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Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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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.

Ways to Connect

Shri Thanedar
shri2018.com

Imagine you suddenly came into $3.3 million dollars, and your instructions from the universe were to spend it to make life better for the people of Michigan.

My guess is that your first idea would not be to spend it to try to win the Democratic nomination for governor next year. But that’s what Shri Thanedar is doing.

President Donald Trump has just nominated former Congressman Pete Hoekstra to be ambassador to the Netherlands. The appointment should be speedily confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Hoekstra, who came to this country as a baby, was born in Holland and speaks fluent Dutch.

He’s a former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and in every respect is as fully qualified for this job as any political appointee could be.

Ambassadors fall into two categories. Those who have come up through the ranks of the Foreign Service, and are state department experts in their field. They tend to be ambassadors in places like Paraguay. Former politicians or well-heeled campaign contributors tend to get ambassadorial appointments in more glamorous countries.

The fires of the Detroit riot began blazing exactly fifty years ago today. Years later, in an odd case of serendipity, I got to know Ray Good, the first police lieutenant on the scene, in the course of profiling his wife Janet for Esquire Magazine.

That was in the 1990s, when she had her moment of fame as Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s partner in evaluating who he would help die.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement - or ICE - agents
U.S. Air Force / Creative Commons / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Ingham County Sheriff's Office announced this week it will no longer detain people at the request of immigration, without a judge's order. It says immigration violations are "civil, not criminal, in nature, and are between the individual and the U-S Government." The Wayne County Sheriff's Office has a similar policy in place. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether other counties will follow suit.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

You might think of Heidi Washington as the chief of 40,000 people scattered across the state in 30 different camps. Except she has much more power over them than any political leader in this nation has over their constituents.

And her job is not only to take care of her people, but to keep us safe from them. She’s the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, which is anything but an easy job.

President Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Hard to imagine, but man first walked on the moon exactly 48 years ago today. I think most of us thought we’d have had colonies there by now, but of course we don’t.

That was a long time ago, but here’s something you may find even harder to believe. Six months ago, we woke up in a nation where Barack Obama was still president.

michigan state capitol
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

When I heard that Mark Bernstein wasn’t running for governor, what instantly popped into my head was a line from Macbeth: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."

In other words, the best part of his campaign was his decision not to wage one. The immediate beneficiary is Gretchen Whitmer, whom Bernstein then endorsed.

Michigan's current congressional districts.
Department of the Interior

The founders of our system attempted to give this country, and later this state, something called representative democracy.

That’s supposed to mean electing people we trust to represent our best interests to make laws for the state and nation. That generally worked pretty well. Not that it was perfect, and for a long time some of us were shut out of participating. But eventually that got fixed.

Handguns
user Joshuashearn / wikimedia commons

Whatever else you can say about us, this much is clear. No other so-called advanced, or civilized, or industrial nation has anything like the deaths from firearms we do.

Yes, there will be murders committed with guns in Japan this year. Based on recent statistics, there will probably be 12 or 13 of them. Japan has about 127 million people.

Michigan has less than 10 million, so if our culture was anything like Japan’s you might expect we’d have perhaps one murder committed with a firearm this year.

teacher with student
BES Photos / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Governor Rick Snyder signed a handful of bills this week, including one that will change the retirement system for new teachers starting in 2018. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about the implications when it comes to attracting new teachers to Michigan.

Teacher and students at Flint's Southwestern Academy.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

George Orwell’s classic Cold War novel 1984 depicted a world where everything was controlled by a nightmarish dictatorship where history was constantly being rewritten to suit the needs of the moment, and where the meaning of words was turned into their opposite: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, et cetera. I was reminded of that yesterday, when I got an Orwellian press release from the governor’s office.

Elizalde Ramirez Vasquez - a migrant worker who attended Michigan State University.
courtesy photo

The last few decades haven’t been kind to Michigan. Traditional manufacturing jobs have disappeared or gone abroad or to the Sunbelt.

Per capita income has fallen dramatically, to the point where two-thirds of the states are wealthier than we are. We were the only state to lose population in the first decade of this century.

While Michigan seems to be slowly growing again, the population increase is far smaller than average. We’ve lost five seats in Congress since 1980, and may lose another.

Little Caesars Area being built in June of 2016.
Rick Briggs / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Let me start out by saying that Robert Davis, usually referred to as a Highland Park activist, is a man easy to despise. He has won a reputation as a gadfly who is constantly filing lawsuits demanding transparency in government and attacking corruption.

Some see him as a crusading knight in shining armor and others as a relentless self-promoter trying to make a name and have us forget his past.

State Senator Coleman Young II unveiled his plan for Detroit yesterday. He is running for mayor this year, and the odds are that he and incumbent Mike Duggan will be the two top vote-getters in the September primary, and go on to face each other in the general election.

Actually, I had planned on talking to Senator Young Monday so I could tell you more about his campaign, and had scheduled an interview weeks ago.

School desks
Flickr user Frank Juarez/Flickr / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Michigan Court of Claims is not one of the highest-profile judicial bodies in the country, or even our state. It handles civil actions filed against the state and its various departments and agencies.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Attorney General Bill Schuette says the Michigan schools superintendent can't withhold state aid from school districts with American Indian mascots or logos. Earlier this year Superintendent Brian Whiston proposed cutting up to 10% of a district's annual payment. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss Schuette's opinion on the matter.

They also talk about a ruling that temporarily halts state funding to private schools, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen's federal court nomination delay, and whether the an iconic Detroit hat shop is a casualty of rising downtown rents.

Fireworks stand
Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Lawmakers, we were taught in school, are sometimes torn between doing the right thing – and doing what their constituents want.

John F. Kennedy wrote a Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, about that. But these days, it often seems as if those running our government are neither doing what is right nor what we want.

Mackinac Bridge
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

For the Fourth of July, former Michigan attorney general Frank Kelley invited me to watch fireworks from the porch at the Captain’s Quarters overlooking the harbor on Mackinac Island.

From there, I could see fireworks simultaneously from Cheboygan and Mackinaw City, in addition to those being fired from a barge not far offshore from the island.

Everybody knows that Detroit has made it through bankruptcy, and that a remarkable coalition of people and politicians came together on a “Grand Bargain” to save the city.

But now we need to start thinking about the next hugely important step, one that’s largely been ignored: Finding a way to bring many thousands of forgotten people into the workforce and make them economically and socially productive citizens.

The Parade Company / via theparade.org

Tomorrow is the day we celebrate American independence with fireworks, picnics, and, for most of us, a day off from work. We’ll have picnics, flirt dangerously with firecrackers, see spectacular fireworks displays, and maybe, just maybe, think about the meaning of it all.

Ask the average person why this day matters, and they’ll tell you it was when our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. Well, while the document is indeed dated July 4, 1776, they had voted to sign it two days before.

sign that says flint
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sued the City of Flint this week. The state says the city council's refusal to approve a long term deal to buy water from a Detroit-area system endangers a public already troubled by a lead-tainted water crisis. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the lawsuit filed by the state agency that's been blamed for much of Flint's water crisis.

Yesterday, before President Trump sent out his tweets about the hosts of the Morning Joe program, I was interviewed by a radio host in another city.

He asked something to the effect of whether CNN and other mainstream journalism outlets actually put out fake news? I answered that they never do -- that while respected news outlets do make mistakes, they never invent news to push a political agenda.

What was most dismaying was that the question was asked at all.

Love or hate him, Geoffrey Fieger is an absolutely brilliant trial lawyer. I watched him through all the Kevorkian trials in the 90s, when he ran rings around the opposition.

Then, 20 years ago, he told me he was thinking of running for governor, and asked me what I thought. I told him, with tongue firmly in cheek, that he should take what he was planning to spend on that race and give it to me instead, and we’d both be better off.

Not that I would have taken his money, but for once, I was absolutely right. Fieger lost by almost 25 points. Unlike the courtroom, he was fighting in an arena he didn’t understand.

Ever think you might want to be lieutenant governor? It’s not all that stressful. Basically, you have only two real duties. You preside over the state senate in case there’s a tie vote, and you serve as standby equipment in case the governor dies or resigns.

“I like to think of myself as a problem solver,” Macomb County Public Works commissioner Candice Miller told me.

She’s needed to be. The week before she took office came the collapse of the sewer line in Fraser, the now-infamous giant sinkhole, what she calls “probably the biggest infrastructure emergency in the state of Michigan, at least at this time, perhaps ever.”

Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River, turned 90 earlier this month. I don’t know how he celebrated, but I do know something happened last week that may well have ruined his birthday.

Years ago, when the baby boomers completely dominated the culture, someone once said that we’d know their influence was finally ending when magazines had cover stories on designer funeral homes. Well, we aren’t there yet.

You might say the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the one think tank liberals and progressives most like to hate. Indeed, I heard someone say a few years ago that it was home to some of the finest minds of the 14th century. That’s not completely fair.

They produced a useful report this spring detailing how some of our complex and unnecessary state and local licensing laws are hurting the economy.

Spartan stadium
Flickr/Ken Lund / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Three Michigan State University football players have been charged with sexual assault stemming from an incident in January in which they allegedly sexually assaulted a woman on campus. 

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the this case and others, including former Olympic gymnastics and MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar.

On June 1st, I talked about Gretchen Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader and now the leading candidate for next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

During an interview during last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Whitmer told me that when you look at all the candidates, “I’m the one that looks most like John Engler.”

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