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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

Courtesy Nan Palmero / Creative Commons -- http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Last Friday, a number of university researchers and state and county public health professionals were supposed to have a meeting – actually, a conference call – with state officials.

The group is called the Flint Area Community Health Environment Partnership, and the subject was their preliminary analysis of the reasons behind a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint. More than 70 people got the disease during 2014 and 2015, when the city had been switched to water from the now-infamous Flint River.

Child reads with teacher
US Department of Education / Creative Commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The state's water bill subsidies for Flint residents ended this week, and that means customers will see a price spike when they get their bills next month. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about how that could give way to more problems for Flint water customers already behind on their accounts.

They also talk about a call from Michigan State University faculty members for the college to turn the investigation surrounding Dr. Larry Nassar over to an outside police agency, an uphill battle to add the right to literacy to the state constitution, and a bill that would require employers to let employees earn paid sick time.

History through fashion - at the 2015 conference of the Historical Society of Michigan.
Historical Society of Michigan / Facebook

People sometimes ask me, “How do you find something different to talk about, every day?” Well, if this were North Dakota Public Radio, it might be hard. But I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever run out of topics in Michigan.

We’ve got around 10 million people, more than the entire country had 200 years ago, more geography than some European countries, a diversified economy and a far richer ethnic mix.

Pontiac, Michigan. The Pontiac Commercial Historic District.
Andrew Jameson / wikimedia/GNU Free Documentation License

It’s no secret that many Michigan cities are in trouble, economically and otherwise. The drama of Detroit has played out on a national stage. The entire nation also knows something about Flint, thanks to the horrendous water tragedy.

Other towns, such as Hamtramck, have their own form of gritty cachet.

But then there is Pontiac, a city that seems to be defined by things that are dying or just not there anymore.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

President Donald Trump delivered his first speech to a joint session of Congress last night. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about issues Trump touched on that resonate in Michigan, including a proposed $1 trillion investment in infrastructure nationwide.

Six years ago, Governor Rick Snyder found a way to conclude a deal with Canada to build a new bridge across the Detroit River, something vitally needed if Michigan’s economy is to prosper in the years ahead.

As of now, we are completely dependent on the almost 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge, which shows clear signs of wearing out, and which wasn’t built for today’s massive tractor-trailers. About $2 billion in trade moves across that bridge every week, mainly heavy industrial components that can’t go through the tunnel.

I took my friend Guy to lunch last week, the same day the President of the United States declared that members of my profession were “enemies of the people.”

Guy is one of the most amazing people I know, and I wanted to know what he was thinking. He told me that after the election turned out badly, his father talked to his family at the dinner table.

Some years ago there was an effort to boost enrollment at Wayne State University, where I teach. One administrator told me that they were admitting "anyone with a Pell Grant and a pulse." Unfortunately, the result wasn’t what everyone was hoping for.

Some of these students weren’t intellectually ready or able for college, and soon dropped out or flunked out. Others weren’t emotionally ready, and had no idea what they wanted to do.

chairs stacked on a desk in a classroom
Flickr user janine / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A Republican-backed bill to rollback Michigan's income tax died on the floor of the state House early Thursday morning. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about fallout from the bill's failure, including a leadership change in Lansing.

We're also talking about the Trump administration's withdrawal of Obama-era guidance on transgender students' rights in schools, the state's delay on announcing which low-performing schools will be closed in the fall, and a new "fake news" course at the University of Michigan.

The other night I had dinner with John King, not the one on CNN with the election maps, but Detroit’s own John King, one of the city’s most colorful and eccentric personalities.

John, whose ancestry is mainly Lithuanian, owns the city’s biggest bookstore, John King Used and Rare Books, housed in a huge former glove factory along the Lodge Freeway.

I’m not often astonished by the things legislators do, especially since our politics have been afflicted by the disease of term limits, a condition that means virtually none of those in leadership positions have enough experience to properly do their jobs.

While one Democrat from the Upper Peninsula supported it, a dozen Republicans thumbed their noses at the Speaker and voted "no."

When I learned about this, I had to check to make sure the world was still spinning on its axis and I was actually awake.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

The Department of Homeland Security revealed dramatic changes to its policies on Tuesday. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what those changes could mean in Michigan, where a number of cities have sanctuary measures in place or are considering them.

Well, at first glance it might look like the legislature came to its senses yesterday, at least so far cutting the state income tax is concerned. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

The lawmakers did drop the infantile notion of completely getting rid of the state income tax. They also backed away from cutting it from the current 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent overnight. But they still want to make that cut – just gradually, over the next four years.

Well, it is still deep winter, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The Super Bowl is over, and the baseball exhibition season hasn’t gotten started.

So naturally, the restless minds of those interested in politics are turning to the next election, or make that, elections. State Senator Coleman Young Jr., who is term-limited and will need a new job, has announced he is running for mayor of Detroit.

income tax
ccPixs.com / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A proposal to get rid of Michigan's income tax is quickly moving along in the Legislature. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether the Republican-backed bill will go all the way.

They also discuss the action plan state House Republicans rolled out this week, the state Board of Education's call to hold off closing any schools this fall, and a planned set of bills to rectify the mess at the state Unemployment Insurance Agency. 

Well, it’s Friday, and I thought I’d mark the end of the week with a particularly absurd joke.

Did you know there is something in Lansing called the School Reform Office which can actually close down failing public schools. Get it?

Well, there is, in fact, something named that. And, for the second year in a row, it indicated it was thinking about closing a group of schools statewide, only to have to beat a hasty retreat and say the equivalent of “Ah, just kidding, we really didn’t mean it.”

Nobody can deny that Governor Rick Snyder is an intelligent and hard-working man. He came from very modest circumstances to earn three degrees, including an MBA and a law degree, from the University of Michigan by the time he was 24.

In Lansing, the Michigan House Tax Policy Committee was to begin discussions today on a proposal that most Republicans are ecstatic about.

That would be a bill to immediately roll back our state income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent, and then keep cutting it by a tenth of a percent every year until it would be gone entirely. Well, completely getting rid of the income tax is a fantasy for four-year-olds.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

At a meeting with Detroit parents and school administrators earlier this week, one of the governor's advisors told the crowd "there's no way in the world" the state will close 38 failing schools this year.

Well, Happy Valentine’s Day.

I hope you've gotten far more important greetings from someone close to you.

Love is important.

But sometimes, you have to learn how and when to let someone, or something go. I’ve finally accepted that Laura Ingalls Wilder is not going to come back from the dead and marry me.

And in the same vein, it's time for those who think the last presidential election was stolen to give it up. That may sound like an odd thing to say at this point.

You have to admire many things about Mike Ilitch. The son of Macedonian immigrants, in the classic American success story, failed to become a major league baseball player, but instead became a true player on a much bigger stage.

He grew up with essentially nothing.

When he died Friday he was worth more than $5 billion, owned a major league hockey and baseball team, a massive national fast food pizza empire, stadiums, theaters, and lots of other stuff.

Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Rick Snyder rolled out his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year this week. Not everyone is happy, including some members of Snyder's own party. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lesseberry take a closer look at the governor's proposed budget. 

They also talk about the Detroit school board's threat to sue the state over possible school closures, Michigan's latest gubernatorial candidate, and the results of the state's election audit.

The Michigan Library Association has asked me to talk to their annual convention about “fake news.” I don’t blame them for being especially concerned about it. I’ve always seen librarians as sort of secular high priests of our culture.

They are concerned with assembling and guarding over our storehouses of information. In the pre-internet age, we went to them to find out things and to learn how to find them out ourselves.

Back in a more sincerely religious era, people used to say “Man proposes; God disposes.”

But when it comes to state budgets, it’s more a case of “the governor proposes; the legislature disposes.”

The governor proposed his budget for the next fiscal year yesterday, and as of now, members of his own party in the Legislature don’t seem to like it very much.

Imagine that you got into politics, won a few local elections, and before you knew it were your party’s leader in the Michigan Senate.

That’s how things worked out for State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, a former high school social studies teacher who, at age 39, got that job a little over two years ago.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

After Senate hearings, debates, protests, a Saturday Night Live parody, and an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by the vice president, Betsy DeVos is now the U.S. Secretary of Education. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what her confirmation process reveals about the state of affairs in Washington.

It isn’t exactly a secret that a lot of people have lost faith in politicians. Polls show approval of and trust in Congress and the state Legislature has fallen to where it is barely ahead of Athlete’s foot. Men like Rep. Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods, are a good part of the reason why.

Banks has previously been convicted of eight felonies, mostly for things like bad checks and credit card fraud. He has been evicted for nonpayment of rent at least seven times, and has left a long trail of unpaid bills.

There are a lot of things that Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof doesn’t like. They include unions, especially teachers’ unions. The state’s rule requiring the payment of decent, prevailing wages to workers on state construction jobs. Meekhof is also very much against anything making it easier for people to vote, including making it easier to get absentee ballots.

A full Senate vote on Besty DeVos' U.S. education secretary nomination is expected next week.
BetsyDeVos.com

Michigan is one of two states that don't apply public records laws to the governor's office and the Legislature. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and Michigan Radio senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry look at bills from a bipartisan group of lawmakers who want to expand the state's Freedom of Information Act.

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They also talk about this week's settlement of a major lawsuit over the state's automated unemployment claims system, opposition to Betsy DeVos' nomination as U.S. education secretary, and former Snyder chief of staff Jarrod Agen's new job in the White House.

Sixty-three years ago, the most famous journalist in America broadcast this on national television:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear of one another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.”

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