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.

Virtually everyone in Michigan politics, including those who write about it, is analyzing last night’s debate between Governor Rick Snyder and his Democratic challenger, Mark Schauer. 

Both sides put their own spin on this debate even before it was over. I’ve seen a lot of debates in my time, live or recorded, including every presidential debate in the modern era.

I have some thoughts on this one.

But I wanted to start with an observation that you might think comes out of left field. Shortly after the debate, I was copied on an e-mail letter a fellow named Kenneth Hreha sent to an anchorman at one of Detroit’s TV networks.

I was struck by these lines:

Hreha said, “The incumbent Rick Snyder didn’t even have the common courtesy to come professionally dressed in a suit and tie, a true reflection of the laziness of this man and the public policies that hurt working people.”

Now, Hreha is scarcely neutral. He voted for Snyder four years ago, but since has come to hate him.

He was laid off from a job working for the state, and the only job he’s been able to find since pays less and has no benefits.

But aside from that, do citizens want a governor who looks like them or one who shows up dressed like an authority figure? Originally, I thought Snyder’s casual style a big plus in today’s world.

Now, I’m not so sure. I know that after Mark Schauer did one commercial casually dressed, one of the elder statesmen of the Democratic Party yelled at him, saying he needed to wear a dark suit and look like the citizens expect a man in charge to look.

If you love the Detroit Institute of Arts, and supported the “Grand Bargain” to save it, then you should be grateful that what surfaced this week wasn’t known a few months ago.

Specifically, the whopping raises and bonuses paid to Graham Beal, the director of the DIA, and Annmarie Erickson, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Two years ago, Beal, whose compensation is over half a million dollars a year, got a 13% raise. Erickson, who got a promotion and new responsibilities, got a 36% raise.

My guess is that Jerry Cannon is pretty upset today, and so are Pam Byrnes, Eric Schertzing and Bobby McKenzie.

They are all Democratic candidates for Congress in Michigan. They’ve been working their tails off for months trying to make some headway, three of them against Republican incumbents.

Cannon, a Vietnam veteran and former Kalkaska sheriff, was heavily recruited for the race by Lon Johnson, the new Democratic state chair. McKenzie, an anti-terrorism expert, and gave up a good job with the state department to come back and run.

There’s an old saying I know you’ve heard: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin said that, by the way. He was a shrewd old cynic who I think would be much more at home in the world today than the other founding fathers.

And I’d also guess Old Ben wouldn’t be surprised to know that his death-and-taxes maxim was, like most things, only about half right. Death remains certain, even if we don’t know where or when. But there is very little certain about taxes.

Oh, we are certain to be taxed, in one form or another. Which is a good thing, if you like clean water, fire departments and schools.

But who pays and who should pay the taxes?

What we should be asking is: How high should taxes be? How do you set tax rates to give us the services we need and help the economy grow? To me, those are terribly important questions.Well, we now have some answers.

Asian Carp
Kate.Gardner / Flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss GOP groups pulling their ads supporting Terri Lynn Land, Asian carp DNA found in the Kalamazoo River, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear cases from lower courts banning gay marriage.


Well, the election is officially four weeks away, but not for me. I voted yesterday morning, in the best place possible, at my kitchen table.

I can legally do this, because I am more than 60 years old. If you reach that age, you qualify to be sent an absentee ballot through the mail, every election.

I won’t tell you for whom I voted, but I will tell you this: We’d be a better democracy if everyone could vote this way, if everyone got a ballot in the mail, took the time to study it, and then mailed it in.

Or as I do, drop it off at city hall.

Almost 30 years ago, I was national editor of the Detroit News, which was then the largest-circulation paper in Michigan.

The newspaper was then locked in a competitive struggle with the Detroit Free Press, and each was trying to put the other out of business. They had the novel idea that not only low prices but high quality was the way to win, and they did a lot of excellent journalism.

Back then, in the days before the World Wide Web, both newspapers sold well over 600,000 copies every day. On Sundays, their combined circulation was more than a million and a half. You could subscribe to either paper anywhere in the state.

Mitt Romney
(courtesy of MittRomneyCentral.com)

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss Mitt Romney’s recent Michigan visit, billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert’s testimony in Detroit’s bankruptcy trial and allegations that Ferndale police are issuing a disproportionate number of tickets to black drivers. 

Michigan is an unusual state politically. Republicans have controlled the state Senate for more than 30 years, and now solidly hold the lower House as well.

We’ve had Republican governors more often than not. But the last time Michigan voted Republican for president, the World Wide Web hadn’t yet been invented and the Soviet Union was still going strong.

And Democrats have utterly dominated our U.S. Senate races. Republicans have won just once in the last 42 years. This year, Michigan had a rare open seat, thanks to the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin. GOP hopes of finally breaking through were strong.

But … maybe not.

They ended up with a candidate who seems allergic to the normal processes of campaigning. After what seems to have been a traumatic experience on Mackinac Island in May, Terri Lynn Land has avoided reporters, ignoring all interview requests, except from a few sympathetic conservatives in carefully controlled situations.

Nor has Land campaigned openly much. She sometimes shows up for parades or other events, but usually doesn’t announce her schedule in advance. Instead, she seems to be relying on a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign.

If you are following the campaign for governor you really aren’t normal. Yes, you heard me correctly. The media, me included, has been writing more and more about the campaign.

Not just for governor, but for the Senate and various other races. Today, the Detroit Free Press’s headline trumpets: “With vote just weeks away, Snyder builds lead.”

That’s written as if it were describing something tangible and real, like “new mountain discovered in Brazil.” In fact, that story is based on a poll the newspaper and a TV station paid for.

The data is based on a mere 600 people and shows 45% percent favored Rick Snyder; 39% percent favored Mark Schauer.

That’s pretty close to the margin of error.

Nevertheless, Bernie Porn, the man whose firm did the polling said authoritatively, “Snyder went up with his advertising campaign and it’s made a significant difference in the race.”

But, as if conscious that nobody likes a play whose ending is revealed in the first act, Porn added, “Even with Snyder’s lead, it is certainly not too late for Schauer to turn things around.”

In other words, it’s the Belmont Stakes and the horses are just coming into the backstretch. However, I have news for us political junkies. Far more people are like the server at the cheap restaurant where I had lunch yesterday.

When I asked him about the governor’s race, he said “Is that this year?” He also thought he was a registered voter, but wasn’t quite sure. Well, I don’t need Bernie Porn to tell me how that guy’s going to vote: He’s not. In fact, most registered voters aren’t going to  vote.

Pretty much every major political campaign develops a certain weirdness of its own. Some more than others.

There was Howard Wolpe, who ran for governor of Michigan by talking a lot about South Africa. And now we have the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land. You might think that there was a modern-day state or national issue or two worth worrying about, like jobs or education or ISIS.

But forget all that. For the past couple days, the candidates have been squabbling over what in economic terms is ancient history. Specifically, the so-called bailout of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, and whether Land would have supported it.

What makes this weirder is that one of the candidates is only arguing about it by proxy. Land doesn’t talk to reporters or interviewers and so far hasn’t consented to debate her rival.

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss Detroit’s water shutoffs, Detroit Public School’s emergency manager and updates from the campaign trail.

I once knew an opinion pollster who told me he could usually determine how anyone was going to vote without ever asking who they were going to vote for.

He did this by asking a series of litmus-test type questions about someone’s life, background and beliefs.

If you were a single mom with limited income, for example, that probably indicated you were a Democrat – unless you were a fundamentalist Christian. White professional male with a six-figure income?  Likely Republican if in business, for example. But probably not if he is a nonreligious professor.

If you follow politics in this state, you probably know that John Dingell has served longer in Congress than anyone in American history.

You also probably know he is retiring at the end of this term, and that his wife Debbie is the Democratic nominee to succeed him. And given the realities of politics, it is absolutely as certain as anything can be that she will win.

Mrs. Dingell – she uses Mrs., by the way – would not want me to say that. Neither would her main opponent, Terry Bowman, a blue-collar Republican auto worker.

user memories_by_mike / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack 
Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss the latest polls for Michigan’s governor and U.S.Senate races, Detroit’s decision to keep emergency manager Kevyn Orr on board for now, and the latest scandal with Aramark, the state’s food services provider.

Yesterday Detroit’s City Council made a decision so sane, sensible and rational it may have left some flabbergasted.

The council voted unanimously to transfer power for all day-to-day decisions back to the city’s elected leadership.

But at the same time, emergency manager Kevyn Orr will remain on the job for issues having to do with Detroit’s ongoing bankruptcy case. That trial is still going on in federal court in Detroit, proceedings that may continue three more weeks.

Two months ago, I told the story of a Vietnam veterans’ group in Detroit that has been fighting for recognition for all veterans of all wars for years. Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9, has been a force in Detroit for many years.

They have reached out to help homeless and messed-up veterans. They got an annual Veterans Day parade started again. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve let veterans of our newer conflicts know they were appreciated and welcomed.

They’ve also had a dream. They’ve wanted to build a Veterans memorial park open to anyone, which would commemorate all of America’s conflicts. I’ve seen the design; it is not overly militaristic, it doesn’t glorify combat. It mostly tells the story of our nation’s military history, and honors those who helped make freedom possible.

But for years, the veterans have been shown little respect by the city of Detroit. Originally, they wanted to build their park in a large vacant lot on Woodward Avenue, and at least one mayor told them that would be fine. The veterans cleaned it up, drove off the junkies, paid an architect to design a plan.

Then another mayor gave it to his buddies to park cars on instead. Later, Detroit City Council told the veterans they should consider Gabriel Richard Park on the Detroit River.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few years is how many local hospitals seem to have been taken over by McLaren Health Care, a chain that originally started in Flint.

That in itself may not be bad; there have certainly been cases of local stand-alone hospitals that lacked the resources to properly serve their communities.

But it sometimes seems to me that while America once had wards between rival steel and railroad magnates, we now have hospital system wars. And we now have a case of sheer hospital arrogance.

Phil Incarnati, McLaren’s president and CEO, seems to believe the state’s rules for allowing where hospitals can expand are just fine – as long as they don’t apply to him. Over and over again, McLaren has been denied permission to build a new hospital near Clarkston, an affluent area in northern Oakland County.

Water faucet.
jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry sat down to discuss what's going on this week in Michigan politics. They covered the high price of water in Flint and Detroit, GM’s decision to move its Cadillac headquarters to New York, and the debates for Michigan governor and the U.S. Senate race.


Yesterday, the Michigan League for Public Policy held a press conference to announce that our state is a disgrace when it comes to child care.

They didn’t say it that way, but I will.

What the nonpartisan league actually said was:

“Michigan’s child care program falls far short in ensuring high-quality child care.”

We are living in an age when more parents than ever need to work, and our politicians demand they work. And we are making it harder and harder for them to do so.

Over the last 10 years, Michigan has cut 70% of the funding for subsidized child care.

Back in 2005, before the Great Recession, 65,000 low-income parents got child care help from the state so that they could keep working.

Many more are in trouble now, but we only help a third as many.

Forget human compassion; from purely a business standpoint, this makes no sense.

To quote the league:

“Access to safe, stable and high-quality child care reduces employee absenteeism and turnover and improves businesses’ bottom line.”

We can say two things about the race for governor today: Mark Schauer and Rick Snyder are essentially tied in the polls. And it looks like we may not have a single televised debate.

The last time that happened was 16 years ago, when John Engler refused to debate Geoffrey Fieger. There was a certain logic to that.

Fieger was going around saying that the governor was a “corn-fed bowser,” and declared he would not accept that Engler was the father of his triplets unless they had corkscrew tails.

That was not a normal campaign. But this one is, and the voters have a lot at stake. This time, the challenger wants debates and the incumbent doesn’t.

Conventional wisdom says that’s because the governor doesn’t want to make it seem like his opponent is his equal, or because it is always harder to defend a record than attack one.

That may be. But it is also possible that Republicans are wasting a golden opportunity to put the challenger on the defensive. Here’s why.

NOAA

This Week in Review Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss a plan to put a hold on the creation of new charter schools, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan’s idea for a new regional water authority, and Enbridge’s statement that it has fixed internal problems that lead to the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill.

There are two dirty little secrets about journalism most people don’t realize. One is that we assume that the good is normal. If you work hard, are not flamboyant, take care of your business and don’t kill your family, you may well live happily ignored by the media.

Same goes for your community, if it is solvent and your elected officials aren’t stealing or worse.

While great breakthroughs in science or human achievement do get recognized, news tends to be about system or human failures, which is one of the reasons journalists tend to be unpopular.

We come to show you that the mayor is a crook, the legislature incompetent, your schools are failing to educate "Susie," that your city is bankrupt and the water polluted.

Something happened in the auto industry recently that was mostly overlooked by the mainstream media – but which may have huge implications for the industry and the United Auto Workers union.  

Seven years ago, the UAW made a concession that I am convinced would have had Walter Reuther spinning in his grave.

They agreed to accept a two-tier wage system under which most new hires would be paid slightly less than half what long-time auto workers made.

Think about that.

This means most of them are earning less than $30,000 a year.  Can they buy a house with that salary?  Even buy one of the new cars and trucks they build?

You know the answer. Yet the union agreed, because it felt it had no choice.

Some years ago, I was studying some primitive TV campaign ads. One of them featured candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower being asked by a housewife, "Well, the Democrats have made mistakes, but weren't their intentions good?"

Squinting at cue cards, the nearsighted Ike replied woodenly, "Well, if you have a school bus driver who goes off the road, hits a pole and lands in a ditch you don't say his intentions are good. You get a new bus driver." 

Last night I thought it might be a good idea to send that ad to Governor Rick Snyder, with a note: Think about Aramark.

State capitol
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss the possibility of new teachers losing their pensions, the latest in the Detroit bankruptcy trial, and how Aramark is under fire again.


Many years ago, I met Thomas Friedman, the distinguished New York Times journalist who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the Middle East by the time he was 35.

When I told him that I regarded his reporting as indispensable, he told me something I’ll never forget. He said “don’t read my stories every day.”  That startled me, and I asked what he meant.

He went on: “Daily journalists covering a beat have to produce a story just about every day.” That’s partly because everybody doesn’t always read everything. But if you look closely, you’ll see that much of the time, much of the daily stories are repetitious.

Six months ago, I was convinced Rick Snyder would be reelected in November -- not by the 18 point landslide he scored four years ago, but by a fairly comfortable margin.

Yes, I knew there was lingering anger over the pension tax and right to work, maybe other issues, but I figured that Snyder’s Republicans would have so much money they’d overwhelm Mark Schauer, his Democratic opponent, with broadcast commercials, the “air war” of modern politics.

Then too, Republicans have a built-in advantage over Democrats in midterm elections. Turnout is always smaller, and Republicans are better about showing up.

State Senator Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, looks absolutely nothing like Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. Yet yesterday, when Warren introduced legislation to amend Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, he instantly came to mind.

And here’s why: Many people, especially the LGBT community and their allies, were excited when, with considerable fanfare, Warren introduced her bill. SB 1053 would make it illegal for anyone hiring employees or providing housing to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Identity, or expression. Her bill, as I understand it, would also make it illegal to refuse to hire or sell or serve or rent to anyone because you don’t like the way they dress or define themselves.

These days, workplaces of all kinds from radio stations to corporate offices are filled with interns, mainly unpaid interns.

So imagine that you have such an intern in your office anywhere in this state. You think she, or he, is cute.

You ask what she does with her boyfriend at night, and begin touching her inappropriately. Finally, you suggest that if she wants a career, she should come to a meeting without her clothes on.

Can she sue you and the firm for sexual harassment?

The answer is … no.

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