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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Opinion
11:40 am
Wed May 14, 2014

Michigan's schools can learn a thing or two from Macomb Community College

When it comes to education, there are two things on which pretty much everyone agrees. We need more of it, and we need to make it more affordable.

But there’s a third thing, too. We need to make it relevant.

Learning for learning’s sake is a good and sacred thing, but today’s generation also needs education that will lead to jobs, in most cases, sooner rather than later.

For years, I’ve been intrigued by a place that seems to have gotten something very right: Macomb Community College.

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Politics & Government
9:11 am
Wed May 14, 2014

Detroit's 'grand bargain', minimum wage, and Conyers make political headlines

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the grand bargain for the Detroit bankruptcy, the debate over the minimum wage and whether Detroit Congressman John Conyers has a chance to continue his nearly 50 years in Congress.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 5/14/14

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Opinion
11:21 am
Tue May 13, 2014

Michigan's minimum-wage bill could render your vote null and void

There’s an old saying that conservative lawmakers are for local control, except when they’re not.

Meaning, whenever local units of government want to do something that they don’t like.

Now, we’ve learned that Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, believes in democracy, except when he doesn’t.

In the past, Richardville has staunchly supported Michigan voters’ decisions to outlaw gay marriage and affirmative action.

But he doesn’t want to allow voters to vote to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

It now seems likely that supporters of the higher minimum will collect enough signatures to put a proposition doing so on the November ballot.

Now, it would be one thing to campaign against this amendment, and encourage people to vote it down.

That would be perfectly legitimate, regardless of whether you agree.

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Politics & Government
12:34 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

EAA should not be expanded statewide until questions are answered

Three years ago, when I first heard about Governor Rick Snyder’s plans to create a special district for Detroit’s failing schools, I was enthusiastic.

I knew Detroit’s schools were a mess. I knew that the bureaucracy, the teacher’s union, and obstinate refusal to change were all part of the problem.

Something different was worth a try.

And so they invented and chartered the Education Achievement Authority, and gave it 15 of Detroit’s worst schools. The experiment began two years ago.

Nobody really expected miracles. At least nobody should have. These were schools with terrible records, and students with terribly disadvantaged backgrounds.

Since then, there have been possibly some small signs of improvement, at least as measured by test scores. Governor Snyder now wants to expand the EAA statewide. The state House of Representatives has passed legislation to do just that. The proposal is before the state Senate.

But it is clear that expanding the EAA now would be a colossal mistake.

The EAA is a total failure in terms of administration, honesty, transparency and staying within a budget.

Its chancellor, John Covington, probably needs to be fired immediately.

An investigation published in today’s Detroit News confirms rumors I’ve been hearing for a year.

Covington, who is driven around by a chauffeur in a special vehicle, charged nearly a quarter of a million dollars on district credit cards, largely so that he and his staff could jet around the country to a series of pricey conferences.

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Politics & Government
8:55 am
Sat May 10, 2014

The week's headlines include Detroit bankruptcy, state budget and saliva tests

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss how the state might kick in about $200 million from its rainy day fund for the Detroit bankruptcy settlement, an update on the state budget, and what might or might not happen with proposed roadside saliva tests for marijuana.

Week in Review interview for 5/9/14

Opinion
11:23 am
Fri May 9, 2014

Voters deserve the best choices possible for Congress

Two years ago, voters in a suburban Detroit congressional district were stunned to learn that their congressman, Thaddeus McCotter, had failed to qualify for the primary election ballot.

Anyone running for Congress needs to submit 1,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot.

It turned out his staff had illegally and clumsily photocopied old petition signatures, instead of collecting new ones. McCotter not only retired, but abruptly quit before his term ended.

That left just one name on the GOP primary ballot: Kerry Bentivolio, known informally as “Krazy Kerry,” a reindeer farmer, Santa Claus impersonator, and failed high school teacher.

Bentivolio is now a congressman, and establishment Republicans are spending millions to try and dislodge him in this August’s primary.

Now it seems something similar has happened to John Conyers, a Democrat who has represented Detroit in Congress for half a century. Most of the signatures he submitted seem to have been collected by circulators who weren’t registered to vote.

One has a criminal record and is a wanted fugitive. It seems very likely that Conyers will not be on the ballot this year.

If so, it's possible that the only name on the Democratic primary ballot will be that of The Rev. Horace Sheffield, a longtime Detroit clergyman with a reputation of his own. Sheffield got his picture in the papers twice in February. Once when he announced for Congress, and once when he was booked on domestic violence charges.

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Opinion
9:27 am
Thu May 8, 2014

For 20 years Michigan has cut taxes with little to show for it

Every society functions at least partly on a set of myths. Sometimes these have been highly destructive. For example, believing you are the master race and everyone else deserves to be slaves has potentially destructive consequences.

America has largely operated on good myths, good because most of them had some grain of truth.

For example, the theories that all men are created equal, or that anyone can become rich or succeed at any occupation they choose. Those ideas have, by and large, encouraged hard work and a belief in the future.

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Opinion
10:55 am
Wed May 7, 2014

We're like that friend who never picks up the dinner tab

Most of us resent freeloaders – people who take and take, but don’t give back. People who never pick up the check at a restaurant. Everyone knows someone like that.

Well, today I want to introduce you to a new one.

This time it is a country, not a person, and she is refusing to pay not just her fair share, but any part of a mutually beneficial business proposition essential for Michigan’s future.

Worse, she is exploiting her closest ally and best friend.

The name of our welfare cheat, who happens to be rather rich herself, is the United States of America. And who she is exploiting is Canada. And on top of all that, we are doing so in a way intensely humiliating to ourselves.

Let me explain.

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Politics & Government
8:28 am
Wed May 7, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss local election results, how a Tea Partier is trying to challenge Michigan's lieutenant  governor, and how the state might give Detroit less money for the bankruptcy and use Michigan's rainy day fund.

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 5/7/14

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Opinion
11:08 am
Tue May 6, 2014

A new chance for Lansing to do the right thing for Detroit

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the so-called "Grand Bargain," which would save both the Detroit Institute of Arts and shore up the city’s pension funds enough to minimize the cuts.

Doing that would require hundreds of millions in funds from three sources:

  • A coalition of private foundations
  • supporters of the DIA itself
  • state government

The first two pots of money, from museum backers and the foundations, have been raised or will be.

That leaves the state’s share, which has usually been put at $350 million. Gov. Rick Snyder is supporting this. He believes, correctly, that it makes sense for the entire state.

But his Republican colleagues who control the Legislature aren’t so sure.

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger says he won’t even consider letting this come up for a vote, unless the city unions are willing to kick in some money as well.

Bolger, who is from Marshall, clearly feels no connection to or love for Detroit, and less for unions.

It isn’t clear if the city’s battered unions even have that kind of cash. What is clear to Republicans, of course, is that every dollar the unions have to give up is one less dollar they can conceivably donate to political campaigns.

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Politics & Government
10:09 am
Mon May 5, 2014

We've given up doing anything about gun violence in America

For more than a week, we’ve all been outraged, or pretended to be, by racist comments made by the 80-year-old owner of a professional basketball team in Los Angeles. We’ve been earnestly discussing this as though it were the biggest problem afflicting mankind.

Almost nobody seems to be bothered that these remarks came in a private argument that may have been secretly recorded by a woman Donald Sterling evidently had a relationship with. So far as I can tell, she seems to have taped what he said and then released it to an Internet site devoted to celebrity gossip.

Well, once upon a time this would have been seen as a violation of privacy, not journalism. In any event, I think that we shouldn’t be stunned that an angry old billionaire says nasty old things in private.

However, here’s something that should stun and outrage all of us, but evidently doesn’t.

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Opinion
12:14 pm
Fri May 2, 2014

End of a career for Conyers?

If you like irony, think about this. Sixty years ago, the president of General Motors was nominated to be Secretary of Defense.

Today, we remember only one thing about “Engine Charlie” Wilson – his famous quote: “I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”  Today, that would almost certainly have sunk his nomination.

Back then, it caused scarcely a ripple. Wilson died in 1961, and I wonder what he would say if he came back to life and learned that Chrysler was owned by the Italians, Ford was about to have a Jewish CEO and his beloved GM had not only gone bankrupt, it was now a much smaller company run by a woman. Oh yes, and by the way – the president of the United States is black.

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Opinion
10:47 am
Thu May 1, 2014

Even if I leave my waitress a 30% tip, her wages are outrageously low

Last week at noon I snuck over to a little restaurant near Detroit’s Eastern Market that usually isn't very crowded.

The place isn’t fine dining, but it’s quiet, I like their food, and they left me alone for a romantic hour-long interval with coffee and a bunch of term papers on the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

My server is usually a woman I’ll call Stephanie, who is sweet, efficient and a trifle careworn. I think she is in her mid-40s, I know she has kids, and she has worked there for 18 years. 

My bill was about $9, and I left Stephanie$3, which sounds generous – after all, that’s more than the 15 to 20% they say you are supposed to tip. But afterwards I realized what I gave her was outrageously cheap.

I know the restaurant, and Stephanie is almost certainly being paid the minimum wage of $2.65 an hour. She had no more than three tables while I was there. 

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Opinion
11:29 am
Wed April 30, 2014

Effort underway to restore historic Ford Model T plant in Highland Park, Michigan

One of the most significant sites in the history of Detroit – and the modern world – has also been one of the most sadly neglected.

Not only that, it isn’t even in Detroit.

Every day, thousands of commuters drive by an old red-brick building on Woodward Avenue in the little enclave city of Highland Park.

You need to know three things about Highland Park. It is a separate city embedded in northern Detroit. Economically, it is even worse off.

But it was the place where the twentieth century was created – in this old red brick building, and in the remnants of a giant factory behind it. A hundred years ago, this sturdy, Albert Kahn structure was the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company.

Millions and millions of Model Ts, the most important car ever created, rolled off assembly lines here, before Ford moved to the Rouge. It was here where cars were made affordable for everyone, and where the world was put on wheels.

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Politics & Government
10:13 am
Wed April 30, 2014

The week in Michigan politics

Credit NOAA

Week in Michigan Politics interview for 4/30/14

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss how Congressman John Conyers might not be in the August primary because of a problem in nomination petitions, how the state is running out of money to give to struggling schools, and how backyard farming might become more difficult in the months ahead.

Opinion
11:02 am
Tue April 29, 2014

Most voters still have no real idea who Mark Schauer is

Last weekend I crashed the Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, the party’s traditional tribal reunion and fundraising event. Bill Clinton was the main speaker, and as usual, he delivered a riveting, hour-long tour de force. But what surprised me was the speech made by the designated Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer.

Schauer is usually thought of as a good and decent man who nobody would call a spellbinding speaker. But he gave a strong, punchy and energetic speech in Detroit’s Cobo Hall Saturday night. He naturally attacked Snyder’s record. But Schauer mainly focused on his own program, what he would do if elected. And it was clear what the former congressman’s main themes will be.

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Opinion
12:07 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

Michigan's election system needs to be improved

Remember back to the nightmare election of 2000, when for five weeks after the voting, we did not know who our next president would be?

The culprit, of course was Florida.

You’ve probably seen those photos of confused poll workers trying to recount the ballots, holding defective punch cards up to the light and squinting to see if the holes were punched through.

Well, back then I felt sort of smug. Michigan, I believed, had no real problems as far as elections were concerned.  Our state cleaned up a lot of irregularities after a problem with a couple close gubernatorial elections in the 1950s. We avoided punch cards after a disastrous experiment in Detroit in 1970.

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Opinion
11:20 am
Fri April 25, 2014

To really understand Detroit's problems, you should read this book

I flew to Florida early last month, and while in the air re-read from cover to cover the one indispensable book that explains as nothing else what really happened to Detroit.

Eighteen years ago, University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue published a volume mind-blowing in its brilliance of analysis and depth of research.

The title, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” is somewhat misleading.

This really is the book on how Detroit was destroyed - and destroyed itself - over the last 70 years.

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Opinion
11:15 am
Thu April 24, 2014

How today's political campaigns try to keep you from going to the polls

Here’s something that has changed in politics in this country, and I think it is a very disturbing trend. Back in ancient times, like say the 1980s, campaigning was largely about persuading voters.

We took it for granted that modern voters made their minds up, as the saying went, “based on the man, not the party.”

Everybody knew that there were diehard Democrats and rock-ribbed Republicans who would support their party’s candidates, no matter what, but they were seen as old-fashioned dinosaurs.

Well, things have changed. Dinosaurs are back.

The parties are more sharply divided than they’ve been in my lifetime. Swing voters are an endangered species.

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Opinion
10:46 am
Wed April 23, 2014

One way U of M could use racial preferences in admissions

As pretty much everyone knows by now, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of affirmative action in college admissions. This was no real surprise.

Today, lots of people are praising or attacking this decision. But it is clear to me that many of them haven’t read it, or even read much about it. And the high court’s ruling raises two very interesting questions on subjects other than affirmative action.

First of all, it is important to understand that the court did not say affirmative action couldn’t be used in college admissions. Not at all.

In fact, in his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “the consideration of race in admissions is permissible.” But Michigan voters eight years ago chose to ban the use of race in college admissions. Justice Kennedy wrote that the court found they were within their rights to “choose to prohibit the consideration of racial preferences in governmental decisions, in particular with respect to school admissions.”

However, Kennedy also said that voters could decide that “race-based preferences could be adopted.”  

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