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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Commentary
10:34 am
Wed August 22, 2012

Commentary: Virtue of Selfishness

Once upon a time, the rules of politics were fairly clear. When you got caught in a scandal, you resigned, as gracefully as possible.

That is, unless it happened to be in Japan, where you were expected to kill yourself.

There was also an extremely quaint idea that the cause and your party was more important than you were.

Thirty years ago, I interviewed a candidate for the U.S. Senate who had no realistic chance to win. He wasn’t just a name on the ballot; he was reasonably qualified. I asked him why he was running.

Speaking off the record, he told me he knew he had no chance, unless his opponent were to die. But he was running because he believed the voters deserved a decent choice between ideas. His party had asked him to run. Now, there was the mostly unspoken understanding that if he did this, and did a credible job, they later would see that he was put up for a race he could win.

That, or perhaps appoint him to something. These days, however, we live in a different world. Ayn Rand, once one of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s political heroes, once wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

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Commentary
9:57 am
Tue August 21, 2012

Commentary: Who Built What?

We are now fully into the silly season in both news and politics, something that commonly happens in late summer and in this point in campaigns, especially perhaps presidential election campaigns.

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Commentary
11:09 am
Mon August 20, 2012

Commentary: The Pipeline Controversy

There’s going to be a meeting tonight in the normally sleepy community of Brandon Township, in rural northern Oakland County not that far from Flint. Except that this session is likely to be different.

You can expect it to be crowded, and explosive.

Two years ago, a pipeline belonging to an Alberta-based company called Enbridge ruptured near the picturesque town of Marshall, sending more than eight hundred thousand gallons of crude, thick, tar sands oil into a creek leading to the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in the history of the Midwest.

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Commentary
8:00 am
Sat August 11, 2012

Commentary: View from Toledo

If you ever took a course in Michigan history, you may remember that Toledo was originally supposed to be part of Michigan. We lost it after the infamous Toledo War.

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Commentary
9:26 am
Fri August 10, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

Sometimes I think Detroit should adopt a new motto, something like: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it."

This time, the focus is on the Detroit Public Schools, which for years have been famous for incompetence, corruption, and the squandering of money. There were almost two hundred thousand kids in the schools at the turn of the century, a dozen years ago.

This fall, there may be fewer than fifty thousand left. In recent years, the schools have been under state control much of the time. Most recently, they’ve been run by an Emergency Financial Manager with sweeping powers over the system’s finances and academics. But this week, the Emergency Manager law was suspended until after a referendum in November that may repeal it.

In the meantime, the state believes that means that the old Emergency Financial Manager law is back in place.  According to a judge’s ruling, when Emergency Financial Managers were named to run school districts, they had power over finances - but not  academics. The stronger Emergency Manager law gave them both.

But with that gone, at least temporarily, the Detroit School Board moved to reassert itself. You might think they would move slowly and sensibly, reviewing Emergency Manager Roy Roberts’ academic plan and keeping it, as far as possible.

But instead, the board is acting as if they were terribly afraid someone might accuse them of common sense.

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commentary
8:53 am
Thu August 9, 2012

Commentary: Strange but true

 Michigan’s Eleventh Congressional District is, on paper, what used to be thought of as a pretty conventional place. It includes a bunch of white-collar suburbs in Wayne and Oakland Counties, places like Birmingham and Troy; Livonia and Plymouth.

Back in the day, much of this turf was represented for nearly forty years by Bill Broomfield, a moderate Republican who never made waves, rocked a boat or faced a difficult November election.

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commentary
9:04 am
Wed August 8, 2012

Commentary: Voter suppression

There weren’t a lot of surprises in yesterday’s election. Turnout, which was expected to be poor, was poor indeed.

Most of the incumbents won, and in races where new districts threw two officeholders together, the ones who had the most money usually won, except in a few cases where they were outworked.

What surprises did happen were mostly under the radar. Few noticed, but the voters absolutely humiliated the Republican establishment in suburban Wayne and Oakland Counties.

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Commentary
8:59 am
Tue August 7, 2012

Commentary: Beyond Voting

Today is primary election day, and if you haven’t voted yet, I wish you would, even if there is only one race you care about.

Most of us won’t vote. Bill Ballenger, who has been closely watching politics in this state for half a century, predicts that less than one-fifth of Michigan’s registered voters are going to vote today.

Sadly, I don’t think he is wrong. That bothers me for a lot of reasons, one of which is that when I was twelve years old, three college students were tortured and murdered in Mississippi for trying to register people to vote.

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Commentary
11:27 am
Mon August 6, 2012

Commentary: Voting tomorrow

Tomorrow is primary election day, and if you are like most Michigan voters, I can tell you exactly how you are going to vote: You won’t.

Turnout in Michigan’s August primary has averaged around 20 percent. That means four out of every five registered voters don‘t vote. One man told me he didn’t bother with primaries. He said, “I wait and vote in the real election,” in November.

Well, that isn’t only neglecting his civic responsibilities, it is also ignorant. Here’s something that may be news to you: For most contested races in this state, tomorrow is the real election.

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat August 4, 2012

Michigan politics: The week in review

Brian Charles Watson Wikimedia Commons

In this Saturday's Week in Review, Michigan Radio's Rina Miller speaks with Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry about auto earnings, the new state model for measuring K-12 academic achievement, and the primary election coming up on Tuesday.

RM: U.S. car companies announce their profit statements this week. How are things looking, Jack?

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The week in Michigan politics, campaign finance
7:43 am
Wed August 1, 2012

The week in Michigan politics

David Defoe Flickr

Every Wednesday Christina Shockley talks with Jack Lessenberry about the political stories of the week. This week they talked about the republican debates that will be held Thursday and how the U.S. Justice Department is suing Michigan over the failure of some clerks to send absentee ballots to military personnel overseas in time for their votes to be counted. They also talked about campaign finance issues including how the Democratic party wants the IRS to investigate Republican U-S Senate candidate, Clark Durant.  

Commentary
11:16 am
Fri July 27, 2012

Commentary: The Politics of Abortion

Yesterday, the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing and quickly  pushed through what everyone is calling an anti-abortion bill, sending it on to the full Senate.

It was clear that this wasn’t meant to be a deliberative process. Legally, any committee has to give at least 18 hours notice before holding any hearing.

When the legislature wants public comment, they usually give several days notice. In this case, it was almost  exactly 18 hours. The committee chairman, Senator Rick Jones, pretty much admitted he was ramming this bill through.

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Commentary
11:12 am
Thu July 26, 2012

Commentary: Hijacking our constitution

If what I am about to tell you doesn’t make you angry and indignant, then you must be  completely cynical.

Huge corporations and other special interests have already spent $20 million on ballot drives designed to bend the  Michigan Constitution to suit their selfish needs.

They have spent $20 million; they’ve raised almost $30 million, and every sign indicates they’re just getting started.

These numbers, by the way, come from the  non-profit, non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

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Commentary
10:43 am
Wed July 25, 2012

Commentary: The need for newspapers

The conventional wisdom is that newspapers -- dead tree news -- are on their way out. In some places, like Ann Arbor, there is no longer a daily newspaper at all. The publishers of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press deliver papers only a few days a week.

However, here’s a surprising development. Newspapers across the country gained readers over the most recently audited six month period. Not by leaps and bounds, but still, on average, gained.

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Commentary
10:30 am
Tue July 24, 2012

Detroit riots: Forty-five years later

This week marks an important anniversary that is being virtually ignored. We paid attention five years ago, and will again five years from now. We prefer round numbers.

But given what’s happening today, it makes sense to note that it’s been exactly 45 years since the legendary riot that devastated Detroit for four days during another hot summer.

The causes of the riot have been endlessly debated. Who was most responsible is still in dispute. But the effects are plain. It wouldn’t be too much to say that what happened in 1967 killed Detroit, slowly but certainly.

The burned-down buildings were cleared away. The 43 dead were buried, and money came from Washington and the private sector to try to make things better.

But it all failed. The riot put the pedal to the metal on a flood of white flight that had already begun. Detroit was still more than 60 percent white when the riot began.

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Commentary
9:30 am
Mon July 23, 2012

Paternity tests

Many years ago, I sat next to the daughter of a famous geneticist on a train from Washington to Philadelphia. For some reason, we started talking about genealogy, and she laughed.

Her father had told her that his preliminary DNA research indicated that as much as 28 percent of the population had fathers other then the men they thought were their dads.

Carry that out a generation or two, and most genealogy becomes pretty meaningless. In the years since then, sophisticated DNA analysis has saved the lives and commuted the sentences of a number of wrongly convicted prison inmates.

And it has also enabled us to resolve the age-old question of fatherhood.

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Politics
12:17 pm
Fri July 20, 2012

The New McCarthyism... in Michigan

Fasten your seat belts. We are in for another three and a half months in which President Obama and his surrogates will try to make us believe that Mitt Romney’s main goal is destroy the middle class and outsource every last American job to China.

Meanwhile, the Romney forces will try to make us think that President Obama is totally incompetent and single-handedly responsible for the long recession.

Hyperbole and exaggeration have been how campaigns have been conducted since George Washington’s time. But what has been taboo is reckless, vicious and false character assassination. We did have one very infamous practitioner of that kind of politics - Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, whose name we now use to define them. Back in the early 1950s, McCarthy destroyed lives, careers and reputations by recklessly accusing people of being Communists without the faintest shred of evidence.

Much of the nation was in a grip of terror. Eventually, McCarthy was stripped of his powers and soon drank himself to death. Ever since, there’s been agreement that there was such a thing as too far.

Until now, that is. A form of new McCarthyism has been growing across this nation and this state ever since President Obama was elected. My theory is that this was inspired by racism. There are millions who just can’t stomach that we have a black president.

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Commentary
11:00 am
Thu July 19, 2012

Commentary: Escaping today’s news

Yesterday, the story of the day was the shocking revelation that the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, Jase Bolger, had conspired with a party-switching colleague to try and perpetrate election fraud. Roy Schmidt, the Democrat-turned-Republican from Grand Rapids, tried to use campaign funds to pay a part-time student to put his name on the ballot.

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Commentary
12:26 pm
Wed July 18, 2012

Commentary: Perpetrating a fraud

Jase Bolger, the Speaker of Michigan’s House of Representatives, secretly conspired with State Representative Roy Schmidt of Grand Rapids to perpetrate a fraud on the people.

They did that by trying to rig an election.

That’s the conclusion of Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth, who released a stunning report yesterday. The prosecutor, like those two men, is a member of the Republican Party. Except that Forsyth indicated that as a Republican, he is embarrassed.

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Politics
10:57 am
Tue July 17, 2012

The Doctor Is In

Four years ago, Dr. Syed Taj, then chief of medicine at Dearborn’s Oakwood Hospital, decided to run for Canton Township trustee. His friends tried to talk him out of it. He had only lived there a year, and he was a Democrat. The affluent Wayne County area is pretty Republican. Taj is also a Muslim-American whose musical voice is rich with the accents of his native India.

Most figured he didn’t have a chance. But he won overwhelmingly. Though he was the only Democrat to win a seat on the board, he got more votes than anyone else.

“Most people trust their doctor,” Taj said, chuckling. Now, Taj is running for Congress from the Eleventh District, which tends to lean Republican. He is, once again, an underdog. But he is used to that -- and his chances improved when the incumbent, Thaddeus McCotter, mysteriously failed to qualify for the ballot and suddenly resigned.

Throughout the last decade, there was always speculation that a Democrat could win the 11th district, but the party tended to run lackluster and underfunded candidates. This time, it may be even harder. Redistricting has made the district slightly more Republican.

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