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.

Losing your horse

Jan 20, 2012

Back before warfare became mechanized, one of the worst things that could happen, especially in the cavalry, was to have your horse shot out from under you on a battlefield.

This left you naked, vulnerable, and without any way to get back to your lines if the bugle suddenly sounded retreat. The temptation must have been overwhelming to try to get another horse, fast, by any means necessary. I thought about that yesterday, when what had been obvious for days finally became official:

Governor Snyder’s state of the state speech last night didn’t provoke the kind of excitement it did a year ago.

And that’s not necessarily bad. In fact, it demonstrated two things; a grasp of political reality, and responsible common sense. Last year was one of revolutionary change in the way state government does business. The governor proposed a series of breathtaking programs and far-reaching changes.

To the astonishment of the experts, he got pretty much everything he wanted through the legislature, with one exception -- the New International Trade Crossing bridge.

Governor Rick Snyder has no interest in attempting to make Michigan a "right-to-work" state, which means one where it is illegal for employers to sign labor contracts requiring their workers to pay union dues. But some Republicans in the legislature disagree, and may try to get a right-to-work bill passed this year.

There’s also the possibility of trying to put something on the November ballot, a constitutional amendment, perhaps, that would outlaw the union shop in this state. It’s unclear whether there is really going to be any serious effort to make that happen.

There’s an interesting controversy going on in the  Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, a middle-class school district in Western Wayne County. It has to do with banning books.

And while it hasn’t made headlines, the implications are ominous, and scary. This is a sizable district, with three high schools with more than six thousand students.

Gregg Ward took his 16-year-old daughter Emily to a crowded courtroom last Thursday morning, so they could both see what would happen to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

To her father’s astonishment, Moroun became the only billionaire ever to spend a night in the crowded Wayne County jail, after a judge found him in contempt for refusing to follow court orders to demolish some illegal construction and live up to a contract with the state. Emily was fascinated. “I was definitely glad I went!” she said. “It was really interesting to see how justice would prevail.”

The Nobel-prize-winning writer Anatole France once observed sarcastically that “the law, in its infinite wisdom, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, or steal bread.”

That popped into my mind yesterday, when a billionaire who owns a bridge learned to his shock that laws apply to him too, and that there are some people who cannot be bullied or bought.

The scientific and political communities in this state and country often live in largely separate worlds. Former Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a physicist from Grand Rapids and a classy gentleman, was one of the few who managed to bridge that gap.

Smart scientists know that they usually don’t want to focus political attention on what they are doing. Smart politicians, a somewhat rarer breed, know enough to mostly leave scientists alone.

But there was a development yesterday that united both Michigan’s scientists and politicians in concern.

The Secret Primary

Jan 11, 2012

Well, we now know who won the New Hampshire primary. Michigan’s Republican primary is going to be held February 28. Democrats will pick their delegates in caucuses four months from now, on May 5. There isn’t any urgency for them; they have only one candidate: President Barack Obama.

So Republicans are using a primary; Democrats a caucus. But there is another primary election you probably don’t know about—and which Michigan Democrats don’t want you to find out about. It is also being held February 28.

All politicians say they’re against oppressive tax burdens. For instance, Governor Rick Snyder. Almost his entire program is focused on making Michigan more competitive economically.

But the tragic irony of this is that one of the unintended consequences of his reforms is having exactly the opposite effect. We are imposing a stiff and burdensome tax on our young people, making it harder for them to compete than most states do.

In some cases, we are making it impossible, and we are going to be paying the price for this for many years to come.

That’s because we are imposing what Phil Power at the Center for Michigan calls a “college user tax,” on the students of this state that saddles many with crushing debt and prices others out of the market entirely. I learned the details this morning from a story in Bridge, the new online newsmagazine published by the Center, a non-partisan, non-profit group aimed at finding common-sense solutions for our state’s problems. Phil Power also wrote his weekly column about the study. It makes for shocking reading.

Clark Durant is a man of ideas who is far more knowledgeable about American history than most United States senators I’ve met.

His office is filled with portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, together with photos of a much younger Clark with Ronald Reagan and Sandra Day O’Connor. He’s fascinated by Washington, D.C. and absolutely hates its culture.

This year, he’s running hard for the United States Senate, because he thinks his country is in great danger of being destroyed by debt and spending with no thought for the consequences.

And he believes that maybe, just maybe, he can do something to change that. “If this were just about trying to be one more Republican senator, I wouldn’t be doing this. I know I would be a freshman senator, bottom of the pack in seniority, at 63 years old."

A while ago, I heard a lecturer explain how the 1960s were a time in which there was a great cultural clash in our country. Well, you didn’t have to live through the period to know that.

Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A’Changin,“ spells it out. However, I would argue that the present-day culture wars are far deeper than the days when dad yelled at junior to get a haircut, and parents worried over whether their kids were trying marijuana.

If you are a political trivia buff, you may know that nobody from Michigan has ever been elected president. Gerald Ford, remember, was appointed vice president, took over when Richard Nixon resigned, and then lost his bid for election on his own.

In fact, nobody born in Michigan has ever been president at all. Ford was born in Nebraska. The closest we’ve actually come to a native son in the White House was Thomas E. Dewey, who was the Republican nominee twice in the nineteen-forties.

Governor Rick Snyder had an amazing year last year, getting far more of his program through the legislature than anyone could have predicted. His one major defeat was, in a way, shocking.

That was, of course, his attempt to get a new bridge built over the Detroit River, a bridge that wouldn’t cost Michigan taxpayers anything, and which business leaders say is vitally necessary.

Well, now it really is the new year. It’s Tuesday; it’s snowy and bone-chilling cold in much of Michigan, and in case you hadn’t noticed, the presidential campaign is in full steam.

Actually, the campaign never stopped, as far as I could tell, but it’s at fever pitch today, because the Iowa caucuses are tonight. If you like baseball more than politics, this is sort of Opening Day.

Opening Day, except that the exhibition season has already lasted about two years, and the World Series, election day itself, is more than ten months away.

Politically speaking, this has been the year of Rick Snyder. Since he first burst on the scene two years ago, he has had an astonishing run of success. The experts said a self-proclaimed “nerd” without any political experience couldn’t possibly win the nomination for governor, much less the general election.

 When he did both, they said the new kid would fall on his face in the rough-and-tumble world of Lansing. Instead, he got more significant legislation enacted in a few short months than his predecessor had in eight years.

At lunchtime yesterday, I got a news alert that the state’s preliminary review team found Detroit’s finances a mess.

We’re going to see a lot of stories about homeless people in Michigan this winter. Unemployment has come down a little, but is still high, and assistance for the poor is way down.

Shelter and rescue mission managers are bracing for the flood they feel is coming, after the state began cutting tens of thousands of people off cash assistance forever, most of them children.

Toledo, Ohio is just across Michigan’s southern border, but as far as policy makers in our state are concerned, it might as well be another country. In fact, virtually nobody in Michigan pays much attention to anything going on in Toledo, which is unfortunate.

That’s because in many ways, Toledo, a city of about 300,000 people, is more like Michigan than like the rest of Ohio. It has a blue-collar economy that has long mirrored Detroit’s.The Motor City made cars;Toledo made Jeeps and auto parts.

If you are a football fan, you probably know that the Detroit Lions won a thrilling comeback victory yesterday, and are having their best season in something like a million years.

If you know a lot about University of Michigan athletics, you may know that the athletic department has a budget of $110 million, of which football takes the biggest share. Michigan State’s athletic budget is about $80 million.

There are a number of important debates going on in Michigan about our economic crisis, and our future.

Three of the most intense are these: 

  1. Should Detroit have an Emergency Manager?
  2. Should the Emergency Manager law itself be repealed? 
  3. And what’s the future of public education in this state, and how should we pay for it?

Virtually everyone has opinions about these issues, and I have expressed mine, on Michigan Radio and elsewhere. But it occurs to me that we may all be missing something.

There’s a sense of gloom throughout the mass transit community in Michigan today. Earlier this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that he was canceling the long-talked about light rail line to be built up Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

They’ve been discussing light rail in the Woodward corridor for more than forty years. Few remember now, but Detroit’s much ridiculed People Mover was originally intended as the embryo of such a system, to which it would later be connected. Recently, light rail was thought to be only a matter of time.

Yesterday, Detroit City Council sent a clear signal to Governor Rick Snyder and the rest of the state. By their actions, they said “we need you to send in an Emergency Manager and strip us of all financial power. You have to do this, because we are psychologically incapable of seriously addressing our financial problems.”

They would indignantly deny what I just said, of course. Barely a week ago, they huddled around a microphone with Mayor Dave Bing, and defiantly agreed they didn’t need outside help.

Back in the 1980s, The Detroit News had an excellent editor named Lionel Linder, who did his best to improve the intellectual quality of the newspaper.

Later, after the ownership changed, he became editor of a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. On New Year’s Eve 19 years ago, he left work in early afternoon to go home. Unfortunately, he drove across the path of a deadbeat who had been drinking package liquor in his car since morning, and at that very moment passed out with all his weight on the accelerator.

Last week two dismaying things happened - one predictable, the other shocking. The predictable one first: the Michigan legislature passed a bill banning the unmarried partner of any public employee from receiving health care benefits, as a spouse normally does.

The bill was sponsored by State Representative Dave Agema, who has never made any secret of his hostility to gay people. Make no mistake about it; this is a gay-bashing bill, though some of those supporting it hypocritically pretend otherwise.

They argued that this is required under a state constitutional amendment that says marriage is limited to men and women. There were even some who said this was necessary to save the cash-strapped state money. But in fact, while nobody has any statistics that I have seen, the amount saved has to be small.

My guess is that this law, if Governor Snyder makes the mistake of signing it, would end up costing the state more money than it would save, because of the lawsuits that are sure to result.

One problem is the state’s public universities. They contend that they have the power to determine their own policies under the Michigan Constitution, and the governor thinks they are right.

But others disagree, especially anti-gay activists, and they are certain to take to the courts. The resulting publicity is sure to be bad for competitiveness in Michigan. Aren‘t we supposed to be trying to attract the best and the brightest to our state? It is worth noting that one of Michigan‘s most respected university presidents is openly gay.

Michigan Radio has been sponsoring a set of public forums designed to bring experts on various issues together with the public in an informal, non-threatening way, a series called “Issues and Ale.“ I moderated one earlier this week that focused on education, held at the Wolverine Brewing Company in Ann Arbor. I was doubtful how many people would actually show up. This was on Tuesday night in what is really early winter, with the holidays approaching. To my surprise, however, before the evening was over it was standing room only, with people packing the hall.

Native Detroiter Harry Morgan died yesterday. What makes me feel old is that while the rest of the world remembers him fondly for his role in MASH, I think of him as Officer Bill Gannon from Dragnet.

That was the show made famous by the iconic line “Just the facts, ma’am.‘ Which, by the way, nobody ever actually said on the show, any more than Humphrey Bogart said “Play it Again, Sam,” in Casablanca. Those are enduring cultural myths.

There’s another, more dangerous myth out there in Detroit today, a myth apparently shared by the mayor and city council.

So, does Detroit really need an Emergency Manager? Can the city’s elected leaders somehow get the job done? This much we know: The governor has ordered a preliminary review of  the city’s finances. There have been major signs of trouble for years.

Now, the city is running a large budget deficit, and the mayor says that as it now stands, the city will run out of cash by April.

Every winter, people in Michigan die because they can’t afford to pay their heating bills, and the utilities shut their power off.

Sometimes, they just freeze to death. Most of the time, however, they die in house fires caused by desperate attempts to get some sort of heat, such as using a portable stove.

An entire family died a few years ago when the father attempted to use fire to thaw out frozen pipes so they could get some water. Instead, he burned the house down.

One of the things I do is help get undergraduate students ready for the job market. Since we became an e-mail society, I’ve had to repeatedly advise students to make sure they use appropriate e-mail names, especially for professional use.

Johndoe@hotmail.com is appropriate. Boopsie, Dominator and Babycakes are not. Those are, in fact, all ones that I have actually seen on class resumes. In the last five years, we’ve had to talk to students about Facebook. Pictures of yourself pole dancing, drinking or smoking marijuana are not a good idea if you want to get a job.

This was the week in which Flint finally got an emergency manager, and the week when it began to seem inevitable that Detroit would get one. It was a week when it seemed apparent that the legislature is about to open the state up to unlimited charter schools.

The auto industry seems to be doing better, even as the weather turns worse, and the governor unveiled a major message on talent that was aimed at preparing us for the jobs of the future.

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