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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Politics
10:49 am
Wed September 21, 2011

The Bridge: Beyond Any Doubt

Pretend you are a judge, let me give you some undisputed facts, and then tell me how you would make up your mind.

The top business leaders of this state strongly support a new bridge over the Detroit River. So do the major leaders of both political parties. The bridge wouldn’t cost the taxpayers of Michigan a cent.

What’s more, the bridge would instantly mean billions of dollars and thousands of desperately needed jobs for our poor battered state.  Not when it was completed, but right away, right now.

That’s because the federal government has agreed to count money Canada is giving us to  cover our costs as state matching money for federal highway funds. That would mean two point two billion dollars to fix our roads and bridges.

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Auto/Economy
10:57 am
Tue September 20, 2011

Auto Talks: Far From Over

There’s a great deal of celebration going on over the fact that General Motors and the United Auto Workers union have reached tentative agreement on a new, four-year contract.

In the old days, what this would have meant was speedy ratification, followed by a similar settlement with Chrysler within perhaps two weeks, and then Ford maybe a month later.

That was the era of pretty much one-size-fits all pattern bargaining agreements. But that was before the near-death and the resurrection of Chrysler and GM, and it’s now a different world.

I spent some time yesterday with one of the best industry analysts around -- Kristin Dziczek, who heads the labor and industry group at CAR, the non-profit Center for Automotive Research based in Ann Arbor. Dziczek knows the management spokesmen and the economists, and has friends and relatives who are in the UAW. She eats, breathes, and sleeps this stuff.

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Commentary
6:23 am
Tue September 20, 2011

Playing Ball

If you could magically transport a Detroiter from a century ago to the present, he or she would recognize virtually nothing about their city or their state. They’d be staggered by the size of things and appalled by the vast stretches of blight.

While cars were becoming the mainstay of our economy back then, today’s vehicles are so different that they would be essentially unrecognizable to someone from nineteen eleven.

Most people back then had never seen an airplane, there were no bridges over the Detroit River and no federal income tax.

But they would understand they were in the same place once you told them: “The Detroit Tigers are in an exciting race for the American League pennant.”

Baseball, of course, is more than a sport; it is a cultural touchstone.  The Tigers of a century ago had a season that was a mirror image of this one. This year, the team played only slightly better than mediocre baseball until the last month or so.

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Politics
11:52 am
Mon September 19, 2011

Granholm's New Book, A Governor's Story

When I first heard that former Governor Jennifer Granholm was writing a book focused on her time in office, I was puzzled.

John Engler, a political powerhouse who substantially remade Michigan, wrote no such book. Neither did Jim Blanchard or Soapy Williams or Bill Milliken. They all had governorships far more successful than Granholm’s, in large part for economic reasons beyond her control. Nor, according to the polls, are Michiganders still enraptured with their first female governor’s every word.

So why would she write this book? I was set straight by a longtime titan of the state Democratic Party. “Jacky boy, this book isn’t going to sell in Michigan. It isn’t written for us. This book was written to solidify her reputation with the New York and Washington media, so she can keep her MSNBC commenting job.” And, he added, to present her version of history to the world.

Well, I always was a trifle naïve. So I decided to read the book, called “A Governor’s Story,” and subtitled “The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future.” Somewhat bizarrely, it lists her husband, the erstwhile “first gentleman” as co-author, though it is written entirely in the first person. Early on, it becomes clear that a more accurate title might have been “Alone,” or more simply, “Me.”

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Culture
11:07 am
Fri September 16, 2011

Civil Rights, 2011 Style

Daniel Krichbaum is head of the only department of state government explicitly authorized by the Michigan Constitution.

He is also executive director of the smallest department of state government, one that few people even know exists. If you haven‘t guessed, it is the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

And if your response is, “huh? Civil Rights? That’s so 1960s. Isn’t that over?” he won’t be surprised. He hears that all the time.

Krichbaum, in fact, has been around for long enough to have had a number of stellar careers. He has a PhD in education and is an ordained Methodist minister. But he’s devoted most of his career to public service, most notably as head of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity. Before that, he spent seventeen years as parks and recreation director for the City of Detroit.

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Commentary
1:15 pm
Thu September 15, 2011

The Governor’s Health Care Message

When I read the governor’s health care message, I had the oddly uneasy feeling I had seen this all before. Then I realized that I had. Half a century ago, when I was a little boy. Make that, a fat little boy. President-elect John F. Kennedy declared that physical fitness was the business of the government.

He wrote an essay in Sports Illustrated called “The Soft American,”  established a White House Committee on Health and Fitness, and challenged his staff to take a fifty-mile hike. Some did, although his famously rotund press secretary, Pierre Salinger, declined, saying “I may be plucky, but I’m not stupid.”

The President was especially concerned about child obesity. A song was written, called Chicken Fat, and we little baby-boomers had to exercise to it. Most of the nation enthusiastically greeted the physical fitness program. But the President didn’t seek to change any laws, And then he was killed and lifestyles changed.

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Politics
10:45 am
Wed September 14, 2011

Republicans vs. Teachers' Unions

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.

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Politics
11:06 am
Tue September 13, 2011

Political Races in Michigan, Stranger Than Fiction

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.

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Commentary
10:50 am
Mon September 12, 2011

Emerging Voices After 9/11

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.

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Politics
10:27 am
Fri September 9, 2011

Reaction to President Obama's Speech, A Tiny Step Forward

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.

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Politics
10:27 am
Thu September 8, 2011

The Michigan Supreme Court and the Pension Tax

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.

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Politics
11:32 am
Wed September 7, 2011

Musical chairs in the 14th Congressional District

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?

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Commentary
10:00 am
Tue September 6, 2011

The President Speaks

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.

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Commentary
10:30 am
Mon September 5, 2011

Labor Day

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.

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Commentary
12:21 pm
Fri September 2, 2011

Rick Snyder and the Future

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.

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Commentary
1:10 pm
Thu September 1, 2011

A Conversation with Rick Snyder

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.

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Commentary
11:19 am
Tue August 30, 2011

Proposal A Revisited

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.

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Commentary
9:58 am
Mon August 29, 2011

Taxing Liquor in Michigan

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.

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Commentary
12:54 pm
Fri August 26, 2011

Remembering Elly Peterson

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.

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Politics
11:04 am
Thu August 25, 2011

Local Control and Health Care

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.

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