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.

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This week in Michigan politics revolves around what bills might be passed during the remaining weeks of the lame duck session. Morning Edition host Christina Shockley and Michigan Radio's political analyst Jack Lessnberry  talked about the possibility of passing an education overhaul and a right-to-work bill.

A while ago, a student came to see me after she had badly bombed a midterm. Her goal in life is to be an on-air TV personality. Though she is a senior, it was clear that she didn’t really know how to study or take notes, and read only when forced to.

This was a course in the history of journalism, and one of her major mistakes was claiming that the African-American press tried in the 1930’s to turn people against slavery.

Slavery had then been abolished for 70 years. I asked if she knew that the Civil War had led to the end of slavery. She did not, and asked me when the Civil War was.

I said that if I told her, she would forget, and that she needed to look it up and then report back. She thought that was reasonable, and then paused. “What countries were involved in the Civil War? I mean, I know America was one of them,” she said.

Now, that was a bit of an extreme case -- but not as much as you might think. I am not telling you this to attack how history is taught in the public schools.  I’m thinking about the media.

As pretty much everybody knows, traditional mainstream media -- the daily newspaper and the half-hour TV broadcast, are in trouble.

On Election Night, I heard a commentator say that the voters settled one thing: There are no longer any racial barriers to success in America-- that a majority of the voters have now voted for a black president not once, but twice, seemed to settle that.

Well, that theory is certainly a comforting one.

But last night I spent some time with a brilliant law professor who argues compellingly that the truth is anything but. Michelle Alexander is the author of the national best-seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

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The Michigan legislature is wrapping up business before the end of the year and Snyder gave an address this week about the environment. This week Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss how the State House rejected a state-run federal health exchange, and the State Senate passed a regional transit authority for southeast Michigan. Lessenberry also reflected on Snyder's environmental address.

Suppose that Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Tigers, said he refused to accept the result of the World Series. He wasn’t going to accept the San Francisco Giants as champions, despite the fact that they swept his team in four straight games.

That would be nuts. But not much more irrational than what Republicans in the state House of Representatives did yesterday. They stomped their feet, whined, pouted and refused to set up a state-run exchange to help citizens and businesses shop for health care, now that they have to buy it.

This won’t make much difference to the average person, and affects only those who don’t have health care now, as well as small businesses, which now have to offer it to their workers.

The only difference is the federal government, not the state, will be running the system that helps people find health care. While this is being called an exchange, it is actually more like a marketplace, where people can shop for health care policies.

Someone once said that Americans will do anything for the environment except read about it or spend money on it.

I thought of that yesterday, when the governor delivered the latest in his series of special messages, this one on the environment.

Rick Snyder said we had to make better use of the resources we have, and called, among other things, for better recycling and for Michigan to develop a strategic national gas reserve.

Pretty much everyone nodded politely at most of what the governor said,  though not when he appeared to endorse fracking, at least so far as natural gas recovery is concerned.

However, I would be surprised if anyone in the legislature was still thinking about, much less talking about, what the governor said about the environment a week from now. In fact, the governor’s main priorities seem to be elsewhere, at least for the lame duck session.

But something else is going on in the Capitol that could be highly beneficial to the economic as well as the natural environment: Transportation reform. More than a year ago, the governor proposed a high-speed bus system for Metro Detroit. It was, and is, a great and politically brilliant idea. More than a third of the population of Detroit has no access to reliable private transportation, meaning cars.

Colin Chauret grew up in Bay City during World War II, fascinated by the Battle of Britain and dreaming of becoming a Spitfire pilot. When he graduated, he joined the service.

They taught him to fly, but instead of sending him to battle, they used him to train other pilots. The war ended before he could see combat. But Chauret stayed in, and eventually flew a hundred combat missions in Korea. He later was a staff officer in Vietnam.

He spent more than 30 years in what became the U.S. Air Force, rising to full colonel before he retired. He turns 90 in January, and is still military to the core. Two of his sons and one grandson are Air Force lieutenant colonels. He’s deeply religious, and credits God for saving him from one crash that killed a close friend.

Most afternoons, he walks for exercise in a shopping mall near where they now live in San Antonio, and shakes the hands of every wounded veteran he sees. These days, however, he is more interested in government.

He is worried about the fiscal cliff, the health of his native Michigan and the national debt most of all. But his views are not what you might think. “I am a liberal and damn proud of it,“ he told me, adding, that “after all, Jesus was the greatest liberal of all time.”

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This week Christina Shockley and Jack Lessenberry talked about what legislation is likely to pass before the end of the year, the cash crisis in Detroit, and mass transit in southeast Michigan.

There’s a big difference between four years ago, when General Motors and Chrysler were nearing financial collapse, and today, when their city is itself on the brink of bankruptcy.

Everyone, from General Motors executives to the President of the United States, took GM’s troubles seriously. Though lawmakers disagreed on the remedy, they knew that what happened to GM would have momentous consequences.

What’s baffling to me is that the same doesn’t seem to be true for Detroit. Far more people live in Detroit than work for General Motors and Chrysler combined. We seem to be on the brink of the biggest municipal bankruptcy in history, which is going to have enormous consequences even for those of us in Ishpeming.

If you don’t think all this will affect Michigan’s bond rating and image worldwide, then you are a bit naïve. But unwillingness to face reality seems to be rampant among those connected with Detroit.

If you haven’t been to Detroit lately, it’s easy to have an image of a ghastly ruin full of ominous criminals waiting behind the rubble to shoot you, Well, there are areas where it’s not a good idea to go. But there are plenty of wonderful places too.

I can think of lots of reasons to be happy today, one of which is that the election is behind us, and the politicians won’t be actively campaigning for office again for at least a month.

We’ll be able to watch the Detroit Lions today without enduring countless ads about Debbie-spend-it-all or bridges over the Detroit River. No, we can instead use the commercial breaks the way the Founding Fathers intended, to decide which brand of cheap bottled light beer is better. Or, for going to the bathroom.

Yet before we turn to today’s main business of flamboyant overeating, there was one slogan from the late unlamented campaign that it might make sense to think about. In an attempt to get voters to reelect the President, Joe Biden often repeated the slogan, “General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead.“

Let’s start by saying something we should never forget: In America, anyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway hasn’t even been accused of a criminal offense. But in a development that has been expected for months, U.S. District Attorney Barbara McQuade has filed civil charges accusing the justice and her husband of real estate fraud. The complaint alleges that they, quote “systematically and fraudulently transferred property and hid assets.”

What happened, according to the feds, was this: Two years ago, the Hathaways wanted to arrange a so-called short sale of a home they owned in the Detroit area. In other words, they wanted to sell the house for less than they owed on their mortgage. 

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It's a busy news week in Michigan politics. This week Kyle Norris and Jack Lessenberry discuss various proposals and happenings in Lansing:

1. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway faces allegations of fraud in a federal civil lawsuit. It accuses Hathaway and her husband of hiding assets to qualify for a short sale on a $1.5 million dollar home in Florida.

2. A proposed bill that would allow people to claim a 12-week-old fetus as a dependent for tax exceptions.

3. Another proposed bill would bring massive overhaul of Michigan's school funding system. Jack discusses some of the major changes.

There’s a lot more than usual going on in this lame duck session of the legislature. The governor is pushing for personal property tax relief for businesses, and for completing the task of converting Blue Cross Blue Shield from a state-regulated charity to a nonprofit mutual insurance company.

There also may be a drive to get some form of legislation to replace the rejected emergency manager law.

But there is a vast amount of buzz going on about something that won’t be taken up in this session, but which could provoke the mother of all battles in the legislature next year.

And that’s a proposal that has the potential of radically altering how Michigan elementary and high school education is funded, and how millions of Michigan kids receive their education.

Over the weekend, the papers were full of tributes to Sonny Eliot, the wisecracking weatherman who was a television icon for a few million baby boomers and their parents.

To someone new to Michigan, or anyone younger than forty, this may have seemed a trifle odd.  Sonny, who died Friday, hadn’t been on TV on a regular basis since the 1980’s.

True, his twice-daily zany weather forecasts were a beloved part of all-news AM radio until a couple years ago.  But why all this fuss over a guy who broadcast the weather?

Well, he was, indeed, one-of-a-kind; a statewide celebrity before there were such things as cable networks, or 24 hour news. But I think the answer may have as much to do with ourselves as Sonny Eliot. Sonny did deserve to be recognized. He was certainly the last person on the air who was actually present at the creation of TV broadcasting in Detroit.

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This week Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss how Michigan will comply with the Affordable Care Act, and how the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Michigan's constitutional ban on affirmative action does not hold up under the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. Lessenberry also remembered the late former first lady, Helen Millikin.

She was once a shy young woman from a wealthy family who typed her young husband’s papers for him when he was finishing college. She raised two children, worked in her garden, and dreamed of a degree in landscape architecture.

Later, she found her voice, and inspired other women to do so as perhaps no other Michigan woman ever has. She was a crusader for the arts, and the moving force and the first chair of the Michigan Artrain. She was in her fifties when she joined the National Organization for Women, and began fighting vigorously, if unsuccessfully, for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Years ago, I put together a  series of panel discussions on the American dream. The people involved differed  a good deal as to what the dream really meant, but they agreed on some  things.

Everybody thought part of it meant that America was a place  where if you worked hard, you could get ahead. And that America was a place  where a decent life was available for all.

Tragically, that’s not as  true as it used to be. Today, the Michigan League for Public Policy, formerly  known as the League for Human Services, unveiled a new national study on  incomes.

The election may have settled some things, but it has left the state of Michigan with an overwhelming problem that we have to solve soon, or suffer devastating consequences. Consequences that will affect us all, whether we live in Monroe or Marquette.

And that problem is the City of Detroit. Once again, the troubled and impoverished city is fast running out of cash.

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This week Christina Shockley and Jack Lessenberry discuss the chance of Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers taking over David Petreaus' position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, what would happen if Michigan misses the Friday deadline to create a statewide online exchange for people to shop for health insurance and how Detroit's finances could affect the rest of the state.

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