in 1970.

Since then, she has held a wide variety of academic and administrative jobs, which is not to say she is set in her ways. I had a chance to have a long conversation with her this week.

She told me tradition is important, but added, “If you don’t have leadership committed to change, but only to defending the status quo, you have the wrong leadership.”

Michigan State is often referred to as the nation’s pioneer land grant university, and that is more than a piece of historical trivia. The school was founded with the idea that it would study and seek out knowledge and find a way of making it practical and relevant for the people of Michigan. They still take that mission seriously.

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Opinion
10:20 am
Wed May 21, 2014

Just fix the damn roads

I think the low point in my faith in democracy came late this winter, soon after I had lost one tire to a pothole. I got home after nearly losing another on the lunar surface of a suburban Detroit mile road, just in time to hear a state senator claiming we needed another tax cut.

Well, I thought, I am now living in a Third World country. But guess what? That senator heard from his constituents, big-time. Before long, he was retreating from his tax-cut talk, legislative tail between his legs. Why?

To quote the leader of his caucus, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville R- Monroe, “I’ve heard the message loud and clear that the roads are messed up, and I think the most common phrase I’m hearing from back home is 'just fix the damn roads.'"

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Politics & Government
8:26 am
Wed May 21, 2014

The week in Michigan politics: Detroit bankruptcy and minimum wage

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the latest in the Detroit bankruptcy including:

  • An expected vote today in the state legislature on the $195 million bailout for Detroit
  • New York’s Lieutenant Governor, Richard Ravitch said yesterday in his testimony on Detroit’s bankruptcy that the “whole country is watching.”
  • The Koch brothers are buying attack ads targeting lawmakers who plan to help Detroit through bankruptcy
  • JP Morgan Chase is expected to announce it’s investing $100 million in Detroit.

Lessenberry also gave an update on the minimum wage debate in the state legislature.

Week in Michigan politics interview for 5/21/14

Opinion
11:24 am
Tue May 20, 2014

Minimum-wage war could backfire on Michigan GOP

Here’s a three-part prediction for you:  First, the minimum wage bill passed by the Michigan Senate will never become law – not in anything like the way it looks now.

Second, there will be a minimum wage proposal on the ballot, though no one can say if it will pass and what happens if it does.

And finally, what looked like a triumph for the Republicans a few days ago could well backfire – and end up driving angry Democratic voters to the polls.

Here’s what’s going on. As you probably know, a group called Raise Michigan has been collecting signatures to put a proposal on the ballot that would gradually raise the minimum wage from the current $7.40 an hour to $10.10.

So far as I can tell, it looks like they will have more than enough. Business interests don’t like this, of course; they never like being told they have to pay their workers more money. And what they really don’t like is that this bill would also gradually make the minimum wage for tipped workers, like restaurant servers, equal with everyone else.

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Opinion
10:48 am
Mon May 19, 2014

Detroit’s comeback needs to include those left behind in the city

For the past year, for the first time in decades, people in the suburbs, in Lansing, and across America are thinking about Detroit.

Everybody has had to face that Detroit is broken, hopelessly in debt, largely a shattered ruin, and that city services, the schools and so much else doesn’t work.

For many years, everyone knew things were bad, but nobody did much about it.

The political class running the city denied the extent of the problem and did not welcome outside intervention. The rest of us mostly said, fine.

Now, however, things are very different.

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Opinion
11:06 am
Fri May 16, 2014

Democrats get most of what they wanted on minimum wage; Republicans get the credit

There are several things to note about the astonishing developments yesterday in the battle over the minimum wage. Most importantly, it is important to remember that it ain’t over till it’s over.

The state Senate took everyone by surprise yesterday when Republicans agreed to gradually raise the minimum wage by nearly$2 an hour and partly index it to the inflation rate.

Barely a week ago, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville was adamantly claiming he wanted absolutely no rise in the present state minimum wage of $7.40 an hour.

Then, he introduced a bill that would have increased it to by 75 cents an hour, but one that contained a poison pill. His bill would have not only changed the rate, but would have repealed and replaced the old statute.

There’s a reason for that. There’s petition drive to change the old law and raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour.

Richardville reasoned this would short-circuit the petition drive. You can’t amend a law that doesn’t exist. But there were dangers for Republicans in that approach, too. It is pretty clear there is considerable sentiment for raising the minimum wage.

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