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
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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Commentary
12:10 pm
Mon July 16, 2012

Funding the Arts

I have been a member of the Detroit Institute of Arts for many years, and I have to confess that I don’t go nearly often enough. A couple times a year, maybe, and more often to its courtyard, a wonderful place for lunch if you are in the city.

Yet even when I can’t get to the museum, I am always happy to know it is there. Detroit and Michigan have seen more prosperous days. But it is nice to know that this city and state are still home to one of the nation’s top six comprehensive fine arts museums.

Having that quality continue, however, depends on the outcome of a small millage request on the primary ballot in just the three core Detroit-area metropolitan counties - Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.  Voters will be asked to approve two-tenths of a mill for the DIA for the next decade.

Translated into dollars, that means that if you own a house worth one hundred and twenty thousand, the DIA will cost you a dollar a month. If you rent, voting for the millage costs you nothing.

If the millage passes in all three counties, it should mean about twenty-three million a year for the DIA, depending on what happens with housing values. It will mean the museum will be able to continue to do the same quality exhibitions it has been doing.

Plus, citizens of any counties that approve the millage will get in free, and the art institute will stay open more hours and days.

I was assured of all that by Annmarie Erickson, the museum’s chief operating officer. She is cautiously optimistic that this time the millage will pass. What if only one of two of the three counties approve? Well, Macomb has a provision that its citizens will only have to pay if the other two counties also approve the millage.

If voters in either Wayne or Oakland County approve, however, the millage would be collected there. Those who support the DIA are cautiously optimistic, even though voters turned arts funding down twice about a decade ago. Those elections proposed appropriating money for an assortment of agencies; this one is for the DIA alone.

There are a number of misconceptions around. One is that the museum already gets city and state money. It used to; it doesn’t anymore. Another is that it is an exclusively a Detroit-area institution. But the DIA currently has art out on long-term loan to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and often makes its treasures available elsewhere. DIA experts have assisted and advised museums across Michigan.

Some have complained that the public shouldn’t have to pay for art. But is like saying public education should only be for the rich. One legislator suggested the museum should spend its endowment, and some have even suggested the DIA sell its art work to keep going. Those would be short paths to institutional suicide.

The value of public treasures is hard to quantify, mainly because it is beyond value. Metropolitan Detroit may not be as rich as it once was, but that’s no reason our public spaces should look like North Korea’s. We still have a world-class art museum.
 If that isn’t worth a dollar a month, I don’t know what is.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst.  Views expressed by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

Commentary
11:47 am
Fri July 13, 2012

Commentary: Right to read?

The ACLU filed a lawsuit yesterday that may change the entire conversation we’ve been having about education, in this state and perhaps beyond. Their focus is on the battered and impoverished little enclave city of Highland Park, which is embedded within Detroit.

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Commentary
10:16 am
Thu July 12, 2012

Commentary: When the law is an ass

If you need proof that our system is sometimes irrational, consider this: Westland, a mostly blue-collar Wayne County community of about 80,000 people, is short of cash, like most cities these days. But Westland is apparently going to have to spend $60,000 to hold an unexpected and virtually meaningless primary election on a Wednesday in September.

This is the first step in replacing Thaddeus McCotter, the congressman whose bizarre meltdown ended with his sudden resignation last week. Not to replace him for a full-term, but for just the few weeks remaining in his current one.

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Commentary
9:51 am
Wed July 11, 2012

Commentary: Drowning in Democracy

I hate to sound alarmist, but if all the proposals whose backers submitted signatures make it on the ballot and are approved by the voters, the result will destroy representative democracy in Michigan. Not only that, our economy will  probably be destroyed as well, and we will enter fully into the era of  government of special interests, by special interests, and for special  interests.

Michigan’s constitution is fatally flawed in one big way.  The framers thought there should be an opportunity for citizens to occasionally place a question before the people.

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Commentary
10:10 am
Tue July 10, 2012

Commentary: The problem McCotter left behind

Political circles across the state remain stunned by the very public self-destruction of former Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, from the white-collar Wayne County suburb of Livonia.

Yet it seems to me that while many people know the basic facts of his decline and fall, most don’t understand the true consequences of what he’s done. I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first consider this. A year ago, McCotter was a man with an essentially safe seat in Congress who had launched a long-shot campaign for President.

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Commentary
10:20 am
Mon July 9, 2012

Commentary: Snyder and Richard Nixon

The other day, I was thinking that if Governor Snyder wants to leave a lasting mark on this state, he might want to try to be more like Richard Nixon. Now, before you are offended, let me explain.

There were actually two Nixons. The one we tend to remember today is the scheming architect of dirty tricks, the foul-mouthed paranoid who bugged himself, and whose worst utterances were captured forever on the famous White House tapes.

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Politics & Government
8:30 am
Sat July 7, 2012

Michigan Politics: the week in review

Lawmakers in Lansing may have to cut revenue sharing with local governments to fill the $1.8 billion budget hole.
Lester Graham Michigan Radio

Gov. Snyder vetoes election reform bills. Charges reopened against former Highland Park EM. Where are the Occupiers this summer?

Hear Michigan Radio's Rina Miller sit down with MR Political Commentator Jack Lessenberry to discuss state politics stories from the past week.

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