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.

Two things happened yesterday that starkly illustrate what’s right and what’s wrong with politics and government in this state. First, we had an election – or, more accurately, a whole flock of elections. Turnout wasn’t great, despite the beautiful weather.

But the vast majority of the voters behaved reasonably and responsibly.


Today is Election Day, if you hadn’t noticed, and the safest prediction anyone can make is that turnout will be terrible. The vast majority of eligible voters won’t vote at all.

This is what they call an “off-off year election,” meaning that no major statewide or national races are on the ballot; no president, governors or senators.

But if anyone thinks this is not an important election, think again. 


One of the best days in Dana Nessel’s life  was Friday, June 26.

Four years earlier, two nurses came to her in despair. They were a committed, loving same-sex couple, who wanted to jointly adopt the three special needs children they had raised as foster parents.

But though the State of Michigan was happy with them as foster parents, it wouldn’t let them jointly adopt.

Nessel was cautioned by traditional liberal groups not to take this on, warned that a loss would set back same-sex rights for years, but she filed a federal lawsuit anyway.

Peter Lucido, a Republican from Macomb County, and Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, are both members of the Michigan House of Representatives.

But otherwise, they don’t have much in common. Lucido is a conservative Republican. Irwin, a liberal Democrat. Irwin is in his last term; Lucido in his first.

They line up on opposite sides on virtually any divisive issue. Except one. 

The League of Women Voters has been holding a series of forums on redistricting reform. Everyone who has studied the issue and has any sense of fairness knows that our present system of gerrymandering has badly crippled democracy in this state.

Peoples are frustrated, angry, disillusioned, and less and less likely to vote, because they think their votes don’t matter and nothing they can do will have any effect.

Have you ever heard of a “Rube Goldberg machine?” Goldberg was an editorial cartoonist and crazy parody inventor who specialized in ridiculous contraptions.

For example, he had a self-operating napkin with about twenty moving parts that relied on a parrot, a skyrocket and a chain reaction to set off an explosion causing a machine to wipe your chin

The dictionary definition of a Rube Goldberg machine is “an apparatus deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion.”

Over the years I’ve spoken to a lot of Eastern Europeans, who are in love with freedom, capitalism, and the free enterprise system.

They remember what life was like under Soviet-style Communism, and think being able to own one’s own business is the greatest thing there is. However, they do recognize that you do need a thriving, healthy public sector of the economy.

Everybody hates clichés, but they persist for a reason: There’s often a lot of truth in them. Such as this one: When in a hole, the best thing you can do is stop digging.

When something is broken beyond repair, it is a waste of time to try to fix it. The institution that made me think of this is the EAA, Governor Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority, designed to fix the worst Detroit schools.

Well, the weekend is almost here, and here’s a radical idea to consider between football games. I think the time has come to get rid of charter schools.

That’s right – get rid of them, all of them. Many or most of them don’t work, and all of them are draining resources from our conventional public schools and helping further destabilize education.

 The good news is that the Michigan House of Representatives passed a package of road funding bills Wednesday night. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news.

The truth about this plan was best stated by Business Leaders for Michigan, whose members are not exactly left-wing socialists.

Someone once said that Americans, including those who live in Michigan, would do anything for Canada except pay attention to it. That was evident again this week.

This nation’s closest ally had a dramatic national election that most “lower Americans” probably didn’t even know was happening – but which may be highly significant for all of us.

Governor Rick Snyder yesterday unveiled his new plan to fix Detroit Public Schools. Actually, it is a variation on one he put forth in April. Like that plan, it seems heavily based on the model General Motors adopted to emerge from bankruptcy.

The schools would be divided into a “new” district and an “old” one.

The “old district” wouldn’t have anything to do with the kids, but would be saddled with paying down the district’s massive debts, now more than half a billion dollars. The “new” district would be run by a Detroit Education Commission and would be in charge of educating the students.

The Michigan Legislature is currently battling over something called “presumptive parole.”

The state house has passed a bill to make it harder to deny parole to eligible low-risk inmates who have served their minimum sentence.

There’s plenty of data showing this would make a lot of sense and eventually save our cash-strapped state millions of dollars.

The governor is a strong supporter of the bill. But it is in trouble in the state senate. Attorney General Bill Schuette is crusading against it.

Conventional journalism is in trouble these days, for a number of reasons. True, people, especially young people, don’t read newspapers as much as they once did. And that’s a factor.

But the real problem is that the economic base of virtually all newspapers has been severely damaged by the internet. Newspapers always made their money from the revenue they reaped from advertising, particularly local classified advertising.

Most people know there are two ways to cross the Detroit River into or from Canada: The Ambassador Bridge, or for passenger cars only, the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. 

But there's another little-known way only used by vehicles too long or too big to navigate the bridge, or those hauling hazardous materials.

And that's the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, which is at the end of a little-used road two miles south of the current bridge, close to where the new bridge is to be built.

There is such a thing as public service journalism. They award a Pulitzer Prize for it every year. And so, in the interest of public service, and without the usual niceties, I would like you to permit me to draw your attention to a problem Michigan faces today.

Namely our legislative leaders seem to have lost their minds, any sense of the public good, and it is time to stop treating their raving lunacy as if it deserved respect. 

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In this Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss proposed bills to eliminate gun free zones, how road funding talks have stalled again, and an update on the Flint water crisis. 

You can listen below:

Earlier this month, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill designed to save the state money and allow some people to salvage their lives by making it easier for prisoners who are no longer a threat to society to get out of prison on parole.

This bill makes a vast amount of sense, and is being supported by responsible and intelligent conservatives like State Representative Kurt Heise of Plymouth Township, its Republican sponsor, and Governor Snyder. 

Michigan is drowning financially in our huge and bloated corrections system.

The other night I was part of an informal dinner group that included a number of Republicans, some of whom have served in elected or appointed positions in Lansing.

I asked them if Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette would be their next candidate for governor. To my surprise, almost none thought so. Their choice was Candice Miller. They saw her as a practical, down-to-earth, no-nonsense conservative who could get the job done.

When I learned the governor had reversed himself and was willing to help reconnect Flint to Detroit water, what first popped into my head was what Gerald Ford said the day Richard Nixon resigned and he became President.

He told us the system worked, and we were “a government of laws, not men.”

I’m not in the least surprised that the United Autoworkers Union reached a new agreement with Fiat Chrysler late last night. Nobody, but nobody wanted a strike.

I did think it possible that the union might have workers put down tools and walk off the job for a few hours in an effort to remind the rank-and-file of their heritage.

But if there had been a serious strike, the only winner would have been Toyota.

Just think about this: What if some emergency forced the state to temporarily appoint an emergency manager in a more affluent, mostly white area?

Pretend this happens to Birmingham in Oakland County, say, or Holland.

To save money, the emergency manager stops using the longtime clean water source and switches to a local river. When residents complain that the water smells and is discolored, the emergency manager tells them it is just as good as they were getting before.

jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the latest on the Flint water problem, how Michigan State University doesn't want to release  the names of student-athletes who were suspects in criminal cases to ESPN, and Lessenberry reflects on the life of Grace Lee Boggs.


Back in the early 1950’s, a Chinese-American woman named Grace Lee came to Detroit to publish an obscure newsletter for an even more obscure Marxist group led by a revolutionary from Trinidad. She met a black auto worker named James Boggs.

She had a PhD in philosophy; he had barely a high school education. She invited him to dinner. He showed up an hour late. She made lamb chops; he said he hated them. She put on a Louie Armstrong record, and he told her Satchmo was an Uncle Tom.

But later that evening, he asked her to marry him.

If you happened to be listening to Stateside last week, you may have heard me talking about a new biography, The People’s Lawyer, which I co-wrote with former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.

While the words are mine, the story is his.

I wanted to talk about it today, not to plug the book, but for a couple reasons.

One of the things I most dislike about most politicians is their unwillingness to admit when they’ve screwed up.

Take Dennis Williams, the leader of the United Auto Workers union. He and his lieutenants were so out of touch with the membership that they negotiated a contract that the angry workers rejected by almost two to one.

Yesterday, when the results were in, Williams said. “We don’t consider this a setback,” we consider this “part of the process.”

Well, as you may know by now, the United Auto Workers union did an absolutely superb job negotiating a new contact with FCA, Fiat Chrysler.

Everybody in the industry was impressed by the result, with one exception, the workers themselves, who voted the contract down by more than a two to one margin.

When I was young I was proud that I didn’t live in Dearborn, whose mayor-for-life, Orville Hubbard, was a bizarre brawling clown who wore outlandish bow ties.

Hugely fat, he would do anything for publicity. Pose with a boa constrictor, wear a giant paper bag, or straddle Michigan Avenue looking like a bargain-basement Mussolini, you name it.


When the Michigan House of Representatives finally got rid of its two disgraced members earlier this month, we thought that was that.

Nobody imagined there was much of a chance of them reclaiming their jobs.

Well, think again. 

Most people in Michigan know Matty Moroun as the famous and highly controversial owner of the Ambassador Bridge.

For years, the media has covered his ongoing efforts to stop a second, independently owned bridge, a battle he’s apparently lost. 

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