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.

As everyone knows, we are in the middle of a great statewide debate about whether to raise the sales tax to pay for our roads. Last week, someone asked me a different question about the whole road repair process.

One of the most significant stories in America is also one of the most neglected by both the politicians and the media. Over the last thirty-five years, there has been a massive redistribution of income in Michigan  and the country from the poor to the rich.

If you don’t live in the Flint area, you may be wondering what on earth is going on with the politicians and the water.  For many years, Flint, like many other communities, bought its water from Detroit.  Then, less than a year ago, they switched to save money.

Years ago, when we had a governor from one political party and a legislature controlled by the other, we often saw epic battles over spending priorities, otherwise known as the state budget.

Back in pre-term limit days, compromises would eventually be reached, often at meetings of what was called the “quadrant,” the leaders of the house, senate and the governor.

NOAA

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry talk about the politics of water.

I spent some time yesterday with Douglas George, the Canadian consul general in Detroit.  We often take Canada pretty much for granted, which is precisely what we shouldn’t do.

We sometimes half-forget that it is, after all, a major foreign country stretching across our entire northern border, and which actually has more land area than we do.

Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives are introducing bills to repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. This has about as much chance of becoming law as I have of becoming starting forward for the Detroit Pistons.

Republicans have large majorities in both the house and the senate, and they’d never support this. 

Virtually everyone who doesn’t have a political reason to pretend otherwise would agree that the Detroit public schools are a dreadful failure.

More than three-quarters of its students have fled the district in the last 14 years. Test scores remain appallingly low, and a succession of emergency managers has failed to stabilize the finances. Most children in the district now go to charters, private schools or schools in the suburbs, a clear vote of no confidence by Detroit parents.

I’ve said more than once that it isn’t fair to expect teachers to solve all the problems of educating our kids. When a child is hungry, or has a chaotic living situation and no support at home, the best curriculum and the most effective teachers may not be able to make enough difference.

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When it comes to schools, pot and guns in Michigan, who's the boss? This week, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss an executive order that puts control of the state's worst performing schools in the governor's hands, whether legalizing recreational marijuana would be good for Michigan, and a skirmish in Ann Arbor over openly carrying weapons in schools.

 

The education community was all a-flutter yesterday over the news that Governor Snyder had moved the school reform office from the Department of Education, which he doesn’t control, to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which he does.

That may not sound like the most exciting development in the history of American government, but it is significant in this sense. This is the office that oversees the state’s worst-performing schools. 

Congresswoman Candice Miller surprised a lot of people a few days ago by saying that this would be her last term in Congress.

Her seat is pretty safely Republican, and I knew that within days there would be a slew of contenders trying to line up money and endorsements for a race.

But I was taken back to a key moment in history by the name of one of those potential candidates: Former State Senator Alan Sanborn. 

I don’t know if you know this, but journalists don’t have any more right to seek out information and publish it than the guy selling Slurpees in the Seven-Eleven.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The right to know and to express ourselves is guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Politicians never like to admit that life will go on if one of their programs is rejected. Many years ago I remember seeing Richard Nixon asked what he would do if by some chance he wasn’t elected president.

Terrence Berg was taking his trash out in Detroit Thursday night, when two young men approached him. One said they didn’t want to hurt him; they just wanted to go inside his house. When Berg said no, they shot him in the leg.

gop.gov / gop.gov

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Zoe Clark discuss legislation that would allow faith-based adoption agencies to refuse service to LGBT couples, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan’s call for a moratorium on charter school expansion, and Candice Miller’s announcement that she won’t seek reelection.


Two months ago, I said it was possible that the best day of Governor Rick Snyder’s second term might very well be his first day, and that it would go downhill from there.

Well, Governor Rick Snyder and the legislature are close to accomplishing another economic objective – a negative one. They are about to kill the film industry in this state, a move I am convinced will hurt our economy in the long run and has already hurt our souls, at least when it comes to quality of life in Michigan.

If you think we’ve got troubles now, flash back eighty-two years ago today. Unemployment in Detroit was more than forty percent – and there was no social safety net.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Congress.
PBS NewsHour / screenshot from YouTube

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, a new push toward financial stability for Detroit’s schools and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s decision to sit out Proposal 1.


Years ago, the Green Party in Germany was torn by a split between two groups nicknamed the “realos” and the “fundis.”

The realos believed you had to compromise to achieve anything in modern, consumer-oriented capitalist society.

Last week I got a check for a thousand dollars from a nonprofit organization for which I do some occasional consulting. However, they had already paid me out of a separate fund.

Wikimedia Commons

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Zoe Clark talk about headlines that marked the end of the beginning for some major Michigan issues. Ballot language for the roads funding bill, school money to fill the budget gap, and GOP officials with criminal records are all stories that look like they’re just getting started. 


Twenty-one years ago, Michigan voters drastically changed the way public education is funded by adopting what we still call Proposal A. That shifted much of the burden of paying for the schools from each local community to the state itself.

And to do that, voters raised the sales tax from 4% to 6%. Now, on May 5th, they’ll be asked to raise the sales tax another penny to fix our disintegrating roads.

When the news came yesterday that Northland Mall, that early suburban icon, would close forever in 30 days, I was with former State Senator Jack Faxon.

Faxon, who once represented the area in the legislature, said, “How ironic. It was the start of the end of Detroit, and now it is the end of Southfield.”

Paul Welday, a deeply conservative former candidate for Congress, called it the most disturbing election in the Michigan Republican Party’s history.

No, he wasn’t talking about President Obama, but about his party’s choice of a man named Darwin Jiles as the party’s new ethnic vice chair. Jiles, who is 29, was arrested a year ago and charged with shooting a man in an Auburn Hills trailer park.

earl53 / Morguefile

This week, Jack and Emily talk about another state considering a right-to-work law, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s budget proposal and a new grant to boost skills training in Michigan.


This hasn’t been a good week for Matty Moroun, when it comes to his battle to hang on to his monopoly over transporting heavy freight across the Detroit River.

Moroun, who will be 88 in June, owns the Ambassador Bridge, which itself is 85-years-old. Twenty-five percent of all trade between Canada and the United States comes across this bridge.

You’d have a hard time finding anyone with deeper Detroit roots than Milton Mack, Wayne County’s Chief Probate Judge. Two of his ancestors were in the canoes with Cadillac when he landed and founded the city on July 24, 1701.

A drawing of where the New International Trade Crossing will be located.
MI DOT

Sometimes bigger is better. Sometimes it’s not. This week, Jack Lessenberry and Zoe Clark discuss what an earlier presidential primary might mean for Michigan, the state’s ever-expanding tax credit bill and a big step toward a new international bridge.


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