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Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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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.

Ways to Connect

teacher with student
BES Photos / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Governor Rick Snyder signed a handful of bills this week, including one that will change the retirement system for new teachers starting in 2018. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about the implications when it comes to attracting new teachers to Michigan.

Teacher and students at Flint's Southwestern Academy.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

George Orwell’s classic Cold War novel 1984 depicted a world where everything was controlled by a nightmarish dictatorship where history was constantly being rewritten to suit the needs of the moment, and where the meaning of words was turned into their opposite: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, et cetera. I was reminded of that yesterday, when I got an Orwellian press release from the governor’s office.

Elizalde Ramirez Vasquez - a migrant worker who attended Michigan State University.
courtesy photo

The last few decades haven’t been kind to Michigan. Traditional manufacturing jobs have disappeared or gone abroad or to the Sunbelt.

Per capita income has fallen dramatically, to the point where two-thirds of the states are wealthier than we are. We were the only state to lose population in the first decade of this century.

While Michigan seems to be slowly growing again, the population increase is far smaller than average. We’ve lost five seats in Congress since 1980, and may lose another.

Little Caesars Area being built in June of 2016.
Rick Briggs / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Let me start out by saying that Robert Davis, usually referred to as a Highland Park activist, is a man easy to despise. He has won a reputation as a gadfly who is constantly filing lawsuits demanding transparency in government and attacking corruption.

Some see him as a crusading knight in shining armor and others as a relentless self-promoter trying to make a name and have us forget his past.

An artists' vision of Little Caesars Arena.
Olympia Entertainment

Last month, Detroit city council approved $34.5 million in bonds to help pay for the Pistons move to Little Caesars Arena. That property-tax money would have gone to schools, but will now be reimbursed to the teams' owners. Now, the NBA and the companies that own the Detroit Pistons and Red Wings have been added to a federal lawsuit against Detroit's public school district.

Activist Robert Davis filed the lawsuit. He says Detroiters should've been allowed to vote on how their tax money is used. Senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry tells "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou whether he thinks Davis has a chance of winning the case. 


State Senator Coleman Young II unveiled his plan for Detroit yesterday. He is running for mayor this year, and the odds are that he and incumbent Mike Duggan will be the two top vote-getters in the September primary, and go on to face each other in the general election.

Actually, I had planned on talking to Senator Young Monday so I could tell you more about his campaign, and had scheduled an interview weeks ago.

School desks
Flickr user Frank Juarez/Flickr / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Michigan Court of Claims is not one of the highest-profile judicial bodies in the country, or even our state. It handles civil actions filed against the state and its various departments and agencies.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Attorney General Bill Schuette says the Michigan schools superintendent can't withhold state aid from school districts with American Indian mascots or logos. Earlier this year Superintendent Brian Whiston proposed cutting up to 10% of a district's annual payment. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss Schuette's opinion on the matter.

They also talk about a ruling that temporarily halts state funding to private schools, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen's federal court nomination delay, and whether the an iconic Detroit hat shop is a casualty of rising downtown rents.

Fireworks stand
Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Lawmakers, we were taught in school, are sometimes torn between doing the right thing – and doing what their constituents want.

John F. Kennedy wrote a Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, about that. But these days, it often seems as if those running our government are neither doing what is right nor what we want.

Enbridge Energy's Line 5 oil and liquid natural gas pipelines run under Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

For the Fourth of July, former Michigan attorney general Frank Kelley invited me to watch fireworks from the porch at the Captain’s Quarters overlooking the harbor on Mackinac Island.

From there, I could see fireworks simultaneously from Cheboygan and Mackinaw City, in addition to those being fired from a barge not far offshore from the island.

Everybody knows that Detroit has made it through bankruptcy, and that a remarkable coalition of people and politicians came together on a “Grand Bargain” to save the city.

But now we need to start thinking about the next hugely important step, one that’s largely been ignored: Finding a way to bring many thousands of forgotten people into the workforce and make them economically and socially productive citizens.

Michael Dorausch / Flickr, http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Trump administration has created a commission to investigate allegations of voter fraud. States have been asked for detailed voter information. Michigan's Secretary of State Ruth Johnson says she'll comply with some of the requests, but will not send Michiganders' personal information.  “Morning Edition” host Doug Tribou and senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss Johnson’s response to the request.


The Parade Company / via theparade.org

Tomorrow is the day we celebrate American independence with fireworks, picnics, and, for most of us, a day off from work. We’ll have picnics, flirt dangerously with firecrackers, see spectacular fireworks displays, and maybe, just maybe, think about the meaning of it all.

Ask the average person why this day matters, and they’ll tell you it was when our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. Well, while the document is indeed dated July 4, 1776, they had voted to sign it two days before.

sign that says flint
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sued the City of Flint this week. The state says the city council's refusal to approve a long term deal to buy water from a Detroit-area system endangers a public already troubled by a lead-tainted water crisis. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the lawsuit filed by the state agency that's been blamed for much of Flint's water crisis.

Yesterday, before President Trump sent out his tweets about the hosts of the Morning Joe program, I was interviewed by a radio host in another city.

He asked something to the effect of whether CNN and other mainstream journalism outlets actually put out fake news? I answered that they never do -- that while respected news outlets do make mistakes, they never invent news to push a political agenda.

What was most dismaying was that the question was asked at all.

Love or hate him, Geoffrey Fieger is an absolutely brilliant trial lawyer. I watched him through all the Kevorkian trials in the 90s, when he ran rings around the opposition.

Then, 20 years ago, he told me he was thinking of running for governor, and asked me what I thought. I told him, with tongue firmly in cheek, that he should take what he was planning to spend on that race and give it to me instead, and we’d both be better off.

Not that I would have taken his money, but for once, I was absolutely right. Fieger lost by almost 25 points. Unlike the courtroom, he was fighting in an arena he didn’t understand.

Ever think you might want to be lieutenant governor? It’s not all that stressful. Basically, you have only two real duties. You preside over the state senate in case there’s a tie vote, and you serve as standby equipment in case the governor dies or resigns.

“I like to think of myself as a problem solver,” Macomb County Public Works commissioner Candice Miller told me.

She’s needed to be. The week before she took office came the collapse of the sewer line in Fraser, the now-infamous giant sinkhole, what she calls “probably the biggest infrastructure emergency in the state of Michigan, at least at this time, perhaps ever.”

Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River, turned 90 earlier this month. I don’t know how he celebrated, but I do know something happened last week that may well have ruined his birthday.

Years ago, when the baby boomers completely dominated the culture, someone once said that we’d know their influence was finally ending when magazines had cover stories on designer funeral homes. Well, we aren’t there yet.

You might say the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the one think tank liberals and progressives most like to hate. Indeed, I heard someone say a few years ago that it was home to some of the finest minds of the 14th century. That’s not completely fair.

They produced a useful report this spring detailing how some of our complex and unnecessary state and local licensing laws are hurting the economy.

Spartan stadium
Flickr/Ken Lund / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Three Michigan State University football players have been charged with sexual assault stemming from an incident in January in which they allegedly sexually assaulted a woman on campus. 

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the this case and others, including former Olympic gymnastics and MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar.

On June 1st, I talked about Gretchen Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader and now the leading candidate for next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

During an interview during last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Whitmer told me that when you look at all the candidates, “I’m the one that looks most like John Engler.”

creative commons

There’s a legend that Secretary of State Dean Rusk summed up what happened in the Cuban Missile Crisis by saying, “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Well, things were considerably more complicated than that.

But right now the governor and the legislature are eyeball to eyeball over the future of teacher pensions in this state, and it isn’t clear who’ll be blinking.

dugganfordetroit.com

At the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference this week, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan flatly explained to a mostly white audience the systematic racism that shaped the city of Detroit and the surrounding region. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessnberry talk about the impact of Duggan's speech and his vision for Detroit's future.

Detroit skyline in 1930.
Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society

Earlier this week, I said words to the effect that I didn’t think many of those attending the annual Mackinac Policy Conference were doing much to relate to the average citizen.

Largely, I think I was right.

Gretchen Whitmer, currently the leading Democratic candidate for governor, told me something yesterday at the Mackinac Policy Conference that caught me by surprise: “You know, when you look at all of the candidates in the race, I’m the one that looks most like John Engler.”

H.L. Mencken, the great early 20th century journalist, was a militant atheist, so I don’t suppose there’s any chance his shade is flitting around Mackinac Island this week.

But if it was, it would have been laughing at Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley’s grand announcement yesterday that he would lead a campaign to give us a part-time legislature. That instantly reminded me of Mencken’s famous observation that “for every human problem there is a solution that is neat, plausible - and wrong.”

flickr

For the first time since he's been governor, the leaders from the state House and Senate have signed a target budget agreement without Rick Snyder's input. House Speaker Tom Leonard and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof want to close the pension system for new Michigan teachers and only offer a 401k. Governor Snyder's not a fan of that idea.

The Mackinac Policy Conference kicks off today.
David Ball / creative commons

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference begins today; I’ll be there, though so far, it doesn’t look like the most momentous conference they’ve ever had.

There will be a few national speakers worth hearing, including historian Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Walter Isaacson.

Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan will give keynote addresses, and there will be panels on politics, and on things like “Michigan’s Digital Future.”

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