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.

Governor Rick Snyder has some intense opposition, but it hasn’t risen to the levels of protest against his two newly elected GOP neighbors and colleagues, Governors John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

And there’s a reason for that. Snyder has been both politically smarter and less ideological than those men. He says he is interested in results, not in settling scores. He’s been pushing through reforms that haven’t made public employee unions happy.

But he says he is not interested in taking away the unions’  collective bargaining rights. Some of the more conservative Republicans in the legislature are trying to push so-called “right to work” legislation, which would outlaw union shops in Michigan.

But Snyder says he has no interest in that. Which, even if you are against unions, is very smart. Union membership and clout have been declining for years. They now represent barely seven percent of workers in the private sector.

Officially, this is still summer, even though the first leaves are tumbling from the trees and the light looks more like fall.

Politically, however, it is clear what season it is: Silly season. Yesterday’s news included one candidate for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, Pete Hoekstra, happily accepting the endorsement of a man, Mike Cox,  whom he openly despised and reviled barely a year ago.

Also, a state legislator announced she’d challenge one of the nation’s longest-serving incumbent congressmen. The oddest thing about this is not the David and Goliath aspect. It is that the congressman doesn’t even live in that district.

She does, but most think he will be a heavy favorite anyway. Meanwhile, in Lansing, the Republicans who control the state senate are moving closer to setting a date for a presidential primary.

Michigan and the nation just finished a weekend commemorating the September 11th terrorist attacks ten years ago. But I think we should take a moment to think about those we don’t normally think about who were also touched by the tragedy.

Last week a former student reminded me what I did that day, when I had a large lecture class in Detroit  that morning. “Who here lives in Canada?” I asked.  Half a dozen hands shot up.

“Go home, now. Right now,” I said. They were startled. They knew I never let them out early. “But I have another class after this one,” somebody said. “If you don’t go now, you may not get home,“ I answered. I thought they would close the border.

They actually didn’t, but by that evening, the wait time was many hours. Then, things got worse after a story in the Boston Globe incorrectly said some of the hijackers came through Canada.

Well, the week is over, and it’s time for a little quiz. First of all, who said last night: “It’s time to stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.“

Not surprisingly, that was President Obama, in his nationally televised speech on jobs. Okay, now, who said this a few minutes later: “We are in a crisis, and cannot afford to waste time on unproductive political posturing and partisan fighting.

“It’s time to make the tough decisions needed to reinvent the United States.” This time, that wasn‘t the president, but our own Republican governor, Rick Snyder. His response to the president’s speech sounded much more cooperative than confrontational.

And that attitude might just contain a tiny sliver of hope. Now, I know that Rick Snyder is not Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Nor does every Michigan Republican think the same.

The Michigan Supreme Court will soon issue an opinion on whether the new law taxing pensions is constitutional.

If they say it is, it’s full speed ahead for the governor’s plan. If they decided that taxing pensions is not constitutional, it’ll knock a huge hole in the budget. That means the state will have to get more revenue -- which means raising taxes.

That, or roll back the business tax cuts or slash aid to education and other programs more severely than ever.

And while I don’t pretend to know exactly what would happen, I can tell you this, after talking to the governor last week. He isn’t about to roll back the tax cuts, and he doesn’t want to raise taxes.

Michigan has six congressmen from the Democratic Party. Their ages are 85, 82, 82, 80, 54 and 52. One of the 82-year-old guys is retiring.

But Michigan is losing a seat in Congress, and so it has to lose another of these men. Our state has no women Democrats in the house, by the way. So, logically, which one should go?

Should the 85-year-old, whose own party stripped him of his committee chairmanship last year, retire? He has already served longer in the house than any man in history. Should the other 82-year-old retire? He sometimes appears confused in public; his office is chaotic and has been the target of ethics investigations.

What about the 80-year-old, who was his party’s nominee for governor before most of today’s citizens were alive?

Once upon a time, it was an enormous deal whenever a President came to town. I know a woman who was a little girl of six in Pontiac sixty-three years ago, when President Harry Truman came to make a Labor Day speech in Detroit. There was a motorcade along Woodward, and she still has a vivid memory of standing along the curb and hoping for a glimpse of the President on his car.

Incidentally, her parents were Republicans. They didn’t vote for Truman that fall, when he won re-election in a stunning upset. But that didn’t matter. He was the President of the United States, and if you had a chance to see him, you took it.

These days, however, presidents are always on the move. Mr. Obama visited a battery factory in Ottawa County barely three weeks ago. True, an estimated 12,000 people braved crowds and traffic to pack into a parking lot on Detroit’s riverfront to see President Obama yesterday. But 42,000 had come downtown the night before, to pay money see the Detroit Tigers annihilate Obama’s Chicago White Sox.

The comparison isn’t fair, in a way. These days, almost everybody had the ability to watch the President on TV or the internet, which certainly wasn’t true in the days of Harry Truman.

However, Truman started something that Labor Day long ago that still continues today: The tradition that Democrats running for election or reelection as President kick off their campaigns with a Labor Day speech in Detroit. Campaigns start a lot earlier these days, and that was part of what was going on here.

Labor Day

Sep 5, 2011

I hope you are out on a boat listening to this. Or getting ready for a barbecue, or working in the garden, or doing something you feel like doing. Depending on the weather, I may be playing soccer with my Australian Shepherd right now.

He, by the way, will win easily. But while I hope you are relaxing, I hope even more that you have a job to go back to tomorrow. Far too many people don’t.

True, the unemployment rate is down from last year, but it is still over ten percent in Michigan, which is far too high. And there’s something that worries me more than the numbers.

And that’s the number of adults in the prime of life who have been unemployed for a long time -- six months or more. That’s the most on record, according to the Michigan League for Human Services, and they should know. They’ve been trying to help folks in difficult circumstances for almost a century.

When I asked one famous Michigan native what he thought people might not know about him, he put it this way: “I just do my thing. I go to work and do my job the best I can.“

“I think about how I can help people, and have fun.“ If that sounds like something Jeff Daniels or Bob Seger might have said, guess again. That’s how Governor Rick Snyder described himself to me during a interview this week.

So, who is Rick Snyder, really? I spent a half hour talking to the governor yesterday, the first long conversation I’ve had with him since he took office exactly eight months ago.

Since then, he’s gotten more through the legislature than the last governor did in eight years. He’s also been the subject of nasty criticism and a recall attempt.

I was curious about a lot of things, one of which being whether he still likes this job he worked so hard at winning a year ago.

These are tough times for Michigan’s Public Schools, which by and large, have done a superb job educating our citizens since we became a state nearly two hundred years ago.

Statewide, the schools are suffering from a series of crippling funding cuts enacted at the same time we are demanding they do more with less. Teachers feel that their hard-won health care, pension, salaries and benefits are under siege.

And some districts are suffering further because an explosion of charter schools are taking students and money away from them. This is most acute in Detroit. There, a revolving door of expensive financial managers and high-paid consultants have proven unable to fix the schools or halt the stampede away from them.

Naturally, this has led to a crisis atmosphere. I spent yesterday afternoon with the leadership of the various school districts in one of Michigan’s major counties. They believe there is an actual conspiracy against them. They think there are those who want to essentially destroy public education and turn it into a system of charter schools and vouchers, for one big reason: To get private hands on some of the thirteen billion a year Michigan spends on public education.

Whether that’s true or not, that there is a major crisis - and coincidentally, a major new report finally gets to the bottom of just why this is. There are few institutions more respected than the non-partisan, non-profit Citizens Research Council of Michigan, whose motto is this: The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.

Released yesterday, the CRC’s study is called “Distribution of State Aid to Michigan Schools.” That may not sound like a sexy page-turner, but for those of us interested in saving our state, it is.

There are taxes, and then there are taxes. Some are straightforward. If I spend ten dollars at the hardware store this afternoon, I know I’ll pay sixty cents in sales taxes.

But other taxes are hidden, and may be higher than we suspect. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is an independent, non-partisan think tank with a strong fiscally libertarian bias.

Last week, it released a statistical analysis of liquor prices. The center found they are higher in states like Michigan where the state government acts as the statewide wholesale distributor.

How much higher? A little over six percent. They took as their example a fifth of a particular common brand of Scotch. They found that it costs, on average, a dollar fifty-nine more a bottle in the seventeen states like Michigan where government is the wholesaler. The Mackinac Center said this amounted to, “a substantial hidden tax on a commodity already subject to large state and federal taxes.” The implication is that this is bad.

However, I’m not so sure. I suppose it would bother me more if it were a tax on baby formula, or if the tax left liquor costing twenty percent more than in Illinois, for example. But nobody forces anybody to buy a bottle of Scotch.

She was, simply put, a woman ahead of her time, now nearly forgotten, who deserves to be better remembered in Michigan history.

It was she, not Debbie Stabenow, who was the first woman in Michigan to ever win a nomination for a U.S. Senate race.

She spent her life fighting for women to get a toehold in politics, fighting to be taken seriously by the men who led her party and weren’t accustomed to sharing power. She accomplished more than she ever took credit or was ever given credit for.

And despite all that, in the end, her party turned its back on most of what she stood for. But to the end of her days, she fought back with dignity and charm, and never let bitterness eat at her soul.

The woman I’m talking about is Elly Peterson, who gave her life to better conditions for women in politics -- and did so from within the GOP. Elly - everybody called her that - was ninety-four and living in Colorado when she died three years ago.

As you may know by now, the Michigan Legislature passed a bill  yesterday limiting how much local governments and schools can spend to provide health care for their employees.

The new law, which Governor Snyder is expected to sign, says local governments can contribute a maximum of fifty-five hundred dollars an employee, or fifteen thousand dollars a family.

Their only other option is to split health coverage cost with the employees, as long as the workers pay at least twenty percent.

Local governments can opt out of these requirements, but it won’t be easy. They’d have to do so by a two-thirds vote of their council or school board, and take a new vote every year.

The other day, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office announced he would be going to China next month. Actually, he will be going to both China and Japan, on a whirlwind, week-long trip that will begin with his attending a trade association meeting in Tokyo.

This will be a high-powered trip. Along with him, the governor will be taking Mike Finney, the director of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, known as MEDC; the state agriculture director, and four other economic development officials.

The reason for the trip, the governor’s communications director said, was to talk about why investment in Michigan is a good idea, and also to promote our state’s farm products.

Politicians often get criticized for taking junkets abroad -- sometimes rightly so. But not only is this trip a good idea, it is terribly necessary and way overdue.  In Toledo, just to our south, Chinese businessmen have spent millions to buy land along the Maumee riverfront, which they plan to develop for a variety of uses.

A few weeks ago, I talked about efforts Michigan is making to improve passenger rail service between Detroit and Chicago, efforts which include buying and upgrading a portion of the track.

That prompted some enthusiastic response from people who said they were eager for more passenger rail service.

Not just to Chicago, that is, but everywhere. Some were older listeners, who had fond memories of Pullman cars and traveling the nation by rail back in the day. Others were romantics or environmentalists or people not in love with automobiles.

There do seem to be a lot of us who are tired of fighting roads and traffic jams and paying four dollars a gallon for gas. This got me to wondering whether railroads are in fact mostly a part of our romantic past, or an important segment of our transportation future.

Odd Man Out

Aug 22, 2011

There’s a game of musical chairs going on right now to determine which congressman will end up without a job a year from January. Yesterday, the likely outcome became a little more clear.

First of all, a little background: Michigan is losing a seat in congress because of national population shifts. The legislature redrew the boundary lines, and since Republicans control everything in Lansing, they made sure it would be a Democrat who lost out.

The only question was, which one? When the proposed new districts were revealed, it seemed at first that Oakland County’s Gary Peters would be the certain loser. The area in which he lives and fellow Democrat Sander Levin lives wound up in the same district.

The two men could run against each other in next August’s primary, of course, but on paper, Peters wouldn’t stand a chance.

Most of the new district is territory Levin has been representing, so he has home field advantage. Sandy Levin is also a sort of an icon. He was first elected to the state senate before Peters was six years old. He’s completing thirty years in Congress.

Nobody needs me to tell them that this has been a rough decade for Michigan’s economy. The roughest since the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties.

And, as the stock market plunge indicates, a return to the prosperity we used to take for granted is nowhere in sight.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a few bright spots, and one of the brightest has been tourism. A few weeks ago, I spent an hour with George Zimmerman, who runs Travel Michigan the official state tourism promotion agency.

Does Michigan need fewer judges? The chief justice of the state supreme court thinks so, and so does the governor.

Yesterday, a new study by the state court administrative office recommended eliminating forty-five of the almost six hundred trial judges in Michigan, and also getting rid of four appeals court judges.

Yesterday, we learned that Michigan has more than half a million kids in families whose incomes are below the poverty level. Half a million. That’s according to reliable figures provided by the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan League for Human Services.

Every year, they bring us something called the Kids Count Data Book, a demographic survey of children’s well-being, funded by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This year’s study shows that almost one in four Michigan kids is poverty-stricken. That’s as of two years ago, and the situation probably worsened last year. That’s more significant than it seems: Poverty-stricken children all too often grow up to be poor, unemployed and sometimes unemployable adults. They seldom get the education they need to be successful in the modern economy.

Additionally, kids who live under economic stress also tend to have more health problems, according to Jane Zehnder-Merrell, the director of the Kids Count in Michigan project.

That should bother you even if you have a heart of stone, because society is going to end up paying a tremendous economic as well as human cost as a result. We won’t see the full effect of the recession on our children for years.

And, there are things we could do to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, according to the experts, we seem to be choosing policies guaranteed to do exactly the opposite. Michigan, by the way, isn’t the worst state in the nation when it comes to child poverty, though we are worse than most.

We’ve fallen a few notches to thirtieth out of fifty states. But while child poverty went up nationally by 18 percent since two thousand, it increased in Michigan by a staggering 64 percent.

Sense of Decency

Aug 16, 2011

Back in the nineteen-seventies, Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Swainson, a former governor, was accused of having accepted a bribe. He was acquitted of that, but convicted of perjury.

There are plenty of people, including his biographer, Lawrence Glazer, who think Swainson was actually innocent of anything other than bad judgment and trying to be his own attorney.

But after the verdict, Swainson didn’t spend his life whining to the press about the injustice of it all.

The former governor, an authentic war hero who had his legs blown off in the Second World War, resigned from the court, lost his law license, did his time, and disappeared into obscurity.

Years later, he worked hard and diligently at rehabilitating himself, and became a highly respected head of the Michigan Historical Commission before he died in nineteen ninety-four.

I mention all this because I thought of him yesterday, when splashed across the papers were long stories about a self-justifying interview disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick gave on an AM radio station yesterday morning.

Kilpatrick, you may remember, just got out of prison for violating probation. He is facing a new trial on a vast array of corruption charges that could send him to federal prison for thirty years.

Nobody disputes that his lies cost his impoverished city nine million dollars, or that he still owes nearly a million in court-ordered restitution. Nevertheless, the press feel compelled to give him a forum to criticize the present mayor, an indisputably honest man.

There was a time in Hansen Clarke’s life when the thing he wanted most in the world was to be a Congressman, back when he was twenty-five years old or so.

This year, that happened. He beat Detroit incumbent Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary a year ago, and then won an easy victory in his district, centered on his native east side of Detroit. Ever since, he’s been going a mile a minute.

“You know everybody told me that I needed to get experienced Washington staffers,” he said. But then “I found out what they knew how to do was tell me why things couldn’t be done and tell me I shouldn’t try.”  Clarke’s an easygoing guy.

But he has small patience for that kind of attitude. Early on, someone told him that drafting and developing a complex piece of legislation could sometimes take up to a year. “I don’t have a year,” he told me.  “Neither does Detroit or the nation.”

But Clarke told me he had learned an important lesson. He said he was now getting things done because he didn’t know that he couldn’t do them. This happened last month with the administration’s Homeland Security budget. The budget zeroed out funds for Detroit.

A Senate Surprise

Aug 12, 2011

Well, yesterday was not a great day for Pete Hoekstra, the former congressman from Holland. Two days ago, he was seen as the all-but-certain Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate next year.

With the nation’s economic crisis continuing, and more and more voters worried about the future, there seemed to be a growing chance that incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow may be vulnerable. Hoekstra, who got into the race last month after initially declining to run, thought he had a clear shot.

There were a few minor candidates, but they lacked funding or name recognition. But then yesterday, three longtime Michigan GOP heavyweights staged a coup of sorts. Two former state party chairs, Betsy DeVos, wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos, and Saul Anuzis, joined former U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham in endorsing a candidate.  And it wasn’t Pete Hoekstra.

Matter of fact, it wasn’t even someone who is formally in the race yet, though that will quickly change. The Big Three came out strongly for Clark Durant, a Grosse Pointer who is the founder of Cornerstone Schools, a group of charter schools in Detroit.

The world will probably little note nor long remember a meeting a legislative committee held in Lansing yesterday. But it should.

The subject was education reform, something that’s been a hot topic for the last few years - especially perhaps in Michigan.

What everybody agrees is that for many students, our schools no longer seem to work. In some places, notably Detroit, many fail to graduate from high school. Others graduate, but lack the skills to make a living or to get more education.

We don’t really like to think about the implications of that. But the bottom line is that we are turning out hundreds of thousands of  young people who have essentially no chance at legitimate jobs that will pay enough to allow what we think of as a decent lifestyle. Think about what that means for society.

In the modern economy, these folks’ future would be pretty hopeless even when times are good. Our politicians have been focusing on what’s wrong with the schools.

But what gets discussed too seldom is something that has little to do with what happens in the schools themselves. Even the best educators are terribly handicapped if they don’t have solid support from the students’ caregivers at home.

By now, everybody knows that Eleanor Josaitis lost her battle with cancer yesterday, and that she, with the late Father Bill Cunningham, was one of the founders of Focus Hope.

Focus Hope is that rarest of social welfare organizations; one  praised by liberals and conservatives alike. It started out as a private food distribution program in the aftermath of the horrendous Detroit riot of nineteen-sixty-seven. They still provide food to tens of thousands. But that’s not primarily what they are about.  Focus Hope takes the poor and uneducated, the unskilled and under skilled, and does its best to give them what they need to support themselves.

They trained hundreds of machinists, and when demand for machinists started to slip, they diversified. These days, their biggest program by far is Focus Hope’s Information Technologies Center, which is on their forty-acre campus of beautifully restored industrial buildings in Northwest Detroit.

Focus Hope has saved thousands of people and given them the ability to lead productive and meaningful lives. Hopefully, the men and women who run it will go on helping many more.

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to soon sign the redistricting plan passed by his fellow Republicans in the legislature. Assuming  he does so, and there are no last-minute changes, the future careers of four Democratic congressmen will suddenly be thrown into doubt.

Since last December, everyone has known that at least one Michigan Democrat would lose his job. The state is losing a seat in Congress as a result of national population shifts. Since Republicans control the process, everybody knew the odd man out was bound to be a Democrat. And as expected, they threw suburban Detroit Congressmen Sander Levin and Gary Peters into the same district.

If the two men do, in fact run against each other in a primary. Levin is almost certain to win. He has one of the most famous names in politics, and has been in Congress far longer.

Additionally, eighty percent of the new ninth district is territory that Levin has been representing up to now. But strange boundaries in two other districts have added other complications.

There have long been two seats represented by African-Americans and based in Detroit. But redistricting radically changed those districts. Freshman Congressman Hansen Clarke was given new boundaries that include slightly more than half of Detroit, and a collection of mostly blue-collar down river suburbs.

Last week, when the government announced the new fuel efficiency standards for 2025, I heard a number of Detroit auto buffs snort that they were unrealistic, utopian, and impossible.

“There’s no way they can get a corporate fuel economy average of fifty-four miles a gallon, no way,” one man told me.

Well, my technical knowledge of cars is limited to knowing where to find the owner’s manual when one of those warning lights comes on. But I do know something about the history of technology, and the general pattern is this:

If the experts say something is going to happen in five years, that usually means it is happening somewhere, right now, and will be widespread within a year and totally triumphant in eighteen months.

If they say that something is technically impossible, that means that the first practical application may not appear for a year or so. There are exceptions, of course.  But just consider this:

Well, the great battle over the federal debt limit is over, at least for now. For the last several weeks, most of us seem to have been arguing over this, whether or not we understood it.

This came just months after the great battle in Lansing over Governor Snyder’s budget cuts. Now that these momentous issues have been decided, we can move on to more interesting debates.

Such as, for example, how long it will be before Justin Verlander pitches another no-hitter. But seriously, there’s a tendency to think that now that all these budget cuts have been passed we don’t have to worry any more.

The unpleasant truth is that the effects of all these changes haven’t really started, on either the national, state or local levels.

We’ll begin to see some of the consequences this fall, when our kids go back to public schools with fewer teachers and fewer programs. Some of my students at Wayne State are already howling over their higher tuition and fee payments.

We don’t have any idea yet of the social costs of cutting people permanently off welfare. If the governor’s tax cuts produce a fast bumper crop of new jobs, and some of these long-term unemployed are hired, great. If that doesn’t pan out, we’ll all be in trouble.

The Detroit Tigers may win the American League pennant this year, and I don’t like that one bit. It reminds me, in fact, of one of the reasons that our schools are so screwed up.

If that doesn’t seem to make any sense, hang with me for a moment. First of all, I grew up a huge Tigers fan, and can still remember everything about the World Series-winning 1968 team.

But this year, while Detroit has been in first place for much of the last month, it doesn’t mean as much. The teams are divided into many divisions now, so there can be more winners.

It is likely that the second-place team in the more powerful Eastern division will end up winning more games than the first-place team in the Central. To me, that isn’t right, and means a tainted first place finish. Now, what does that have to do with our schools? Simply this. Virtually all Michigan public schools are accredited by the state.

Accreditation ought to mean some guarantee that a school is doing what it should, that you can put your child in it and  expect that he or she will get a proper education.

Provided, of course, you do your part as a parent.

You may not know this, but today is Election Day in many places in Michigan. There are primary elections for municipal offices in a wide scattering of communities.  In Sharon Township in Washtenaw County, there’s an effort to recall a couple local officials over a bad hiring decision some residents think they made.

And you owe it to yourself to find out what’s on the ballot where you live, and then go to the polls and vote.  Most people who are eligible won’t do that today, so your vote will have more influence than it would in some elections.

Local elections sometimes have more impact on our lives that elections that get more press. And if you live in the Oakland County suburb of Troy, today’s election will have the biggest impact of all.

Last year Troy, a mostly affluent, white-collar suburb, voted to abolish its library. Granted, the ballot proposal was somewhat confusing, but that is what they did. Now, they have one last chance.

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