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.

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.


Twenty years ago this fall, Curtis Ivery was appointed chancellor of the oddly named Wayne County Community College District. The place was a mess. One of its campuses was closed, funding and facilities were wretched, and many thought it wouldn’t survive. But as Ivery, who had grown up poor and black in Amarillo, Texas, once told me, “whenever anybody told me I couldn’t do it, I did it.”

It now seems certain that we will have the needed new bridge over the Detroit River.

That’s because Canada is going to pay for it – all of it – up front -- even the U.S. government’s inspection and customs plaza, something that should have been Washington’s responsibility.

That became officially clear with an agreement announced yesterday. 

Canada, which is already picking up all Michigan’s costs, will pay for building our customs plaza too, which will amount to an estimated $250 to $300 million. 

I gave a speech to a large group of retirees a few years ago. Afterwards, a woman came up and asked me if I were single. When I told her no, she said that was too bad, because I had what every woman wanted.

That’s not something I hear every day, and I have to say it was flattering, even though the lady was at least 20 years older than me.

Jim Townsend knows something about business.  He has an MBA from the University of Michigan, has been a brand manager for Ford Motor Company, and ran his own strategic marketing firm.

He also knows something about frustration.

I suppose I must have been one of many who, years ago, went to see Congressman John Conyers in his Detroit office and was greeted by a pleasant receptionist who looked vaguely familiar until I was stunned to realize who she was:

Rosa Parks.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Michigan felt a bit like a Monty-Python sketch this week as the Snyder administration looked on the bright side of a gaping budget hole and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s State of the City oozed optimism. Jack Lessenberry and Zoe Clarke discuss whether things really are as bright as they say or if dark clouds are looming.


I’m so old I can remember when the California presidential primary, which takes place at the beginning of June, often played a major role in choosing both parties’ nominees.

These days, the contests start nearly two years before the election, and tend to be decided by the end of March, but there’s no reason that might not be different next year.

Many years ago, I used to write about the federal budget when it was released in Washington. Ronald Reagan was president then, and Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. The moment the massive document was released, Speaker Tip O’Neill would proclaim it dead on arrival.  And then the negotiating began.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan riveted his town for nearly an hour last night with a state of the city address glowing with infectious, can-do optimism. 

Things are getting better, he insisted, facts and figures rolling off his tongue. The city is selling vacant properties no one thought possible to sell. Police response times are much better. Detroit has twice as many ambulances as it did.

This week, Jack and Emily discuss what we can expect from Governor Rick Snyder’s budget address later this morning as well as some high points from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s State of the City address last night.

Three months ago, Gretchen Driskell was elected to a second term in the Michigan House of Representatives. Yesterday, she announced that next year, she will run for Congress.

There was a time when such an early announcement would have sparked derision and ridicule. The election is almost two years away. 

The Obama Administration is about to do something that is fiscally prudent and makes good political sense, but which leaves me a little bit ashamed.

I’m talking about the New International Trade Crossing Bridge over the Detroit River, something that will be of enormous benefit to Canada and the United States – and especially to Michigan and Ontario.

A Michigan senator wants the death penalty in  Michigan for cases in which a cop is killed. This Week in Review, Jack and Zoe discuss the proposal’s timing and what would need to happen for it to become a reality.


State Senator Virgil Smith, a Detroit Democrat, wants Michigan to enact the death penalty for anyone who kills a police officer in the line of duty.

To quote the senator:

“If you kill a cop … if you’re willing to go that far, ain’t no telling what you’re willing to do.”

Since the year began, there’s been a deluge of horror stories about the drinking water in Flint. Residents have complained it’s discolored and smells and tastes funny. Authorities say it is safe, but admit it contains a byproduct from the disinfectants used to treat water from the Flint River.     

Liberals aren’t always as good at winning elections as conservatives, but they usually are more inclined to write about politics – and better at getting others to write about them. But there’s an interesting new memoir from the conservative side of the spectrum. The name Bob LaBrant is well known in politics and government here. For more than thirty years he headed political affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

images money / flickr

This week, Jack and Emily discuss what’s missing from President Obama’s proposed budget, a grant to help Flint’s water woes, and a new bill that would make it legal for unmarried people to jointly adopt children.


Lack of Clout

Feb 3, 2015

Fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a few February days in South Carolina.

When I was there, one of the first things that struck me was how many government installations there were, many named either for Senator Strom Thurmond or Congressman Mendel Rivers, the long-dead chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Both men were notable racists. 

Well, it’s Groundhog Day, and whether or not your local woodchuck sees his shadow, this much is clear:

The May 5th ballot proposal to raise the sales tax to fix the roads is in trouble. Last week was a horrible one for Governor Rick Snyder, the public face behind the push for this proposal. 

Road in need of repair.
Peter Ito / Flickr

This week, Jack Lessenbery and Zoe Clark discuss some consequences of governing under a deadline. Gov. Rick Snyder’s 11th hour plan to fix Michigan’s infrastructure won support from legislators last month, but this week, the measure is hitting some potholes.


Twenty years ago, journalists who covered national politics knew that they could usually go into an area and find one reporter who really understood his region.

For many years, Chad Selweski, the politics writer and columnist at the Macomb Daily, was that guy in his county, and that’s more important than it might sound.

There’s only been one president from Michigan, and I’d guess you know his name: Gerald Ford. But can you name the only justice he appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court?

That would be John Paul Stevens, who ended up being one of the longest-serving justices in American history.

For years, there’s been an absolutely stupid rumor that the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, birthplace of Henry Ford, is now under extreme Muslim Sharia law.

Sharron Angle, a bizarrely ignorant Tea Party candidate, claimed this was so when she was running for the U.S. Senate in Nevada five years ago.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This week in Michigan politics, Jack and Emily discuss anguish over Flint’s water, a plan for some Detroiters to pay half price on auctioned homes and a new gun bill moving ahead in Lansing.


It’s been almost three months since Democrats lost the race for governor, and you might think that by now, few would care why.

But why they lost an election they thought they could win is still a hot topic, for this reason: The Michigan Democratic Party is holding its spring state convention on Valentine’s Day, and the delegates will decide whether or not to re-elect Lon Johnson party chair.

Last weekend I ran into the managing director of the road commission for one of our state’s mid-sized counties.

She’s both an efficient manager and an intelligent observer of the pulse of her county, which is half urban, half rural. She knows better than most of us that our state's roads are falling apart.

Michigan Legislature
Matthileo / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and Zoe Clark discuss calls for bi-partisanship in Lansing now that a new legislative session is underway. Do politicians really mean it though? Or are these calls for compromise just politics as usual?


 We live in an era of what seems to be one of increasing nastiness and pettiness, especially perhaps in politics.

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