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.

Patricia Hill Burnett was a folk hero of sorts in a most unlikely way. Wealthy, glamorous and Republican to the core, she was nevertheless a feminist who was a co-founder of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women back in 1969.

She became a legend in Detroit, where she might hold court one day at the fashionable Midtown Café, and the next day lead a sit-in at the Detroit Athletic Club, which then did not allow women.

Well, it’s Christmas Eve, the official start of a holiday that long ago became as much a secular as a religious one. Tonight and tomorrow, we mark an occasion in which Americans of nearly all faiths  celebrate our strenuous attempts to please the gods of retail sales.

Early indications are that we’ve done fairly well.

user memories_by_mike / Flickr

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss some of 2014's top political stories. Funding for road repairs, Detroit's bankruptcy case and gay marriage all made headlines in Michigan this year.


In some ways it was easier to be a journalist back in the old pre-cyber days. Yes, the technology was harder to manipulate and information was harder to get. Yes, some of us actually worked in a world without Google.

When President Obama announced last week that we would restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, it wasn’t that big a story in Michigan. For one thing, we were still waiting to see what our lame-duck legislature would do about the roads. And there aren’t many Cuban-Americans here.

user Tqycolumbia / Wikimedia Commons

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss a long-awaited plan to fix Michigan’s roads, job cuts to one of the state’s largest agencies, and some holiday cheer from Rep. John Dingell.

Roads deal

After weeks of hemming and hawing over how to fix the state’s roads, Michigan lawmakers have OK'd plans for a sales tax hike.

There’s a great deal of celebrating over the fact that the Legislature reached a last-minute deal to fix the roads. Gov. Rick Snyder and the establishment Republicans are happy.

There’s a reason college professors historically were given tenure. It was so they couldn’t be fired for politically unpopular views.

Ron Kagan has been head of the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 tumultuous years. During that time, he fought off an effort by Detroit City Council to close the zoo and helped win its independence years before the city’s bankruptcy gave the art institute its own near-death experience.

He’s also led a transformation of the zoo from a somewhat tired park to a leader in worldwide conservation efforts and a much more exciting place.

The zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life is the nation’s largest polar bear exhibit; next year, a new penguin conservation center and wolf habitat will open. Attendance has swollen so much that Kagan is now facing the unwelcome chore of planning a new parking structure.

user Kcdtsg / wikimedia commons

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss the final days of lame duck, including the hold up on a plan to fix the roads, a pair of Senate-approved abortion coercion bills, and a bill that would impact online purchases made in Michigan.


Four years ago, Michigan voters were asked if they wanted to summon a convention to write a new state constitution.

We said no, by a two-to-one margin. Nobody collected signatures to put that on the ballot, by the way. Under the current constitution, we’re automatically asked every 16 years if we want a convention to write a new one.

We’ll be asked again in 12 years.

But I now think the voters made a mistake in 2010. We may well need a new constitution, because there’s increasing evidence the old one, written in the early 1960s, no longer works.

Nearly a year ago, as car after car was damaged or destroyed by potholes, State Sen. Majority Leader Randy Richardville went to see his constituents in Monroe, a town between Detroit and Toledo.

Unions don’t represent as many workers as they used to, and we are increasingly ignorant of labor history, though it includes some of the most fascinating episodes in Michigan’s glorious past.

Detroiters woke up this morning in a city run by an exuberant, can-do mayor, in a city finally out of bankruptcy and with a spirit of optimism that hasn’t been seen for at least half a century.

It should already be perfectly clear why they call what the Legislature is doing now the “lame-duck session.” Much of what they are doing has been pretty lame.

Courtesy photo / Holland BPW

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss Detroit’s pending bankruptcy exit, confusion over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and a Senate bill that would count the burning of tires, used oil and other waste products as renewable energy.


Last night I talked to a woman in her 40s who grew up in a rural town in the northern Lower Peninsula and then lived for a couple decades in Boston and New York, before coming to Detroit for a job.

I had lunch the other day with Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, who in a few weeks will be out of office for the first time in fourteen years. The last four years have had to be frustrating for her.

user futureatlas.com / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss a bill aimed at protecting religious freedom, another that would cut off welfare payments to recipients who fail drug tests, and whether Michigan’s low gas prices will stick around.


Last night I spoke to about a hundred thoughtful citizens, mostly of retirement age, at a forum sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women. They were mostly great fans of Michigan Radio.

Several asked why I hadn’t said anything about the deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, or Eric Garner,

There’s a time-honored political technique you might call the “big lie” theory. Basically, it works this way: If you tell the same outrageous lie over and over, no matter how big it is, eventually people will believe that at least some part of it is true.

More than 30 years ago, I had just become national politics writer for a Midwestern newspaper, and was sent off to cover a national Roman Catholic Bishops’ conference in Chicago.

I was somewhat indignant about that.

Wikimedia Commons

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss a plan to help Michigan roads by cutting truck weight limits, whether any road fix plans will survive the lame duck session, and a possible end to federal oversight of the state’s foster care system.


For years now, we’ve heard it said that Rick Snyder isn’t really a politician. Well, that’s nonsense. He’s been a supremely skilled one, especially in selling the people on voting for him. Four years ago, he came out of nowhere to easily win the Republican nomination for governor, then won election in a landslide. This year, despite some very unpopular decisions, he won again.

He’s never lost an election. But the jury is still out on whether he’s an effective leader when it comes to governing.

Well, we are about to find out. The key issue is, as it has been, the roads. We spend less per capita on roads than any state in the union, and as a result, we have almost the worst roads in the nation. Given that we are the automobile state, and that we depend on transportation for our jobs and future, this is nuts.

My parents have been dead for a long time, but I feel I owe them a long-overdue thank you for saying no half a century ago, when I wanted an air rifle, otherwise known as a BB gun.

I had read about them in Boys’ Life, and believe I had ambitions of shooting birds in the backyard.

Today, I would be horrified at that, but young people can be insensitive. My mother’s refusal to let me have a gun probably had, however, little to do with birds, and more to do with Larry, an older kid in the neighborhood. Larry once had a friend with a BB gun, and as a result, Larry had a glass eye.

Well, our representatives in the Legislature, or at least those who give them campaign money, apparently would have thought my momma a spineless wimp. They are seriously considering an eight-bill package that would dramatically loosen restrictions on pellet guns, or other weapons that power a bullet by gas, spring or air.

Currently, it is illegal for anyone under eighteen to have a BB gun unless they’re with an adult. That’s something that seems common sense. But that’s not how the National Rifle Association sees it. They want that law repealed – and the Michigan House has already done so. Now, it’s up to the Senate.

What I can’t understand is why anyone thinks this is a good idea. I know all the arguments for rifles and handguns. Those who support what they call gun rights say we may need them to defend ourselves, against criminals or an evil government.

There are those with some understandable skepticism about political junkets to other countries in search of jobs. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm was forever jetting off on trade missions to Sweden or Germany, say, and then announcing with great fanfare that some company had agreed to create maybe a dozen new jobs in Michigan.

This raised a number of questions, such as, would those jobs have come here anyway? Incidentally, I’m not sure anyone ever followed up to see if the promised jobs actually happened.

On top of that, you had to wonder if the governor’s time and energy might better have been spent elsewhere.

Especially when you saw stories about a handful of new junket-generated jobs next to other stories about hundreds of domestic jobs being eliminated through plant closings or downsizings.

Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

This week, Jack Lessenberry and Emily Fox discuss what to expect from the Legislature’s lame duck session, repercussions from Ferguson, and a fund to help Detroit pensioners.


Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Members of the LBGT community – lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered – have wanted the Legislature to take up expanding the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

They persuaded themselves that the Republicans who have majorities in the state Legislature would, in the lame-duck session next month, expand its protections to include them. Some took this as a given, although they were worried that the bill might include sexual orientation and not gender identity.

Yesterday, one Michelle Fox-Phillips wrote and asked me to tell people that excluding transsexuals from any expansion of the civil rights act would be wrong.

Well, it became clear yesterday that she has been living in a dream world. Most Republicans have absolutely no interest in expanding civil rights protections to the non-heterosexual. They are either part of the religious right, or depend on it for money and votes.

Thanksgiving always has reminded me of the famous Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Some of this goes back to my childhood, when President Kennedy was assassinated just days before Thanksgiving, and a gloom hung over the nation in a way now hard to imagine.

Add to that the fact that I seem to be deeply un-American in that I would rather do almost anything other than spend hours trapped in front of a TV watching football.

Unless, that is, it involves that form of mass hysteria known as holiday shopping. Last week I overheard two excited women sharing the news that they weren’t going to have to wait till Black Friday. This year, the shopping malls will open on Turkey Day itself.

Vacant lot in Detroit.
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss Gov. Rick Snyder’s Asia trip, the financial status of Michigan’s schools, and a new plan to sell Detroit land.


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