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.

When it comes to speeches, Rick Snyder cannot begin to touch Jennifer Granholm in terms of style.

At no time during his State of the State speech last night did he come close to matching her perfectly modulated tones. He’s getting better, but the governor still sounds much of the time like a college student making a speech in a class he’s required to take.

But when it comes to substance and leadership, he blew her out of the park. He took one of the most divisive issues in the state, made it his own, worked out an astonishing deal with the federal government, and happily co-opted both his friends and enemies.

There’s a lot of speculation today as to what Governor Snyder will say when he makes his first State of the State speech tonight.

Well, we’ll find out soon enough. However, I’m also interested in what the Democrats are going to say in response. Now, there are a lot of people who think whatever they say won’t matter much.

After all, the Dems were pounded into the ground in the last election. They lost a record twenty seats in the House, where the Republicans have a sixty-three to forty-seven seat edge.

And they are in a lot worse shape in the state senate, where they now hold only a dozen seats out of thirty-eight. That’s the weakest position they’ve been in since 1954.

Nevertheless, what goes around does tend to come around. Nobody thinks Governor Snyder‘s honeymoon with the voters will last forever. Nor is it likely that all of his fellow Republicans in the legislature are always going to support what he wants to do.

These are also not normal times. Michigan has lost nearly a million jobs in the last decade, and has the highest unemployment rate of any major state in the nation. Additionally, it’s clear that our method of funding state government is broken.

Living the Dream

Jan 17, 2011

Last week I talked to a woman in an accounting office about an issue involving an electronic tax payment.

“I’ll take care of that Monday,” she told me.

"I don’t think you can," I said. "Monday is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday."

“What?“ she said. “Oh, that. I don’t celebrate that,” she said with a tone of annoyance.

It wasn’t her holiday, she wanted me to know, and she thought it was highly inappropriate for anybody to get a day off, and for government offices and banks to be closed.

You won’t be surprised to learn that she wasn’t African-American. Nor that she didn’t know much, really, about Dr. Martin Luther King. However, I’m not sure that a lot of the people who do enthusiastically celebrate it know much about him either.

Rule of Law

Jan 11, 2011

It’s sometimes easy to be cynical about what we used to call “the system” back in the days when bell-bottom jeans were common.

Too often, it appears that society at all levels still functions under the golden rule, as in, he who has the gold, makes the rules.

Ideally, things are supposed to work according to the words engraved on the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington: Equal Justice Under Law.” But in practice, it too often seems that things  are more like the famous New Yorker cartoon in which a judge peers down at a defendant, and asks:

“So, how much justice can you afford?“

On election day last year, I talked to a senior citizen who is a proud, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. I wondered how she had voted for state supreme court.

“For the Democrats, of course,” she said.

“I voted for Kelly and Davis,” she said, meaning newly appointed justice Alton Davis.

"You voted for a Republican", I said.

Alton Davis is indeed a Democrat, but Mary Beth Kelly is a Republican. “No, I didn’t,” the lady said. “I voted for Marilyn Kelly, the chief justice. You wrote about her in a magazine article I read.

“She is a Democrat. You said so."

Yes, she is, I said. But you voted for MARY BETH Kelly. She is  a Republican. Her party nominated her partly because she is named Kelly, and they were hoping a lot of people might do what you did.

Well, guess what. I don’t know how many other people were  confused, but Mary Beth Kelly won by a landslide, beating poor Alton Davis, who gave up a secure judgeship for less than six months on the state’s highest court.

Every culture and civilization has a set of myths which are sometimes partly true, but which are exaggerated out of proportion.

For example, they say any child in America can grow up to be president. That was made more believable when Barack Obama won. But for too many children today, a decent education, let alone the White House, is an impossible dream.

We take other things on faith too. These days, something most people seem to believe is that we have too many public sector employees, that they are paid too much, and that the cost of their pensions and benefits are killing us.

As a result, it is widely expected that Governor Snyder will seek deep cuts in public sector benefits to help close a nearly two billion dollar hole in next year’s state budget.

Every time I turned on any radio station yesterday -- other than this one -- almost all I heard was discussion and speculation as to whether University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez had been fired, should be fired or deserved to be fired.

Michigan television stations were just as bad. They seem to have descended on Ann Arbor en masse, leaving me to wonder what real stories they were missing across the rest of our state.

However, I tend to wonder about that every day as it is. Lacking any real information, reporters opted for the famous man-or-woman-on the street interview approach. To their credit, those I saw being interviewed said mostly well-informed and nuanced things.

A former student sent me an e-mail a couple days ago that made me both happy for her and concerned about our state. She had been a “ninety-niner,” Beth confided, and her prospects looked bleak.

She worried about having to move back in with mom and dad. But then, on Christmas Eve, she got a job. “Not a glamorous job, but a necessary one,” she said.

That made me happy for Beth, but also reminded me that there are at least 162,000 other ninety-niners in this state who aren’t as lucky. Ninety-niners, by the way, are people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Michigan begins the first work week of 2011 with a new governor in charge. He’s a man whose name most of us didn’t know a year ago, but whom we elected by a landslide in November.

We still don’t know exactly how Richard D. Snyder plans to make this state competitive again. But we do know this:

Everyone in Michigan - liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats and independents -- needs to hope his administration is an amazing success.

I don’t know Jim Stamas personally. He is a state representative from Midland who will be the majority floor leader when the new legislature takes office next month.

He’s a fairly conservative Republican, and I’d guess that on some policy issues we might disagree. But he did something this week I thought totally appropriate. He is bringing back a dress code for the legislature. He thinks members ought to wear business attire when they are doing the people’s business.

Well, we finally have the official census figures, and for the first time in history, Michigan lost people in the course of a decade. Worse, we’ll have fewer members of Congress.

Over the last thirty years, we’ve lost five seats in the House of Representatives. That’s equivalent to losing the voting power of the entire state of Connecticut. Put another way, we’re now back to having only one more representative than a century ago.

One thing is for sure. If Michigan is going to get out of the hole it is in and lay the foundation for future prosperity, lots of us are going to have to move out of our economic and political comfort zones.

Unions are going to have to realize that employers and governments can’t afford the same kind of health care and defined-benefit pension plans as when we had full employment at high wages and the Big Three dominated the global automotive economy.

Chambers of Commerce are going to have to realize that there is more to attracting new jobs and business than low taxes.

And everybody is going to have to realize that without a modern, well-functioning infrastructure, we haven’t got a chance.

We are living in interesting times. Yesterday, the Detroit Lions won their second game in a row, and their first game on the road since what seems like soon after the Civil War.

Marilyn Kelly, who is now Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, has given her life to Michigan’s legal system.

Now in her last term on the bench, she doesn’t like a lot of what she has been seeing lately. Besides deciding cases, Michigan’s Supreme Court is charged with overseeing all the other courts.

And she fears that the public is losing respect for the judiciary, in part because of the way judges are chosen. Especially higher-level judges, those who sit on appellate and supreme courts.

We‘re in the middle of the holiday season, and in many ways, these aren’t terribly festive or inspiring times. We haven’t shaken off the effects of the Great Recession. Most of us know people who are out of work, in a time when there are too few jobs to be had.

We haven’t seen a lot of cooperation or willingness to work together from either our state or national governments. However, I was inspired by something this week. The American Civil Liberties Union of  Michigan ran a high school essay contest.

Who are Michigan’s most powerful people in Washington? For decades, the same names have come to mind. First, Dearborn’s John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in history.

For many years, Dingell was either the chair, or ranking Democrat, of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Then come the Levins. Younger brother Carl is chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Older brother Sandy this year became the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Then there is John Conyers, who has chaired the House Judiciary Committee for the last four years. These men are icons. 

But they are aging icons, and when the Republicans take over  the House next month, Conyers, Dingell and Sandy Levin will lose power and status, because they will be in the minority.

But Michigan will have two newly powerful representatives in key positions, men who are far less well known statewide -- but whom we ought to get to know better.

- Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio's Political Analyst

This is the season when Charles Dickens is again in style, or at least his Christmas Carol. We’ve all been grappling with our own versions of Mr. Scrooge all year, and we all need a happy ending.

But I’ve been thinking of a different Dickens character this week: Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, who said in response to some idiotic legal ruling: “If the law supposes that, then the law is an ass.”

What made me think of that was the Wayne County Circuit Court ruling Monday. Judge Wendy Baxter ruled that Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Schools, had no right or power to make academic decisions.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Governor-elect Rick Snyder has begun to appoint his new administration in Lansing and there are some familiar faces among the new appointees. Snyder chose current Democratic Speaker of the House, Andy Dillon, to be the state's new Treasurer. Snyder also appointed Dick Posthumus, former lieutenant governor under John Engler, to be his senior advisor.


Terry Johnson / Flickr

Last night I presided over a fascinating meeting in Grand Rapids, the second in Michigan Radio’s “Issues and Ale” series designed to stimulate public discussion.

The main event was a look at this year’s campaign advertising by two members of the “Michigan Truth Squad,” John Bebow, director of the non-partisan Center for Michigan, and Susan Demas, perhaps the best columnist in Lansing.

Photograph courtesy of www.060.housedems.com

State Representative Robert Jones was an enormously popular former mayor of Kalamazoo who was in an intense battle to win a seat in the state senate. Intense, but not nasty.

But two days ago, Robert Jones suddenly died in his home, throwing the race into chaos and elections officials into a tizzy.

Newspapers aren’t doing well these days, though the companies that own them are still making money. Michigan Radio’s Jack Lessenberry says the result is being played out in Detroit.

_______

Thirty years ago, I worked for the publisher and owner of a family-owned newspaper in Ohio, a somewhat crotchety gentleman  in his early seventies who I came to know pretty well.

Jean Klock Park

Apr 21, 2008

The city of Benton Harbor is deeply divided over the future of Jean Klock Park. And like many things in America, this is, not far below the surface, a story about race and class, and history.

Yet there is also an element of Victorian romance here. My guess is that most of the people fighting over the issue don’t know much about the man behind it.

John Nellis Klock lived a classic Horatio Alger story. He was born in upstate New York the year the Civil War ended, into a family so poor he had to go to work full-time as a typesetter at age eleven.

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