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.

Whenever surveys are taken as to which professions are the most trusted and admired, journalists are pretty near the bottom. We used to beat out used car salesmen, but I think that thanks to regulation, they are in better standing these days.

Today, journalists and lawyers usually take turns at being the least admired. I don’t propose to talk about why lawyers are so unpopular; after all, I don’t want to be sued. But I do know why reporters are held in such low repute.

Part of it is our own fault.

As in, when a TV reporter sticks a microphone in the face of somebody whose child has been murdered and asks, “how do you feel?”

But even when we do our jobs well, we make people dread us. We tell you that the system doesn’t work, and the politicians are corrupt, and the water is tainted, and the priest is embezzling from the parish - things like that.

That’s what we are supposed to do.

We seldom show up just to tell you good news. Maybe the best thing we can say about our society is that decent behavior still isn’t news.

Except - in some contexts.

user Tyrone Warner / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss Michigan’s anti-gay marriage law being upheld, the Detroit bankruptcy trial ruling, and what to expect during this term’s lame-duck session.


Today let’s fire up the old time machine and go back to downtown Grand Rapids, say, on this day in 1964.

That would have been a Saturday, so we probably will be able to catch a lot of people at home. We’ll pretend to be taking a poll, and we’ll ask:

“Excuse me, but we’d like your opinion on this question. Fifty years from now, do you think it will be more likely that A) the United States will have a colony on the moon, or B) that homosexual marriage would be legal in many states of the union?”

The election is over, and I am about to turn from worrying about who will be elected to worrying about what they will do. But there’s something very troubling about what happened Tuesday that has nothing to do with who won.

Both parties and a scad of special interest groups spent a vast amount of money on this election, trying to get people out to vote for their candidates – or against candidates they didn’t like.

Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson calibrated his whole strategy on turnout, on getting the right people out to vote. But it didn’t work. His entire strategy was a tremendous flop. But the problem wasn’t just that.

Increasingly, people seem to have given up on politics and voting as a way to get things done. Four years ago, there was great concern because more than half a million fewer voters showed up than four years before. Political experts thought they were mainly disillusioned Democrats unhappy with the party’s candidate for governor that year, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

Yesterday’s election was, without a doubt, a Republican landslide of truly historic proportions, both nationwide and in Michigan. Republicans won legislative races even they probably didn’t think they had much chance of winning.

To everyone’s astonishment, they actually gained a seat on the state Senate, along with four in the Michigan House. Four years from now, Republicans will have held our state Senate for an astonishing 35 years.

Democrats now hold a mere 11 Senate seats and it is hard to see them winning control, well, almost ever. But there were two very odd things about this election: Turnout, which everybody expected would be higher than four years ago, was absolutely horrible.

New Democratic chair Lon Johnson put all his energies into increasing turnout, especially among absentee voters. He was hoping for 3.5 to 3.8 million voters. He felt that would have given Mark Schauer a reasonable shot at being elected governor.

Gov. Rick Snyder has been elected to a second term.
Wikimedia Commons

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry review Election Day in Michigan including voter turnout, victories and disappointments for both parties, and what yesterday’s results could mean for the next four years.


Probably the best and most poetic description of what happens on Election Day was written more than half a century ago by the journalist and historian Theodore White.

“It was invisible, as always,” he began his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, "The Making of the President 1960."

“By the time the candidate had left his hotel, several million had already voted across the county – in schools, libraries, churches, stores, post offices. All of this is invisible, for it is the essence of the act that … it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, none of them knowing the shape of the whole.”

That’s what’s happening today in Michigan, and around the nation. We think this may be the closest governor’s race since 1990, but we don’t really know.

We think the U.S. Senate race will be a decisive victory, but we don’t know that, either. We do know that there are candidates today who fully expect victory, but who will taste the bitter ashes of defeat, and there are others who will be surprise winners.

But we won’t know who for hours yet. Voting is, in a way, the secular equivalent of the confessional in the Roman Catholic Church. You can say whatever you like to your friends, but in the final analysis nobody but you will ever really know how you voted.

I was asked a thoughtful question this weekend by a listener named Paul Jordan, who agrees that politics in this country seems to be broken and increasingly dysfunctional. So he wonders: If this is in fact true, why do we get only two choices – meaning two major party candidates?

“Why does it seem that we can only vote for Coke or Pepsi? What if we don’t like cola anymore?” He noted that there are other candidates on the ballot, candidates mostly ignored by the media.

And he asked the classic chicken-and-egg question: “Are they minor candidates because they are ignored by the media, or does the media ignore them because they are minor candidates?”

Well, the answer to that question is yes. Both things are true. Now, classic mainstream media usually don’t ignore third parties entirely. Newspapers often do one obligatory story where they survey the minor candidates and report on their views. But they don’t get much attention because they aren’t seen as a serious threat to win.

Which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss who’ll be more hurt by low voter turnout on Tuesday, more Congressional race surprises, and a Detroit developer who dropped $3.1 million on some of the city's worst properties.


Detroit has barely half the number of people it did 30 years ago, and only about a third of its population 60 years ago.

The city is now waiting, as we all are, to see how federal Judge Steven Rhodes will rule on the city’s plan to get out of bankruptcy. Nobody has any illusions the future will be easy.

But here’s something to think about: there was no mass arson in the city last night. Devil’s Night seems truly a thing of the past.

Even that term is politically incorrect. They call it Angels’ Night now.

Yesterday I talked about Congressman Kerry Bentivolio, who is running a write-in campaign to try to keep his seat after losing the Republican primary to David Trott. Bentivolio, who represents a collection of Oakland and Wayne County suburbs from Birmingham to Livonia, told me there was an unwritten rule, at least among Republicans, that you don’t challenge a congressman of your own party in a primary.

That is, as long as that congressman is doing a decent job. However, as I pointed out to Bentivolio, he did just that two years ago; he filed to run against Congressman Thaddeus McCotter.

McCotter later self-destructed and was disqualified from the ballot, but Bentivolio didn’t know that would happen when he filed.

He then told me why he did it. Bentivolio, a Vietnam veteran who is now 63, volunteered to serve in Iraq. His neck was broken, and he had to be evacuated.

USFWS Midwest

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss what could happen to the state Legislature after the election, possible surprises in congressional races and the wolf hunting proposal votes which may not matter.


Kerry Bentivolio wants you to know that much of what you’ve heard about him is wrong.

For the last two years, the media has called him the “accidental congressman.” He prefers, unexpected congressman.

He got to Washington after winning the Republican nomination in his suburban Detroit district when the incumbent, Thaddeus McCotter, was tossed off the primary ballot for fraudulent petition signatures. The GOP establishment recruited a former state senator to run a write-in campaign against him in the primary. She lost badly, and Bentivolio went on to win in November.

But this year, he in turn was defeated in the Republican primary by attorney and mortgage foreclosure king David Trott. But Bentivolio is running a full-press write-in campaign to try and keep his job.

Bentivolio has a reputation for not talking to the media, so I was surprised when he called me out of the blue yesterday afternoon. He was genial, warm and witty.

Basically, he feels that Trott and the GOP establishment stabbed him in the back, have worked for two years to ruin his reputation, and he isn’t going to take it anymore.

Thirty years ago, I was briefly involved in the dog show world, when we had a collie that went on to become a champion.

That was during the long ago and now long-forgotten race in which President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election against Walter Mondale.

Both offered vastly different views of America. There were a some people who were very passionate about that campaign, either because they loved Reagan, hated his policies or were excited about the first woman on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro.

But when I came off the campaign and consorted with regular humans, I learned that wasn’t true for most. The show dog people I knew, for example, were more bitterly passionate about their rivals and paid more attention to the idiosyncrasies of the various judges than most people did the election.

Most of them could recite their dogs’ pedigrees at the drop of a hat, or point at a collie and say – “see, you can tell from his hindquarters that he’s out of Champion La Estancia Travolta.” The woman who told me that did ask me once “who’s that guy running against Reagan?” but I think she did so to be polite.

What I took away from this is that America is a land of a million subcultures, and increasingly, politics is just one of those.

There are big differences between the candidates for governor this time, and the candidates are spending tens of millions to try and get your attention in the hope that you might actually vote. But we know already that most people won’t. Apart from the candidates themselves, I’ve seen just two races this year where people seem energized and excited.

Yesterday, the most widely read newspaper in Michigan wrote this about Rick Snyder:

“The governor’s record of protecting Michigan’s natural assets is pretty sorry, and represents a misguided attempt to placate free-market forces at any cost.”

The Detroit Free Press added:

“When it comes to education, Snyder just doesn’t seem to get it,” and added “Michigan, during Snyder’s tenure, has become a less tolerant state, with more restrictions on reproductive rights and fewer labor protections.”

They said that the governor’s “self-fashioned profile as a champion of transparency has become a joke,” and that Snyder resists taking principled stances, something that the newspaper said “spoke volumes about his character.”

Harsh words. But now here’s the shocking part: The newspaper then endorsed Snyder’s reelection!

They did this because they said in spite of all that, the governor had shown leadership skills, and felt Democrat Mark Schauer had failed to show he could lead anywhere.

Michigan Supreme Court

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss a new report saying a quarter of Michigan homeowners are still underwater on their mortgages, Republican congressional candidate David Trott’s rough week and the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision not to reconsider parole hearings for juvenile lifers.


On Tuesday, The Detroit Free Press came out with a poll showing Gov. Rick Snyder eight points ahead of his challenger, Mark Schauer. That was the widest margin we’ve seen in a while. Most polls have had it much closer.

But within a day after that poll, news stories started matter-of-factly referring to the “fact” that Snyder was eight points ahead, as if these were actual, counted votes, or bushels of grain.

The sheer silliness of that wouldn’t matter much, except that polls drive pretty much everything in a campaign these days: Nobody wants to give money to a loser. Nobody wants to stand in line in the rain to vote for one, either. Polls can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

I seldom laugh out loud at anything I read, but I did at story in the Detroit News yesterday. The headline said: Snyder: Michigan has 1,000 isolation beds for Ebola. That’s all the proof I needed that, sure enough, we are all going to die. But before you put on your hazmat suit to walk the dog, I want to let you in on a little secret. 

We are indeed all going to die, but not of Ebola. I am frightened of many things, but I am not worried about Ebola in the least. If over the air gambling was legal, I’d happily bet anyone that nobody in Michigan is going to die of Ebola, ever. That is, unless they go to West Africa and come in contact with the body fluids of an infected person, and I’m not planning on that this weekend.

However, there is something that is hazardous to our emotional and mental health, and that is the appearance of any frightening disease close to an election.

Jake Neher / MPRN

This Week in Michigan Politics, Emily Fox and Jack Lessenberry discuss what it means for Michigan when big name politicians campaign for local candidates, the outlook for the state’s major races, and what political parties are up to as Nov. 4 draws near.


Four years ago, it looked as if efforts to build a badly needed new bridge over the Detroit River were doomed to failure.

Matty Moroun, the now 87-year-old owner of the Ambassador Bridge, had managed to corrupt the Legislature through that form of legalized bribery known as campaign contributions.

He poured hundreds of thousands into the campaigns and causes of influential legislators, most notably former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.

In fact, as Jim Blanchard, the former governor and ambassador to Canada told me, Bishop broke his promise to the people. He had promised to allow a vote in the state Senate on whether or not to allow a partnership with Canada to build the bridge.

This is a bridge, by the way, that just about every business and corporate leader in Michigan agrees we need to stay competitive.

For more than a century now, Detroit has been the Motor City: Home of the auto industry; the place that put the world on wheels.

You know that. You also probably know that as a result, Detroit utterly failed to build any kind of decent mass transit.

Other, that is, than a system of badly serviced city buses that don’t even coordinate with the suburban ones. The city is paying for that now, as thousands of adults who lack cars have no easy way to get to jobs in the suburbs. Belatedly, there are efforts to get a rapid transit bus system. There’s also the M1 light-rail project in the city, but these are partial solutions at best.

Michael Ryan is like a lot of us. He doesn’t think the health care system works very well, and as a self-employed dentist, he should know. He has problems with the Affordable Care Act. He thinks it needs to be a lot simpler and have better cost controls.

But he isn’t happy with the Republican failure to come up with any alternative, either. What makes Ryan different, however, is that he is a Republican, and is running for the state Legislature. You’ve probably never heard of him, but don’t feel bad.

Many people in his district haven’t, either. And here’s why I admire this man: Ryan, who has a wife and four kids, married relatively late in life, and is not wealthy.

He’s put his heart, soul and about $4,000 into this race. He’s talking about the issues, going door to door. But what’s most remarkable is that he knows he has little chance to win. He’s the Republican nominee in the 27th District.

That’s a collection of Detroit suburbs that are heavily Democratic – the Jewish and black city of Oak Park; liberal Ferndale and Huntington Woods; blue-collar Berkley and Hazel Park.

Two years ago, the last GOP nominee here lost almost four to one. There’s no incumbent this year, but the Democratic nominee, Robert Wittenberg, is seen as an automatic winner. But Mike Ryan thinks the people deserve a choice.

He’s anything but rigid, ideological and doctrinaire. Even his campaign literature admits he doesn’t always vote Republican. “Being exposed to my wife’s even more independent voting patterns forces me to think about how public laws affect ordinary people.”

When it comes to health care, what he would like to do is have Michigan come up with its own system. He would fund it partly by raising the sales tax. But he is open to suggestions. “That’s how you get somewhere, you know?” he told me.

The Detroit Institute of Arts
Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss big name politicians stopping in Michigan to campaign for local candidates, the latest development in Detroit’s bankruptcy trial, and GM’s record global sales despite a dismal week on Wall Street.


When you look back at the long history of Detroit, yesterday may not have been quite as significant as July 24, 1701.

That was the day Cadillac and his men beached their canoes, scrambled up the riverbank near where the Cobo Center now stands, and started building a fort. But yesterday comes somewhat close.

Yesterday was the day the last major holdout creditor came to terms with the city, in a way that should help improve the city’s chances to make it after the bankruptcy process ends.

This also seems to remove the last threat facing the Detroit Institute of Arts. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company will get the land where Joe Louis Arena now sits, the place where the Red Wings play and where, 34 years ago, I saw Ronald Reagan nominated for President. Eventually, when a new hockey arena opens, this will be torn down and a gleaming new luxury riverfront hotel built here, surrounded by condos and some new retail.

Almost two years ago, I spoke to a group called CRAM, the County Road Association of Michigan. These are the folks who maintain Michigan’s streets and highways, both urban and rural.

I found these folks mainly had frustrating professional lives, trying to do too much with too few resources and being blamed for problems they weren’t being given enough money to fix.

Yesterday, however, some pundits may have been startled when their political action group, RUSH-PAC, announced it was endorsing Gov. Rick Snyder for re-election. That may surprise some because though the governor did announce a plan to raise revenue for the roads, he’s failed to get it through the Legislature.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee irritated many Michigan Democrats when they canceled plans to buy advertising in four congressional races. These are seats now held by Republicans, but where Democrats believed that with hard work and strong candidates, they had a chance at an upset. Some think they still do.

However, national Democratic strategists made the purely political calculation that with dozens of seats on the line, their money would be better invested elsewhere. But there’s another seat that virtually no one thought would be in play, but which suddenly looks like the surprise sleeper race of 2014.

More than a year ago, a man told me I should get to know Paul Clements, who he said was going to beat Congressman Fred Upton in the Sixth Congressional District, which is based in Kalamazoo.

Twenty years ago, radio in Michigan was dominated by WJR-AM, which had the strongest signal around. You could get it nearly anywhere in the state. The station’s signature personality was the legendary J.P. McCarthy, who was an amazing interviewer.

Politically, I suspect he was conservative, but it was hard to tell; he interviewed politicians of all flavors with decency, courtesy and wit. But then, J.P. suddenly died.

Today, he has been succeeded by the sort of ideological slashers who have given talk radio a bad name.

Virtually everyone in Michigan politics, including those who write about it, is analyzing last night’s debate between Governor Rick Snyder and his Democratic challenger, Mark Schauer. 

Both sides put their own spin on this debate even before it was over. I’ve seen a lot of debates in my time, live or recorded, including every presidential debate in the modern era.

I have some thoughts on this one.

But I wanted to start with an observation that you might think comes out of left field. Shortly after the debate, I was copied on an e-mail letter a fellow named Kenneth Hreha sent to an anchorman at one of Detroit’s TV networks.

I was struck by these lines:

Hreha said, “The incumbent Rick Snyder didn’t even have the common courtesy to come professionally dressed in a suit and tie, a true reflection of the laziness of this man and the public policies that hurt working people.”

Now, Hreha is scarcely neutral. He voted for Snyder four years ago, but since has come to hate him.

He was laid off from a job working for the state, and the only job he’s been able to find since pays less and has no benefits.

But aside from that, do citizens want a governor who looks like them or one who shows up dressed like an authority figure? Originally, I thought Snyder’s casual style a big plus in today’s world.

Now, I’m not so sure. I know that after Mark Schauer did one commercial casually dressed, one of the elder statesmen of the Democratic Party yelled at him, saying he needed to wear a dark suit and look like the citizens expect a man in charge to look.

If you love the Detroit Institute of Arts, and supported the “Grand Bargain” to save it, then you should be grateful that what surfaced this week wasn’t known a few months ago.

Specifically, the whopping raises and bonuses paid to Graham Beal, the director of the DIA, and Annmarie Erickson, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Two years ago, Beal, whose compensation is over half a million dollars a year, got a 13% raise. Erickson, who got a promotion and new responsibilities, got a 36% raise.

My guess is that Jerry Cannon is pretty upset today, and so are Pam Byrnes, Eric Schertzing and Bobby McKenzie.

They are all Democratic candidates for Congress in Michigan. They’ve been working their tails off for months trying to make some headway, three of them against Republican incumbents.

Cannon, a Vietnam veteran and former Kalkaska sheriff, was heavily recruited for the race by Lon Johnson, the new Democratic state chair. McKenzie, an anti-terrorism expert, and gave up a good job with the state department to come back and run.

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