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.

Benny Napoleon knows law enforcement. He joined the Detroit police force almost by accident when he was an 18-year-old shoe salesman looking for something to do with his life.

That was back in 1975. Twenty-three years later, he became police chief, and violent crime dropped by 30 percent over the next three years. He retired when Kwame Kilpatrick became mayor, and taught and practiced law.

Two years ago, he was elected Wayne County Sheriff. And now he is thinking seriously about running for mayor of Detroit. My guess is that he may well be the favorite, whether or not Dave Bing runs again.

Napoleon is a lifelong Detroiter with a charismatic personality and an infectious grin. But he’s deadly serious about saving Detroit. He knows there are astronomical budget problems, and billions of long term liabilities that the city is probably never going to be able to pay.

Nor does he claim to have the economic answers, certainly not yet.  But the city’s biggest problem, he believes, is violent crime, especially the soaring homicide rate. “The reason for that,” he told me this weekend is the “especially violent narcotics trade in Detroit, and the gang activity,” and an extremely aggressive young male culture.

Napoleon strongly believes there could be no better use of what limited resources the city has than to crack down on violent crime. He once headed the city’s gang squad. He’s never been shot, though bullets have whizzed past him; he’s never shot anyone, though several times, he’s had to come close.

Detroit’s population has fallen by 300,000 people since he was police chief. “If you ask people why they left, the overwhelming majority will tell you it’s because of violent crime,” he said.

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This week in review Weekend Edition host Rina Miller and political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss how the "fiscal cliff" deal will affect Michiganders, some changes going on at Chrysler and what will happen with former Governor Jennifer Granholm's TV show now that Current TV is being sold to Al Jazeera.

We got what looked like good news for the auto industry yesterday. Americans bought fourteen and a half million new vehicles last year -- nearly two million more than the year before.

True, that’s still considerably below total sales five years ago, before the Great Recession nearly put Chrysler and General Motors out of business forever. But still, it is progress. Except that those figures mask something troubling.

More cars were sold, but the Detroit three continue to lose market share. 50 years ago, in discussions about the auto industry nobody ever talked about foreign vs. domestic market share.

The North American International Auto Show will be starting at Detroit’s Cobo Center in a couple weeks, and anyone who cares about cars can go see virtually every new model in existence.

This has been an annual tradition for more than a century. But I’ve thought for a long time that we don’t do nearly enough to celebrate the amazing heritage of our signature industry.

Think about it. Motor vehicles, primarily cars, are what transformed Michigan from a farm state not all that different from Iowa into the industrial powerhouse that put the world on wheels.

That’s fascinating, and there are few of us whose lives are not connected to the auto industry in some way.  But where do you go to learn about and celebrate that heritage? Sadly, fewer and fewer places.

Well, we’ve gotten past the so-called fiscal cliff, at least for now, and averted what might have been a disaster for our economy.

Soon, once everyone is back to work, you can expect to see a whole lot of attention paid to the economic disaster that is Detroit.

The state is reviewing the city’s finances, and the governor may soon name an emergency financial manager.

You’ll be hearing a lot about that as things move along. But there is another horrendous crisis destroying Detroit that we don’t talk much about. Black people are killing black people at a horrendous rate, and nobody seems sufficiently concerned. 

Well, it’s Christmas Eve, and if you are like me you are thinking, “I really should start shopping pretty soon.“

I was just kidding. After all, some drug stores do stay open past midnight. But whether and however you celebrate the holidays, it has been a fascinating year with a lot of surprises.

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In this "week in review" political analyst Jack Lessenberry chats with Weekend Edition host Rina Miller about  some of the big regional news stories of the week.

They discuss the gun legislation that would ease restriction on where guns could be carried in the state.

Governor Rick Snyder vetoed the bill. But Lessenberry says the governor didn't veto the bill as a reaction to the Connecticut school shootings.

“The sponsor of the bill was told before Connecticut that the governor would veto it unless it allowed schools to opt out and the sponsor wasn’t willing to do that," Lessenberry says.

This week the governor approved legislation that would phase out the tax on industrial and business equipment. Lessenberry says Snyder thought the bill would help expand business in the state.

Miller and Lessenberry also talked about the slew of bills Snyder signed in Detroit. The bills would establish a Regional Transit Authority to fund and operate southeast Michigan’s fragmented transit systems;  create an authority to run Detroit’s troubled public lighting system; continue a downtown development district for a new hockey arena; and help Detroit’s Eastern Market get additional funds.

Governor Rick Snyder has signed so many momentous bills in the last week that some which normally might have gotten headlines have been almost overlooked. One was yesterday.

This is a new law that makes it harder to recall state officials, meaning to remove them from office by a special election before their term is over. There’s bound to be a lot of grumbling that this is anti-democratic, that the lawmakers did this to protect themselves from being removed by outraged citizens. 

Well, I am sure that may have been a motivation for some. But in fact, making recalls harder is a good thing. Good for democracy and our state, and will make it easier for lawmakers to do their jobs.

Here’s why. We already have a system of recalls -- it’s called elections. Officials serve short terms. House members have to run every two years. State senators and most other state officials, including the governor, every four years. Only judges serve longer.

In order for representative democracy to work, elected officials sometimes must make unpopular decisions. Washington did, Lincoln did, the Roosevelt’s and Reagan did. State legislators, ditto.

But in recent years, any time Michigan lawmakers have done something some faction doesn’t like, it’s been common to start hollering “recall.”

Whether or not you are from the Detroit area, you may well have wondered about the ongoing issue of the street lights.

There’s been constant discussion about the fact that at least half the lights never come on. This is not a great selling point for a city with a major crime problem.

So, why doesn’t Detroit just replace the lights? How expensive can new bulbs be? Well, it turns out that isn’t the real problem.

A few weeks ago, I talked to Glenda Price, a member of the city’s financial advisory board. She had just had a tour of the lighting department. She told me “the wonder is that any of the lights come on at all.” Some of the equipment is a century old.

Not only is it worn out, there is no way to get spare parts. So technicians jury-rig things, and cannibalize some machinery to keep other parts going.

But there’s only so much they can do. There’s hope now, however. Yesterday, Governor Rick Snyder came to Detroit to sign legislation allowing the city to appoint an authority that will be able to issue bonds, raise money, and fix the lighting system.

That was one of the less controversial results of the legislature’s now-famous lame duck session. Additionally, the governor signed a law making it easier for the Downtown Development Authority to help Mike Ilitch build the new hockey arena and entertainment complex he wants in the city.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Governor Rick Snyder yesterday vetoed the bill that would have allowed anybody to carry a concealed weapon into elementary schools, or other places, like churches and day care centers, where they are now banned.

This is being hailed as a great victory for gun control. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Mike Green of Mayville, was very disappointed that the governor wouldn’t sign it.

The fact is, however, that this really isn’t a victory for gun control at all. There are a lot of myths about what happened here. So allow me to try to puncture them.

First of all, it would have been politically impossible for any governor in a major state to have signed this bill four days after the Newtown massacre. But it is important to note that all indications are that Governor Snyder would have vetoed this bill even if 20 first-graders hadn’t been murdered in their classrooms last Friday.

The day before the shooting, Snyder’s director of legislative affairs told Senator Green that the governor would veto it unless schools were given the option to “opt out,” to say, that sorry, we are not allowing concealed weapons here.

cncphotos / flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Christina Shockley and Michigan Radio’s political analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about the end of the lame duck session.

Lessenberry says “this probably has been the most productive and momentous and game changing lame duck session doing back to the 1960s.”

Lessenberry says making Michigan a right to work state was probably the biggest moment in Michigan politics this year.

Yesterday, in an ancient ritual, members of the Electoral College gathered in state capitols all over the nation, including Lansing.

State Senator Steve Bieda, a big history buff, was there to witness the event, which is technically the real presidential election.

But he told me that when Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer’s office looked at the official certificate sent over by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office, something was wrong.

The Secretary of State had misspelled President Obama’s first name. The electors had to send it back and get another certificate before they could formally register their votes.

Well, you’d think after four years everybody would be able to spell the president’s name correctly, or at least would take pains to do so on an important official document. Yet anyone can make mistakes. But when I told this story to an African-American colleague, she didn’t think it was a mistake at all.

She thought it was one more deliberate slight aimed at an African-American from the Republican Secretary of State. Now, my guess is that this was just a sloppy clerical error. 

The headline in one of the Detroit papers today says that in the aftermath of the Connecticut tragedy, schools are struggling to reassure children that they are safe.  Well, I hate to be a downer, but they aren’t.

True -- the odds are heavily against any particular school being attacked by a gunman. But it could happen, and, as we all know, almost certainly will happen again.

We’ve seen this, over and over. What is a little different this time is that, as of this morning, legislation was sitting on Governor Snyder’s desk that would allow those with concealed weapons permits to bring guns into schools.

And not just schools -- churches, synagogues and hospitals, day-care centers and sports stadiums. Friday, after we knew that 20 first graders had been murdered in their classrooms, the governor said he all that gave him “serious pause,” and said he was wondering if, in view of all this, signing it was “appropriate.”

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This week Weekend Edition host Rina Miller and Michigan Radio’s political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the lame duck session in Lansing.

While right to work was passed despite massive protests, Lessenberry says there is only one way it can be repealed.

“People could petition with the legislature to repeal the law and if they don’t then it goes on the ballot,” he says.

The question is, is if anyone will actually do it.

And a package of abortion bills were sent to Governor Snyder’s desk.

“The package passed is mainly regulating abortion clinics, putting them under more scrutiny, making sure that people coming in for a procedure weren’t coerced,” Lessenberry says.

And finally, a new emergency manager law also moved forward.

“This gives emergency managers more power than the old emergency financial managers have. But it also sort of gives cities a choice--whether they want an emergency manger, whether they want to move to bankruptcy or have a consent agreement,” Lessenberry says.

The lawmakers who passed legislation this week making Michigan a right to work state wanted to make sure the voters couldn’t try to repeal it by collecting signatures and putting another referendum on the ballot. That‘s how unhappy citizens got rid of the governor’s first emergency manager law last month.

So the legislature included some money in the bill. Under Michigan’s constitution, appropriations bills are immune from the referendum process.  The idea was to make sure right to work could never be repealed unless by a vote of the legislature.

And since Democrats winning control of the State Senate any time in the next decade is seen as virtually impossible, those who want right to work figure they have made sure it is here to stay.

Yet believe it or not, there is a way those opposing right to work could collect signatures and get something on the ballot to repeal this. It won’t be easy, and it would take at least two years.

Don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the current lame duck session of the legislature is trying to do about as much as lawmakers normally do in about ten years. Now I am sure that’s an exaggeration, but it doesn’t feel like one.

Consider this. In a single day, the governor and the Republican majority pushed through the most momentous labor legislation in years, taking the once inconceivable step of outlawing the union shop and making Michigan a so-called right to work state.

They aren’t stopping there, however: The governor is going to have to make a decision on four bills, or parts of bills aimed at making it harder for women to get abortions in Michigan.

For the last two years, lots of people have believed that Rick Snyder may be a pro-business fiscal conservative, but that he was really a moderate on social issues. Well, now we are about to find out.

Last night, after the demonstrations and protests, and after the right to work bills had been signed into law by Governor Snyder, I got a series of phone calls from prominent Democrats.

Geoffrey Fieger was one of those. The famously flamboyant lawyer was, we sometimes forget, the Democratic nominee for governor in 1998. “What are they thinking!“ he yelled over the phone. “This is the end of Snyder. Snyder is going down. All the Democrats have to do is find a candidate. Trust me. He or she will have all the money they need. We have got to defeat him. He is a bad man. An evil man, and a puppet. People know that now.”

Well, you can’t say that there is any doubt about how Geoffrey Fieger feels. And whatever your politics, there is certainly no doubt that Rick Snyder is less popular than he was a month ago.

Indeed, there is a big sense of betrayal on the part of people who had convinced themselves that Snyder was a moderate much like former Governor William Milliken. The Detroit Free Press’s editorial page’s reaction sounded more like that of a jilted lover than of a newspaper disappointed in a politician.

They wrote, “We believed him. For two years we supported Snyder. We indulged many compromises Snyder maintained were necessary to advance his pro-growth agenda. We trusted Snyder’s judgment. That trust has now been betrayed for us.“

There were a lot of people outside Michigan’s capitol yesterday who believe Snyder is going down, that he will either be defeated two years from now or even recalled before that.

But I am not so sure.

cncphotos / flickr

It has been quite a week in Michigan politics.

Morning Edition host Christina Shockley and Michigan Radio's political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss what happens now that right to work bills have been signed into law and what other controversial bills are being looked at in the remainder of the lame duck session.

Chances are you’ve been hearing about only one state government story today: The protests and the politicians battling in Lansing over right to work legislation. That’s a battle, however, whose outcome was decided in one dramatic day last week.

What happens next is something we’ll be working through for years. What’s almost as amazing is that the furor over right to work has been so huge it has all but blotted out another huge, huge story.

Which is, that by the end of January, it is all but certain that the State of Michigan will have effectively taken over the city of Detroit.

There’s no doubt that turning Michigan into a right to work state will strike a major, and potentially even fatal, blow to unions.

Nor is there any doubt that the way that this was done was profoundly anti-democratic. Ramming a hugely significant bill through both houses on a single day is essentially unheard of.

Afterwards, State Senator Steve Bieda told me: “We’ve had more deliberative hearings on something like a commemorative license plate.” The Republicans also added some appropriations money, structuring this bill so that voters cannot attempt to collect signatures to put a repeal on the ballot.

What happened is a disaster for labor, however you slice it, and I cannot imagine anything that will prevent the governor from signing this into law. However, this could be -- just could be -- a blessing for the labor movement, even though it looks like anything but.

If you were writing a novel about politics, you couldn’t make this up. Last month a Democratic President was re-elected, easily carrying Michigan by almost half a million votes.

The same day, the state’s voters reelected a liberal Democratic Senator by almost a million votes, and Democrats gained seats in the legislature. Exactly one month to the day later, this same state passed laws destroying the union shop, and making Michigan a right to work state.

Did I think I would ever see this in my lifetime? Absolutely not. But then, I never counted on a black president, General Motors going bankrupt, or Pontiac going out of business.

We live in momentous times. And in the Michigan legislature, last week was a time of lawmaking at breathtaking speed. If there has ever been a lame-duck session anything like this one, I certainly don’t know about it.

We can say this much about what happened with the right to work bills yesterday. This wasn’t a case of all deliberate speed.

Instead, it was a matter of ramming right to work through both houses of the legislature within a matter of hours.

When we ate breakfast, nobody was sure whether Governor Snyder would support right to work. By lunch time, he had come out for it, and before I ate a late dinner, both houses had passed bills blowing apart the labor-management dynamic as we know it.

Legally, these bills can’t finally become law until the middle of next week. They won’t take effect until April Fool’s Day. But barring divine intervention, nothing is going to stop Michigan from taking the once unimaginable step of outlawing the union shop. The lawmakers opposed to unions put a lot of thought into planning just how they would do this. They clearly thought it was essential to do this now, during the lame duck session.

I cannot remember any lame duck session of any legislature where lawmakers were trying to do as much in as short a time as they are in Lansing now. They are trying to grapple with vast changes to personal, meaning business, property tax in this state.

They are working on major changes to Blue Cross-- a new regional transportation system for Metropolitan Detroit.

Some vast war over right-to-work legislation is increasingly likely. And now it seems that the lawmakers will be asked to pass some new version of an emergency manager law.

Nobody can deny that Detroit is in bad shape, especially in terms of city government. Communication between the mayor and the city council has virtually broken down, unless you call searing insults and denunciations communication.

Mayor Dave Bing seems more and more isolated and removed. Many of the city council members seem to be either in a parallel and irrational universe, or determined to drive the city off its own fiscal cliff, into either bankruptcy or some kind of state takeover.

The city has lots of other problems, from public safety to its failing schools, many of which I’ve talked about before, and will probably discuss again. If you’ve been listening to or reading me, you know that nobody could confuse me with Pollyanna.

But there are some very good things happening in Detroit. The downtown is far nicer and more vibrant than 20 years ago. So is the theater district, and Ford Field and especially Comerica Park are first-rate, world-class sports palaces.

Much of this is due to Mike Ilitch, a billionaire who made his money selling cheap pizza, not cars. Ilitch started the revival by renovating the magnificently flamboyant Fox Theater a quarter-century ago. He went on to push through Comerica Park.

And now he has a new project he wants to see finished while he is still alive. The 83-year-old billionaire wants a new, $650 million multipurpose arena that would house his Detroit Red Wings, but also be available for other things as well.

cncphotos / flickr

This week in Michigan politics revolves around what bills might be passed during the remaining weeks of the lame duck session. Morning Edition host Christina Shockley and Michigan Radio's political analyst Jack Lessnberry  talked about the possibility of passing an education overhaul and a right-to-work bill.

A while ago, a student came to see me after she had badly bombed a midterm. Her goal in life is to be an on-air TV personality. Though she is a senior, it was clear that she didn’t really know how to study or take notes, and read only when forced to.

This was a course in the history of journalism, and one of her major mistakes was claiming that the African-American press tried in the 1930’s to turn people against slavery.

Slavery had then been abolished for 70 years. I asked if she knew that the Civil War had led to the end of slavery. She did not, and asked me when the Civil War was.

I said that if I told her, she would forget, and that she needed to look it up and then report back. She thought that was reasonable, and then paused. “What countries were involved in the Civil War? I mean, I know America was one of them,” she said.

Now, that was a bit of an extreme case -- but not as much as you might think. I am not telling you this to attack how history is taught in the public schools.  I’m thinking about the media.

As pretty much everybody knows, traditional mainstream media -- the daily newspaper and the half-hour TV broadcast, are in trouble.

On Election Night, I heard a commentator say that the voters settled one thing: There are no longer any racial barriers to success in America-- that a majority of the voters have now voted for a black president not once, but twice, seemed to settle that.

Well, that theory is certainly a comforting one.

But last night I spent some time with a brilliant law professor who argues compellingly that the truth is anything but. Michelle Alexander is the author of the national best-seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

User: David Defoe / flickr

The Michigan legislature is wrapping up business before the end of the year and Snyder gave an address this week about the environment. This week Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss how the State House rejected a state-run federal health exchange, and the State Senate passed a regional transit authority for southeast Michigan. Lessenberry also reflected on Snyder's environmental address.

Suppose that Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Tigers, said he refused to accept the result of the World Series. He wasn’t going to accept the San Francisco Giants as champions, despite the fact that they swept his team in four straight games.

That would be nuts. But not much more irrational than what Republicans in the state House of Representatives did yesterday. They stomped their feet, whined, pouted and refused to set up a state-run exchange to help citizens and businesses shop for health care, now that they have to buy it.

This won’t make much difference to the average person, and affects only those who don’t have health care now, as well as small businesses, which now have to offer it to their workers.

The only difference is the federal government, not the state, will be running the system that helps people find health care. While this is being called an exchange, it is actually more like a marketplace, where people can shop for health care policies.

Someone once said that Americans will do anything for the environment except read about it or spend money on it.

I thought of that yesterday, when the governor delivered the latest in his series of special messages, this one on the environment.

Rick Snyder said we had to make better use of the resources we have, and called, among other things, for better recycling and for Michigan to develop a strategic national gas reserve.

Pretty much everyone nodded politely at most of what the governor said,  though not when he appeared to endorse fracking, at least so far as natural gas recovery is concerned.

However, I would be surprised if anyone in the legislature was still thinking about, much less talking about, what the governor said about the environment a week from now. In fact, the governor’s main priorities seem to be elsewhere, at least for the lame duck session.

But something else is going on in the Capitol that could be highly beneficial to the economic as well as the natural environment: Transportation reform. More than a year ago, the governor proposed a high-speed bus system for Metro Detroit. It was, and is, a great and politically brilliant idea. More than a third of the population of Detroit has no access to reliable private transportation, meaning cars.